March 7, 2023
From The Real News Network
74 views
YouTube video

The censorship and purging of critics of Zionism is a longstanding phenomenon in US academia. And a recent incident with Ken Roth shows even the mildest criticism of Israel can have professional repercussions. The former executive director of Human Rights Watch was recently denied a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School in a widely publicized scandal. After hundreds of phone calls from supporters and an article in The Nation exposing Harvard’s pro-Israel donors, Roth was accepted into the fellowship, and the university released a conciliatory statement. Ken Roth joins The Marc Steiner Show to discuss his ordeal.

Production: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Marc Steiner:

Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s good to have you all with us. Today, we’re bringing you a conversation that I had with Ken Roth, who retired as the Head of Human Rights Watch, which he ran from 1993 to 2022. He was dubbed the Godfather of Human Rights by the New York Times. And under his watch, the organization took on human rights abuses across the planet, here in the United States, Saudi Arabia, China, Rwanda, and the Palestinian Authority, and Israel. That’s when the proverbial dung hit the fan.

When Ken Roth retired from Human Rights Watch, he was offered a fellowship at Harvard’s prestigious Kennedy School. Then something happened, several weeks into his expected appointment, the Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf, rescinded, squashed, stopped his appointment. Why? Ken Roth is one of the most recognized defenders of human rights in the world. Could it have been because Harvard’s earned supporters like Leslie Wexner, the owner of Victoria’s Secret gave 40 million so that Israeli intelligence could participate at the Kennedy School? Or that Robert Belfer who runs Enron, whose family escaped the Nazis, gave $20 million to fund to center her in his name that, by the way, cooperates with US Intelligence Services? Could there be a connection?

Well, before we get too far into this, let me add that Ken Roth’s family also barely escaped the Nazis on the evil World War 2. So when I learned about all of this, I invited Ken Roth to join me for a conversation to explore all of this, the state of human rights in the world, and the power of neoliberal and conservative Zionism that have muddied the waters of anti-Semitism that already runs deep in plague human society. When his appointment was rescinded, a firestorm erupted across the globe, Harvard back down, they rescinded their denial of his appointment. So we asked Ken Roth to rejoin us to assess what all that means and what it might mean for the future.

Now as we bring you this conversation, keep in mind what Ken Roth said during our conversation about all the other people who are censored and punished in their careers for criticizing Israel, who don’t have a name as lauded and known as Ken Roth. So this conversation will also relaunch our series, Not in Our Name, the voice of Jews and others from across globe saying, the oppression against Palestinians cannot be done in our name, especially now with the neo-fascist government in control of Israel. So here’s my conversation with Ken Roth right here on the Marc Steiner Show on the Real News.

Hello, and welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. Earlier in January, I taped an interview with Ken Roth, who was retiring as the head of Human Rights Watch. He joined us because he was offered a position at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. Then his appointment was rescinded by the Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas Elmendorf, allegedly because of human rights’ watch critique of Israel, at least that’s the popular wisdom. And a firestorm erupted, and lo and behold, they then rescinded their denial of his appointment. So we asked Ken Roth to rejoin us to assess what all that means, what it might mean for the future. And welcome back Ken Roth, and congratulations on the appointment.

Ken Roth:

Well, thank you, Marc, then thanks for having me back. Let me just clarify one thing.

Marc Steiner:

Please.

Ken Roth:

It’s not just surmise that Dean Elmendorf initially vetoed my fellowship because of my in Human Rights Watch’s criticism of Israel. That’s what he said to Katherine Sikkink, a very respected professor at the Kennedy School. So there was really never any doubt about that reason, the question is, is that a good reason? And for two weeks, once this became public, the Kennedy School Dean was lambasted in the media, there were protests at Harvard, there was a Kennedy School faculty meeting where I understand nobody spoke out in defense of the Dean’s decision, everybody opposed it. And so, yes, he changed his mind.

Marc Steiner:

I was quoted and the RT was quoted in the New York Times saying that donors do not affect our consideration of academic matters. My decision was also not made to limit debate at the Kennedy’s School about human rights in any country and would not specify why he rejected your fellowship except to quote based on my evaluation of his potential contributions to the school. Which means, you have nothing to offer, but we can let you in anyway.

Ken Roth:

Well, to say that he’s not going to limit debate at Harvard, and that’s a red herring because nobody accused him of running around and putting silencers on students’ mouths or whatever, it’s not how it worked. But the question was, do they appoint somebody like me who fairly but outspokenly criticizes Israel? And the initial answer was, no, and now that they’ve changed their mind. Now, Elmendorf, the dean says that donors were not behind this decision, but what he had told people, one of the professors there, was that people who mattered to him had urged him not to appoint me. We don’t know who those people who mattered to him are, and indeed, he’s citing the confidentiality of the appointment process to not say who those people who matter to him are. He’s willing to breach the confidentiality enough to say they weren’t donors, but so who were they? We don’t know.

