The Harvard Kennedy School’s Anti-Palestinian Bias
The elite institution reversed course on refusing a fellowship to a prominent Israel critic, but for students, its suppression of Palestine speech is ongoing.
The Harvard Kennedy School
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Last week, Douglas Elmendorf, the dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School (HKS), made a surprising about-face. In July 2022, HKS denied a fellowship to Kenneth Roth, the former long-time head of Human Rights Watch (HRW), because of his work documenting Israel’s human rights abuses against Palestinians, The Nation reported in an article published this month. Elmendorf had overruled the leadership of the school’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, which had wanted to host Roth as a senior fellow, attributing this decision to what he deemed Roth and HRW’s “anti-Israel bias,” according to the article.
Following a wave of condemnation, including a letter calling for Roth’s reinstatement and Elmendorf’s resignation, signed by over 1,000 Harvard students, alumni, and faculty, the dean reversed his decision to blacklist Roth. He also said in a statement that his decision was “not made to limit debate at the Kennedy School about human rights in any country.” HKS professor Kathryn Sikkink, however, told The Nation that Elmendorf had told her explicitly that HRW’s record on Israel was the reason for the reversal on Roth, leading to widespread speculation that pressure from pro-Israel donors to the school had influenced his decision. While Elmendorf, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, has denied donor involvement, Roth told Jewish Currents that “he hasn’t offered any convincing alternative. So the ball is in his court to explain.”
The Roth episode exposed the limits of academic freedom at HKS, a staging ground for some of the world’s most powerful leaders in the US and globally. As such, the school’s decisions to legitimize certain views while marginalizing others have an impact on the political landscape well beyond the Harvard campus.
An investigation by Jewish Currents including interviews with over two dozen students, alumni, faculty, and administrators at Harvard suggests that speech supporting Palestinian liberation was suppressed at HKS well before Elmendorf’s arrival in 2016. (This reporter is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School.) For years, sources say, the school’s administration consistently offered a platform to high-profile members of the Israeli government, intelligence, and military establishment—and obstructed efforts led by Palestinian students to bring alternative voices to campus. The school’s actions suggest a systematic pattern of discrimination against Palestinian students, along with those who speak out for Palestinian rights.
“Clearly the censorship of critics of Israel is a problem that is far broader than my case,” Roth told Jewish Currents. “The fact that Harvard capitulated in my case, when I had the capacity to mobilize massive public attention, doesn’t say a lot about what it would do in a less visible case,” he added. “I continue to worry about less visible critics of the Israeli government.”
Through a uniquely applied toolkit of red tape and long delays, the HKS administration has used the grind of bureaucracy to shut down speech, demoralizing Palestinian students into foregoing the school as a venue for discussing these topics. “It made us feel unwelcome at the school,” Nadim Houssain, a recent Palestinian HKS graduate, told Jewish Currents. “It felt that we were up against the institution, and it seemed to be contrary to the ethos of the university’s mission of being open to free speech.”
Founded in 1999, the Carr Center at HKS has long served as a hub for scholars, activists, and policymakers from around the world to gather and address global human rights issues. The recent incident involving Roth was not the first time the center faced interference from the HKS administration over Palestine. In 2012, the institution was scheduled to co-sponsor “Israel/Palestine and the One-State Solution,” a conference intended to convene academics, journalists, activists, and legal scholars to discuss what a future democratic Israeli-Palestinian state could look like. The gathering was organized by six student organizations, spearheaded by the HKS Palestine Caucus. (Student groups at the Kennedy School, like the Palestine Caucus, are entirely student-run and regularly host events and speakers on HKS grounds, bringing a multiplicity of diverse perspectives to campus.)
At first, conference planning ran smoothly. Student organizers told Jewish Currents that they successfully reserved the Kennedy School’s largest event space, received seed money from the Harvard Provost’s Office, and secured the Carr Center’s co-sponsorship. But the concept of the conference spurred a backlash from conservative Zionist voices both within and outside Harvard. In response to these complaints, David Ellwood, Elmendorf’s predecessor, began working to distance the Kennedy School from the event. Ellwood, an economist and a former assistant secretary at the US Department of Health and Human Services, had served as the school’s dean since 2004. He and John Haigh, then-HKS executive dean, pressured Charlie Clements, the Carr Center’s executive director at the time, to revoke its sponsorship of the conference and remove any trace of his or the center’s involvement with the event. Clements conceded. “I thought seriously about this and if it was worth losing my job over,” Clements told Jewish Currents. “I decided that the event taking place [even without Carr Center sponsorship] was more important than my making a big stand about it.” Timothy Patrick McCarthy, then a lecturer in public policy and director of the Carr Center’s sexuality, gender, and human rights program, a co-sponsor of the event, told Jewish Currents, “We were removed by the force of institutional intimidation.” Despite Ellwood’s efforts to stigmatize the conference, its organizers went forward with the event. (Ellwood and HKS administration declined to comment; Haigh could not be reached for comment.)
