By Jonathan S. Tobin
(JNS) For a few days, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government behaved as if it were an institution with a moral compass. But it didn’t take long for Dean Douglas Elmendorf to realize that taking a stand against woke intellectual fashion to oppose antisemitism isn’t a good career choice.
Faced with a storm of criticism from faculty, students and liberal corporate media outlets like The Boston Globe and influential hard-left rags such as The Nation, Elmendorf recanted his decision to deny a fellowship to Kenneth Roth, the former head of Human Rights Watch.
Like a “class enemy” brought before a “struggle session” of the Communist Red Guards during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Elmendorf’s letter of apology was predictably craven. Elmendorf said that since making his decision he had “consulted” with faculty and now admitted “error,” adding that he was now asking Roth to come to Harvard after all.
Roth responded jubilantly on Twitter, accepting the offer and expressing gratitude to the considerable forces that had pressured Elmendorf to surrender. But he wasn’t willing to let it go without seeking retribution against his foes. He demanded to know the identity of those who advised the dean to decide against him, and said he wanted to work to ensure that other anti-Israel figures were similarly defended against criticism in order to ensure, as he put it, “academic freedom.”
The notion that this is a victory for academic freedom or freedom of speech, as Roth’s defenders claim, is a sick joke. As one pro-Israel Harvard student told The New York Times, “there are so many people at Harvard who are espousing anti-Israel views that we really don’t need another one.”
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Indeed, those who oppose the existence of the one Jewish state on the planet dominate academia. Those who support it are rare and must, if they value their professional futures, keep their views to themselves, unless and until they achieve tenure and no longer must worry about job security.
So, in that sense, there’s really nothing new here. That Roth, despite his long record of obsessive antisemitic incitement against Israel, would be given yet another academic honor—in addition to his existing fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania—was a given. Yet the school’s brief bout of morality, in which Elmendorf rightly thought it was not a good idea to honor a person with such a background and the leftist firestorm that his decision provoked were deeply instructive.
The incident serves as a useful reminder to Harvard donors and funders of other elite institutions. They may think the prestige they gain from giving millions in exchange for attaching their names to buildings and positions at such places is worth it.
But what they’re supporting isn’t higher education. They’re paying, instead, for the indoctrination of students in woke leftist ideologies that grant a permission slip to Jew-hatred and the demonization of Israel.
The Roth controversy should be treated as a wake-up call. Donors of good faith need to realize that their philanthropic gifts are doing great harm to American society, as well as to the Jews and Israel. If they have a drop of empathy for the Jewish state or even a sense of morality, they have to withdraw their donations and find better places to support.
While Roth is feted in intellectual circles as a brave truth-teller and human-rights advocate, he is anything but. A veteran Israel-hater, Roth hijacked an organization that was once respected as an impartial, non-partisan opponent of tyrannical regimes around the world. Under his leadership, it became part of an international leftist movement that twisted the concept of human rights into what was primarily a euphemism for championing the Arab and Islamist war against the existence of the State of Israel.
Though not entirely silent about other human-rights offenders, HRW became an apologist for those seeking the destruction of Israel, whose creation it treated as a crime. It falsely branded Israel an “apartheid state,” and became part of an international “lawfare” campaign conducted in forums such as the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Roth raised $100 million from leftist billionaire George Soros to fund HRW’s anti-Israel campaign, is also a terrible hypocrite who took $470,000 from a Saudi billionaire by promising not to advocate for LGBTQ rights in the Muslim world. But the issue here is bigger than the travesty of a figure like Roth being given such prestigious honors by schools viewed as the gold standard of learning.
The willingness of The Boston Globe, The New York Times and other liberal outlets to skew their coverage on the issue by falsely describing Roth as a “critic” of Israel is equally depressing. Israel’s government, like that of any other country, may be criticized for this or that policy. But those who label it an “apartheid state” and seek to haul it into international kangaroo-court tribunals are not “critics.”
Since they aim to deny to Jews that which they would not deny to anyone else—the right to self-determination, sovereignty in their ancient homeland and self-defense against terrorists bent on its annihilation—are practicing a form of discrimination that is rightly defined as antisemitism. That major publications believe such anti-Zionist incitement constitutes legitimate criticism is a sign of just how far mainstream journalism has gone in normalizing Jew-hatred. It’s a function of the acceptance of false intersectional myths deeming Israel a “white” colonialist state that persecutes “black” Palestinians.
Just as disturbing is the way that Roth and his supporters were able to make an issue of Harvard donors who had understandable qualms about his appointment. In a commendable, but rare, instance of the Anti-Defamation League calling a leftist antisemite to account, CEO Jonathan Greenblatt correctly accused the skewed coverage and editorials of being rooted in antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish money buying influence and silencing objective scholars. The American Jewish Committee also opposed the appointment. Yet, to its shame, the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council chose to remain silent in the face of the disgrace.
Still, the conclusion to be drawn from this depressing incident is that it’s high time for Jewish groups and individual Jewish donors to stop supporting schools and institutions where antisemites such as Roth are honored and allowed to spread their bile, while cloaked in the dignity and legitimacy that comes with a Harvard or University of Pennsylvania fellowship.
Any money given to these schools, whether out of misplaced alumni loyalty or a foolish belief in their past history of educational excellence, is not just wasted. It’s a contribution to making the world a less safe place for Jews, as well as one in which learning is replaced with woke indoctrination.
The Kenneth Roth controversy ought to cause the Jewish community to rise up in disgust and begin to treat places like Harvard as hopelessly compromised by fashionable ideological hate. Most American Jews—either too besotted by the idea of their children attending these schools, or so beholden to mainstream culture or liberal politics that they think there’s nothing wrong with backing leftist politics and anti-Israel incitement—aren’t likely to do so.
Still, the Roth appointment should shift our discourse about academia. The time for pretending that Ivy League venues are worth our respect and financial backing is long over.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.