But the bigger question here, Marc, is actually what this means for academic freedom at Harvard generally. Because I have a certain visibility having led Human Rights Watch for three decades, and I was able to mobilize massive media outrage, students and faculty came to my defense. And so in my case, he did the right thing and reversed himself. But we don’t have much assurance that this same censorship wouldn’t go on for people with less bill’s visibility. A younger faculty member, ordinary students, people who don’t have the capacity to make as much of a ruckus as I was able to, will they face penalization for having criticized Israel?

And while Harvard is affirming academic freedom in the abstract, which is the least they can do, they’re not coming out and saying, we are going to take steps to ensure that people are not penalized because they criticize Israel. And so many people, myself included, are worried that, my case, which was in the public’s eye, it was spotlighted, they did the right thing, but what about lesser cases where it just happens under the radar screen? And it’s not just at Harvard, but many other schools where you hear accounts of people who are penalized because they’ve criticized Israel. So this is a far broader problem than my own case. And I’m happy my case was resolved positively, but there’s a bigger problem out there that needs to be addressed.

Marc Steiner:

Given that it raises a number of issues, huge rate just raises a number of issues, at least for me, which is that you’ve been given this appointment, you’ll be there, you’ll be, I assume, lecturing and doing research. So-

Ken Roth:

I actually start the fellowship on February 6th. And the whole purpose of the fellowship initially was so that I could work on the book that I’m writing and I will do that. But I will also give lectures, I’ll see students, I’ll see faculty, I’ll make most of the time that I’m there.

Marc Steiner:

… So the question is, I’m very curious how you think what might unfold given what you’ve just described?

Ken Roth:

I have no doubt that I can say whatever I want, nobody’s going to try to silence me, I think a lot of people will want to see me at this stage. But what I’m going to make a point of discussing, is the broader issue of academic freedom. I don’t want people thinking that just because I’m finally allowed into the Harvard Kennedy School, that the problem has disappeared.

And indeed there’s a very good article in the nation which broke the story of the censorship in my case, the fact that it was my criticism of Israel behind Elmendorf’s veto of my fellowship. There now is a follow-up article written by students at Harvard who say that this problem of penalization, of really trying to restrict criticism of Israel is a problem far beyond my case. And I think we have to listen to that, this is certainly what people are perceiving. And I think it is incumbent upon the Harvard leadership, Larry Bacow, the president or Dean Elmendorf for the Kennedy School to go out of their way to reaffirm their commitment to academic freedom, even when less visible people are criticizing Israel.

Marc Steiner:

This raises a number of issues, I’m just curious how you think we should all proceed in many ways. Israel itself is a really complex situation, and in your life, you’re Jewish, you were raised in a family who fled the Holocaust from Germany, as many of us are in this generation. My family went through the pogroms and went through the Holocaust, I grew up with people in my living room with numbers on their arms. I knew what that meant, it made me join the Civil Rights Movement as a young kid early because of that.

But then there’s Israel, and Israel, I don’t know about you Ken, but many of us were Zionist when we were really young because we believed in what we saw there. And then that began to change, especially after ’67 and ’68. And it is tied in a real weird dialectical dance around anti-Semitism, and it’s difficult to separate the two, even though critique of Israel doesn’t make you an anti-Semite, there is this weird dance around all that that makes it complex. So I’m just curious, given everything you’ve been through, given what you did in Human Rights Watch, when you critiqued Israel, and I’ve read all the reports and you also critiqued Palestine and the Palestinian authority for their lack of-

Ken Roth:

Mouth, the whole crap.

Marc Steiner:

… All of that. So talk a bit about that complexity and how you think we unravel that, especially in positions like yours.

Ken Roth:

Well, let me make a few points, one is that, Marc, you’re absolutely right, that the Israel Palestine issue is complex, which is precisely why you want academic freedom in a place like the Harvard Kennedy School so that students can hear all sides, you don’t want a cherry-pick. And the Kennedy School invites literally 10 Israeli officials as fellows every single year. Every once in a while they’ll invite a Palestinian, at one stage they had the PLO chief negotiator. But I think that the problem with me was that all of those people are clearly partial, they’re clearly biased, they represent one side or the other. I’m impartial, and Human Rights Watch calls it as we see it, as objectively as we can, that gives our criticism extra sting as far as the Australian government is concerned and I think that’s why I wasn’t wanted to begin with.