Elmendorf’s arrival as dean in 2016 did nothing to alter these dynamics. Under his leadership, students have regularly faced obstacles when attempting to host events on Palestine. In 2017, the Human Rights Professional Interest Council (PIC), an HKS student group, planned to hold an event where Avner Gvaryahu, co-director of Breaking the Silence—an organization of Israeli veterans working to shed light on the occupation of Palestine —and Issa Amro, a co-founder of the Palestinian organization Youth Against Settlements, would discuss human rights in Palestine/Israel. The organizers felt they had tried to hold a nuanced discussion, representing a diversity of perspectives and experiences. “I had not expected this amount of pushback,” Imani Franklin, one of the student event organizers, told Jewish Currents. Yet members of the student services staff at HKS still had concerns. In emails to Franklin, an HKS student services staff assistant wrote that Gvaryahu and Amro appeared “to share similar stances on issues,” on the topic of Palestine/Israel. HKS, the email said, sought to host events where “both sides of an issue” were represented, so as “to avoid the dismissal of other viewpoints.”
“It felt like what he was really asking was to include a panelist who supported the occupation,” Franklin said. The requirement, she recalled, “had a chilling effect.” Ultimately, this event did not take place: After the long delays in securing the event space and the administration’s approval, Gvaryahu was no longer available. Discouraged, the student organizers did not try to reschedule it.
The next flashpoint came in February 2019, when the Palestine Caucus arranged for a talk to be held on the HKS campus with Ahmed Abu Artema, a Palestinian journalist who had recently helped organize and document the Great March of Return, a series of weekly demonstrations in Gaza. But the school again threw up roadblocks. After conferring with HKS leaders including Elmendorf and Tarek Masoud, faculty director of the HKS Middle East Initiative, Melissa Wojciechowski St. John, senior director of student services, wrote to the organizers in an email that the event could go forward only under three conditions: restrict attendance to people affiliated with Harvard, effectively closing it to the public; require that the organizers specify in their promotional material that it was “not officially sponsored by the school or co-sponsored by any outside organization”; and allow Masoud to moderate it. The last stipulation was notable because, as several people told Jewish Currents, much of the Palestinian community at HKS views Masoud as unsympathetic to their concerns. “He’s seen as a legitimizing source of truth on all things Middle East, yet he fails to consult Palestinians when it comes to Palestine/Israel-related initiatives,” Samer Hjouj, a recent Palestinian graduate of HKS, told Jewish Currents. In response, Masoud said that he consults widely on MEI activities. “I’ve never turned away an offer of advice. I always encourage everyone in our community— Palestinian, Israeli, and otherwise—to reach out whenever they think we can do something better,” he added.
In her email, Wojciechowski St. John reminded the Caucus that these policies exist “to avoid situations in which outside groups are inappropriately using HKS students and resources to advance their own agenda.” The organizers found a different solution: hosting the event at Harvard Law School, free of these restrictions.
Meanwhile, beyond the Harvard campus, the political climate for Palestinian rights activists was becoming more dire. By April 2019, 27 US states had passed anti-boycott laws that punish businesses or individuals who call for or engage in boycotts against Israel or its illegal settlements. To draw attention to these attacks on speech, in April 2019, a coalition of 12 HKS student groups, including the Business and Government PIC and the Black Student Union, organized a talk at HKS titled “BDS: Examining the Case for Economic and Cultural Boycotts.” It was set to feature Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian human rights advocate and a co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights. But, as with the Artema episode, administrators imposed strict conditions on the event, Hjouj and other student organizers said. They would allow the students to host the talk on campus only if they enlisted a member of the Harvard faculty to moderate it—Barghouti was too controversial, they said. The students did as requested, securing Cornel West, then a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, as a moderator. Then, two weeks prior to the event, Wojciechowski St. John rejected West, on the grounds that he would be “too radical,” and required that the students ask a faculty chair at HKS to moderate instead. In response, the students decided to take the event, moderated by West, to Harvard College, the university’s school for undergraduates. (Wojciechowski St. John could not be reached for comment.)
