A New Harvard Hero

To have made Kenneth Roth a fellow would have aligned the school with those hostile to the Jewish state.

AP/Elise Amendola, file
The campus of Harvard University at Cambridge, Massachusetts. AP/Elise Amendola, file

Congratulations to Harvard University and the dean of its school of government, Douglas Elmendorf, for not awarding a proposed fellowship to the ex-head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth. To have made Mr. Roth a fellow would have aligned the school with those hostile to the Jewish state and thus Jews more generally. Too, it would have been an affront to the memory of the president for whom the school is named, John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Elmendorf has taken criticism for his practice of running a tight ship on personnel. A former governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder, withdrew from a fellowship amid student complaints about how he handled the drinking water crisis at Flint. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik was removed from an advisory committee for what Mr. Elmendorf considered inaccurate statements. Even JFK’s own daughter, Caroline, quit in a quarrel with Mr. Elmendorf.

We could argue those cases round or we could argue them flat, but they are context for understanding the Kennedy School’s apparent decision in the case of Mr. Roth. It turns out that instead of a kind of leftist or Democratic partisan, Mr. Elmendorf is starting to come into focus as a dean prepared to enforce the principles for which he wants the school he leads to stand. Mr. Roth certainly isn’t the first person who failed to meet Harvard’s standards.

We have had our innings with Mr. Roth going back at least to 2006, when Human Rights Watch wheeled on Israel in the middle of Hezbollah’s war against the Jewish state. More recently Mr. Roth has been most well known for pushing the claim that Israel is an apartheid state. Even honest liberals — Nicholas Kristof of the Times comes to mind — call the claim false. Bret Stephens wrote in 2019 against the “comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa.”

In January, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, called the application of the term to Israel “both offensive & wildly inaccurate.” That touches on Harvard’s very motto, Veritas, which dates back to 1643. There are additional institutional aspirations — to civil discourse, to diversity, inclusion, and belonging, and to avoidance of bigotry. Mr. Roth’s record also is sorely lacking on those fronts. 

These values are important to advancing the university’s missions. Yet Mr. Roth’s reaction to the situation was a Twitter tantrum blaming Israel for “repression of Palestinians” and suggesting his failure to get a fellowship at Harvard owes to pressure from Jewish donors. Mr. Roth’s reaction itself confirms that Harvard’s decision not to award him a fellowship was the correct move. Apparently he’s been taken on at the University of Pennsylvania, instead.

As for the new hero, Dean Elmendorf, let’s hope that Harvard’s incoming president, Claudine Gay, seeks him out for advice on how to turn things around at the university recently ranked worst in the nation on three measures of campus antisemitism, and where the Jewish undergraduate population has reportedly plummeted to below the level at which President Lowell in the early 20th century sought to cap the then-operating formal quotas against Jews

Which brings us back to John Kennedy. In 1960, JFK gave a speech to American Zionists meeting in New York and spoke about his first visit to the land of Israel, in 1939. “There,” he said, “the neglect and ruin left by centuries of Ottoman misrule were slowly being transformed by miracles of labor and sacrifice.” It was, he said, “still a land of promise” rather than “a land of fulfillment.” He returned in 1951 to “see the grandeur of Israel.”

Kennedy went on at great length in one of the most extraordinary paeans to Israel ever delivered by an American leader. “I left with the conviction that the United Nations may have conferred on Israel the credentials of nationhood; but its own idealism and courage, its own sacrifice and generosity, had earned the credentials of immortality.” It’s a perfect kind of optimism for a school named after John F. Kennedy.

The New York Sun

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