Now, Marc, you talk about your experience joining the Civil Rights Movement, I had the same experience, I joined the humanized movement because of my father’s experience fleeing the Nazis as a young boy. And so I think many Jews did draw the lesson from the Holocaust, that you need to strengthen human rights norms, you need to strengthen in the sense that nobody should be subjected to these abuses. And I do think that’s the dominant view among American Jew, but there are some people who took from the Holocaust the need to just be tougher than the next guy. Don’t pick on me, the Jews during the Holocaust didn’t have a state, now they have a state and that state’s going to be more powerful than anybody who might want to attack it. And so there are these two traditions that come out of it.

I’m not advocating for a weak state, but I am advocating that even a strong state has to respect rights. Because ultimately, people’s sense of right and wrong, the sense that everybody has rights that need to be respected is key to the long-term survival of Israel and the Jews. Particularly when Israel lives in such a hostile neighborhood where, who knows what the crazies in Iran might do if they get a nuclear bomb. So you want these norms against abusing people to be as strong as possible, that’s a critical part of their defense, I think, not only of Israel, but of Jewish people around the world.

Now, you also make this point about antisemitism, and I get accused of being an antisemite, which is crazy, I’m 100% Jewish, I totally identify. But this is one way that some people feel is appropriate to try to silence critics of Israel. And I get the short term advantage for the state of Israel, if you get rid of a critic here, critic there, because they’re worried about being accused of antisemitism makes Israel’s reputation a little bit better. But my fear is that this cheapens the very important concept of antisemitism because if people begin to view antisemitism as just a ploy to silence criticism of Israel, that’s going to weaken the defense of something that remains a very important threat to Jews around the world. So you actually are maybe strengthening the Israeli state at the expense of Jews wherever they live, and that is not a smart move.

Marc Steiner:

I wonder, Ken, how much of this particular issue will encompass the work that you have to do now at Harvard and other places and other work you’re doing? Is it central to it, is it just part of it? How does this affect what you do from here on end?

Ken Roth:

Well, Marc, although some of the critics of Human Rights Watch pretend that all we do is criticize Israel, Israel is one out of 100 countries that we work on, it is a tiny percentage of our work, and that’s not going to change. And so these days, I’m being asked a lot to speak about what just happened at Harvard, that’s understandable, but I have a much broader set of concerns. And while at Harvard, I undoubtedly will be addressing this issue, I’m also going to be talking about the big problems that are affecting the world, the enormous threat that the Chinese government poses to the world, the horrible war crimes that Russia’s committing in Ukraine, the other abuses from Saudi Arabia to the Sudanese military to the Myanmar hunter, I can go on. But there are big problems in the world, the Israeli Palestinian issue is one of them, but I’m going to continue to speak more broadly.

Marc Steiner:

And as you’re going through that list, and I’ve seen the work of Human Rights Watch over the years. And I also would worry, I’m curious at your thought on this, about the role our own country plays in all of this in the countries that we support that are littered with human rights abuses and how that plays into it all. That’s also a difficult thing to do because you’re walking into Harvard, which is a place that clearly the US intelligence service has a huge influence and presence in terms of scholars and more and who they bring in. So that there could be a rub there as well, but an important one to maybe rub for want of a better term.

Ken Roth:

The US government has a very mixed record on human rights. Now, obviously under Trump, it was a disaster, Trump couldn’t find a friendly autocratic he didn’t want to embrace, there was- [inaudible 00:16:16].

Marc Steiner:

Right impression.

Ken Roth:

… Biden is doing somewhat better, but he’s still been disappointing. So on two big threats, the Chinese government, the Russian government, Biden has been quite strong, but he has treated most of the rest of the world as just potential allies against China and Russia, regardless of what their human rights record.

And so, again, the most visible case of that is when he flew off to Saudi Arabia, did his famous fist bump with the Saudi crown prince, begging for him to pump and smidge in more oil, which he didn’t even do. And just forgetting about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, forgetting about the imprisonment of Saudi dissidents, forgetting about the Saudi-led coalitions repeated bombardment of Yemeni civilians, all that just went out the window to try to get Saudi Arabia on board in pumping a little bit more oil so there’d be less inflation and the coalition against Russia could stand together.

And that has been his approach to a range of quite abuse of countries around the world, which he just views as part of a geopolitical alliance against China and Russia. And that’s obviously a disaster for the people of these country who suddenly don’t have the US pushing for their rights. But it also ironically undermines the fight for human rights in Russia and China. Because if US pronouncements about human rights, say Xi Jinping’s mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, or Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, if those are seen as just statements of convenience rather than statements of principle, they are much less effective in even getting human rights done in the countries that Biden cares about.