Muath Ibaid, a recent HKS public policy graduate from the occupied West Bank and former head of the student Palestine Caucus, described HKS’s treatment of Palestinian students as absurd. “When you’re booking a room for an [on-campus] event, you have people advising you to make it as vague as possible so that they [administrators] don’t block it or ignore it. If you put the word ‘Palestine’ in any title, it’s going to trigger all kinds of red flags and you are not going to get approval for even a room reservation.” Through this restrictive approach, he said, the Kennedy School administration has succeeded in driving most Palestinian events off campus.
HKS administrators continued deploying this strategy in February 2020, when the Palestine Caucus sought to hold an event at the school with anthropologist Sa’ed Atshan, an HKS alumnus known for his scholarship on Palestine and LGBTQ social movements. Per HKS protocol, the Caucus filed a request to host the event in a room in one of its buildings 55 days before the event’s scheduled date, emails reviewed by Jewish Currents show; HKS administration typically approves such requests within days of their filing. Yet six weeks after the students filed their request, and 13 days before the talk was set to occur, the administration refused to approve it unless the students agreed to restrict attendance to Harvard student-ID holders and arrange for security guards to monitor the event. They also refused to allow Atshan to promote his books and required that Masoud serve as its sole moderator. Once again, students gave up on HKS and took the event to the law school. “It was very sad for me as a Kennedy School alum to be treated like this by my alma mater. It was so offensive,” Atshan said.
Masoud was more sanguine about the school’s protocols. “I support our students’ efforts to bring Palestinian perspectives to campus,” he told Jewish Currents, “I also think the dean is not unreasonable to be concerned about possible incivility when topics are controversial and audiences include people from outside of the University community. When I’ve been asked by the School to moderate events like the one with Dr. Atshan, I’ve agreed because I wanted to do what I could to ensure that the students could hold the event, and to be responsive to the dean’s desire to ensure that HKS events are characterized by civil, open discourse.” Elmendorf’s office declined to comment beyond the dean’s aforementioned statement on the Roth incident.
While Palestinian students struggle to find a platform on HKS grounds, school administrators regularly welcome members of the Israeli government and military establishment. Both former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak have recently served as HKS fellows despite their roles in Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008 and 2009 that killed over 1,400 Palestinians, the majority of whom were civilians. Other high-level Israeli officials frequently invited to speak at HKS include former directors of Mossad, high-ranking military officials, and cabinet members. Most recently, the Kennedy School welcomed Amos Yadlin, a retired Israeli major general, as a senior fellow for the 2021–2022 academic year. As the former chief of Israeli military intelligence, Yadlin oversaw the surveillance of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule. A few months before the contested Palestine Caucus event with Abu Artema, the HKS Israel Caucus hosted a talk with reservists from the Israeli military co-sponsored by Reservists on Duty, an Israeli NGO that conducts “public relations, on behalf of Israel,” according to the group’s website. The group’s involvement would seem to violate HKS’s concerns about outside organizations “inappropriately using HKS students and resources to advance their own agenda,” but the then-co-chair of the Israel caucus told Jewish Currents that the group did not face any pushback from the administration around this event. Indeed, none of the 37 leaders of HKS student organizations surveyed by Jewish Currents reported facing the types of restrictions imposed on the Palestinian events described here (with the partial exception of a group called the Criminal Justice PIC that on one occasion was required to limit an event to Harvard ID holders).
“HKS will preach this idea of being open and tolerant of other ideas and therefore will not outright say no,” Hjouj, the former leader of the Palestine Caucus, explained. “They will just make it so hard for you that you’ll end up having to do it elsewhere. After this happened multiple times, we learned our lesson.”
Palestinian students have faced similar frustrations across the Harvard campus. In 2021, Cornel West (who, full disclosure, sits on the Jewish Currents advisory board) left his position as a professor of the practice of public philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School after being denied tenure. In his resignation letter, he cited “Harvard administration’s hostility to the Palestinian cause” as one of the reasons for his departure. The law school, meanwhile, frequently provides a platform for anti-Palestinian figures, including a 2019 event with Dani Dayan, the Israeli Consul General in New York and a leader of the illegal settlement movement, prompting a student walkout in protest. Harvard University’s endowment, meanwhile, invests hundreds of millions of dollars in companies that enable human rights abuses in Palestine and violate international law by operating in the settlements.
In the wake of Elmendorf’s reversal on Roth, Palestinians at Harvard and their allies are calling for a broader reckoning with what they see as the university’s anti-Palestinian discrimination. With support for Palestinian rights growing at Harvard, as in the broader US, it remains to be seen how long the administration can continue to ignore these demands.
Joseph Leone is a writer and organizer based in Detroit, MI. He is the former managing editor of the Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy and a founding editor at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Progressive Policy Review.