Harvard University caught on the wrong foot - GulfToday

Harvard University caught on the wrong foot

Harvard University

The Harvard University.

It was an embarrassing turnaround for the United States’ famous Harvard University. It had refused to grant a fellowship to former Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth at the Kennedy School’s Carr Centre for Human Rights Policy because dean of Kennedy School Doug Helmendorf said that Roth was biased against Israel. Human Rights Watch under Roth was scathingly critical of Israeli violence against Palestinians, and described it as apartheid. Human Rights Watch was not alone in condemning Israeli violence. Amnesty International too was scathing in its criticism of Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians. There was a huge uproar against Helmendorf’s decision as constricting academic freedom, and rights activists and academics criticised the university. Helmendorf backtracked in the face of the outburst of criticism, admitted that it was an error on his part, and approved Roth’s fellowship.

While praising Harvard University for correcting its mistake, Roth pointed out that his fellowship application was allowed to go through because of the public storm, but he pointed out that an ordinary student would hesitate to criticise Israel because he or she would not get the widespread protest on his or her behalf as he (Roth) got. Roth said, “I am grateful to the Kennedy School faculty as well as many other faculty and students at Harvard and around the world for their overwhelming disapproval of Dean Elmendorf’s original decision. The broad disapproval undoubtedly yielded this change of heart.”

But Roth was not satisfied. In a panel discussion organised by Khouri Conversations, a non-profit group in Canada, Roth pointed out: “Having headed Human Rights Watch for three decades, I was able to mobilise a lot of media attention….But that’s not the test. The test is, what’s going to happen for just your ordinary academic, your ordinary student, who might be inclined to criticise Israel but afraid to because they’re not going to be able to be able to rally this kind of media and public attention? And so, what I would like to see is a statement from either the Kennedy School or Harvard University or both that makes clear that they uphold academic freedom, that there is room to criticise Israel, that they didn’t just make a mistake about me personally – they made a mistake in penalising criticism of Israel.”

The last point is indeed a pressing one, which Harvard University and many other universities in the United States need to answer honestly. It would be naïve to ignore the point that there is an influential Israeli lobby in America, and it is mostly backed by the American Jews, who wield enormous power in the fields of politics, economy, and culture. The universities cannot escape the power of this or any other lobby. Harvard University, and Elmendorf in particular, can be lauded for correcting the mistake. But there would be many universities, which are less well known than Harvard and which may not have the same exacting standards that Harvard follows, and in those places the prejudice of the kind that Elmendorf had initially displayed would go unchallenged. This would be a great failure of democracy in America, where the universities have been held up as paragons of freedom of speech.

It is possible that the universities and their faculty harbour other prejudices which are less marked than the pro-Israel bias, and students and academics must be paying a price for their unpopular views despite their commendable academic credentials. It has been a fact that many American universities have been following a diversity principle in their student admissions and faculty appointments, which were in play for a long time and they are being sought to be pushed back. There is a similar need to keep a watch on political prejudices of the kind displayed by Elmendorf.


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