Marc Steiner:

And I was thinking about the work you’ve done and what comes next and your work at Harvard and more, because I think we’re witnessing, on the planet today, a real move towards right wing authoritarianism across the globe and in our own country that you can see it in the Governor of Florida statements and in other people in this country. So it seems to me that the work you’re about to launch, what’s happening now at Harvard, maybe a lot more complex and difficult to get through, and the critique for anybody going after that could become pretty severe.

Ken Roth:

Marc, you’re right that there is an autocratic threat out there, but as I look at the world these days, I think it’s a pretty hostile environment for autocrats. First of all, we have both China and Russia presenting just obvious examples of how misguided autocrats can be because they suppress any debate about public policy. And so Xi Jinping’s disastrous zero COVID policy, his attacks on the most vibrant sectors of the Chinese economy because they’ve ever seen his political threats, these are really harming the Chinese people. Or Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine and the war crimes he’s presiding over, this is what happens when you have an unaccountable dictator. And so we’ve seen people around the world protesting against autocratic rule. That’s what happened in Hong Kong, that’s the even go with Myanmar, Russia, Belarus, Sudan, Uganda, Cuban, Nicaragua, almost every continent there are these big public protests for democracy against autocratic rule. And this is not an environment where people are begging to be led by a dictator.

Now, there’s still are some people like say, Hungarian Prime Minister Orban, who has managed to stay in power, President Sisi in Egypt is clinging to power, Erdogan in Turkey’s in trouble right now. A lot does depend on how principled the Western governments are, those who say that they’re the best promoters of human rights. But if they are very opportunistic and just treat human rights as an instrument of broader geopolitical challenges rather than a principle commitment, it’s going to weaken this global effort to combatum, and that’s what I worry about.

Marc Steiner:

We can conclude here in a couple of minutes, but I’m interested in what you think happens at the institution you’re in and other institutions as we debate and look at this really critical issue for the future. Before this all happened to you, Chelsea Manning was denied a place, then Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan because of Flint. And whether it comes from many different directions, but this narrowing the discussion, especially in places like academic institutions that are resting with these issues for the future of mankind, to me, that’s a dangerous signal.

Ken Roth:

Marc, I completely agree with you. And I want to stress that this can be a problem on the left as well as the right. You get people on the left who are shouting down various people who they feel are wrong for some reason rather than allowing them to say their 2 cents and you can then debate what they have to say.

And particularly in a university, particularly in the academy where free speech should prevail, I think we have to be more attentive to these censorship efforts from all parts of the political spectrum. We should be able to hear what the other side has to say. We may not agree with them, but we’re better off for hearing it and then we can debate it and we can arrive at our own conclusions. The answer is not to just censor and try to prevent them from speaking altogether. And I think that this is a tendency that the Academy is succumbing to and it’s a tendency that we need to resist.

Marc Steiner:

Finally, maybe what you just said that makes me think of the early beginnings of the anti-involvement of movements in this country in some ways because the [inaudible 00:22:06] called us around Mario Savio and the free speech movement at Berkeley and how it exploded from that. And I’m just curious how you think you are going to approach your tenure, your work now in light of everything that’s just happened to you and all the things you’ve just described.

Ken Roth:

Well, I’m going to continue talking about the threats to rights wherever they come from. I’ve always been an equal opportunity critic-

Marc Steiner:

And you have.

Ken Roth:

… Human rights[inaudible 00:22:36] 100 countries. I don’t talk about 100 countries, but I’ talk about probably 30 or 40 on a pretty regular basis. I’m going to continue to do that, it’s going to be a chain in cast of characters as the issues come and go. But I do feel that one privilege I had of heading Human Rights Watch for three decades, is that I did develop a global perspective. And I think that that enables me to make a contribution in describing these trends and the threats to rights wherever they come from, I’m going to keep that up.

Marc Steiner:

Well, Ken, I appreciate you taking the time. Again, look forward to seeing you back in the States, continue our conversations and seeing where all this takes us. So thank you so much for joining us and congratulations for getting the appointment.

Ken Roth:

Thank you very much.

Marc Steiner:

I hope you enjoyed our conversation today with Ken Roth. I’m going to thank you all for joining us today, and please let me know what you thought about what you heard today, what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at [email protected] and I’ll write you right back. And while you’re here, please go to www.therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor, become part of the future with us. So for Cameron Granadino and Kayla Rivara and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner, stay involved, stay in touch, and keep listening. Take care.

Speaker 3:

Thank you so much for watching The Real News Network, where we lift up the voices, stories, and struggles that you care about most and we need your help to keep doing this work. So please tap your screen now, subscribe, and donate to the Real News Network, solidarity forever.




Source: Therealnews.com