By Jack Rosen, President of the American Jewish Congress

Published originally in the Jerusalem Post.

Harvard University has capitulated to the growing institutionalization of antisemitism in American higher education.

Earlier, Harvard offered a fellowship at the Kennedy School to Kenneth Roth, the former head of the NGO Human Rights Watch. When the offer was later rescinded, Roth and his allies went on a rampage, claiming that Roth had been rejected because of his notoriously intense criticism of Israel, including the claim that it is an “apartheid” state.

Roth and his defenders did not stop there. They also fomented an antisemitic conspiracy theory according to which various unnamed “donors” had torpedoed the fellowship offer. It took a few weeks, but in the end, Harvard surrendered and once again offered Roth a fellowship.

In an atmosphere of rising campus antisemitism that has seen Jewish and pro-Israel students harassed, intimidated and slandered on a regular basis, some of us were relieved by Harvard’s decision to reject Roth. Our hopes have now been dashed.

One of the reasons for our relief was Roth’s consistently poisonous rhetoric. Few media outlets have described Roth as anything other than a “critic” of Israel, but this is a blatant whitewash of his toxic attitudes toward both Israel and Jews.

Roth is not a mere “critic” of Israel. Over his long career, he has blamed the Jews for bringing antisemitic violence upon themselves. He has compared Israel to the Nazis. He has defamed the Jewish religion. And due to his distaste for Israel, he has gone so far as to condemn the historic Abraham Accords that brought normalization and peace between Israel and several Arab and Muslim countries.

In 2014, while Israel defended itself against attacks by the terrorist group Hamas, a wave of antisemitic violence struck Jews across Europe. In response, then-German chancellor Angela Merkel led a mass demonstration against antisemitism.

Roth tweeted in response, “Germans rally against antisemitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war.” In other words, Roth blamed the Jewish state for violence against Jews.

This was a classic case of blaming the victim and, further, implied that the antisemitic violence was justified. This is unacceptable, and the last thing Harvard needed in an atmosphere of growing antisemitism was an apologist for antisemitic violence.

Also in 2014, Roth retweeted a statement about the fighting between Israel and Hamas that said, “‘Never again’ must mean ‘NEVER AGAIN FOR ANYONE!’”

It is impossible to convey the degree of pain, anguish and offense that Jews feel when people equate them with the Nazis. It is one of the most hurtful and indeed sadistic things that can be said to a Jewish person. Roth felt no compunction whatsoever about saying it.

Roth also directly attacked Judaism itself. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Roth said of Israel’s conduct of the war, “An eye for an eye – or, more accurately in this case, 20 eyes for an eye – may have been the morality of some more primitive moment. But it is not the morality of international humanitarian law.”

Anyone with a cursory knowledge of the history of antisemitism knew where this came from: The ancient Christian libel that Judaism is a barbaric and savage religion without mercy or justice.

Roth’s animus toward Israel and its people even led him to oppose peace. When, for the first time, a direct passenger flight took off from Israel and landed in the United Arab Emirates, Roth declared, “All the kvelling about the Israeli-UAE flight does nothing to change the oppressive, discriminatory ‘one-state reality’ for occupied Palestinians.”

This was not so much offensive as tragic. The Abraham Accords are one of the few rays of light the Middle East has seen in recent years and could be a boon to human rights in the region. Yet Roth could not put his hatred of Israel aside and celebrate it.

Equally antisemitic was the campaign on Roth’s behalf. An open letter, signed by numerous Harvard students and organizations, was the spearhead of the campaign to cover up Roth’s antisemitism and intimidate Harvard into capitulation. It did so by using classic antisemitic rhetoric.

Attacking Harvard Dean Douglas Elmendorf, the letter said, “By choosing to prioritize the political preferences of donors and government officials over truth-telling, Elmendorf has strayed far from the mission of higher education and public policy.”

It further demanded “an explicit policy that… requires administrators to reject contributions from donors who try to influence the fellowship selection process.”

The letter did not specify who these “donors” were, but it was not hard to guess. It was an obvious code word for the Jewish and pro-Israel donors who allegedly engineered Harvard’s rejection of Roth.

This was nothing more than a racist dog whistle and classic antisemitic conspiracy theory. It goes back to the infamous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which charges that Jews exercise secret but omnipotent power over the world.

Those who penned and signed the open letter, and the powerful forces that joined them – which included the far-left magazine The Nation – made their purpose clear: They would oppose and obstruct any attempt to keep antisemitism off campus and relegate it to the margins of society where it belongs.

By capitulating to this antisemitic campaign, Harvard has not only exposed its cowardice. It has also contributed to the growth of systemic antisemitism on its campus and campuses across the US.

With antisemitism skyrocketing across the country, this is unforgivable. Harvard should be fighting antisemitism, not enabling it. It should be providing a safe space where Jewish students will not be subject to such abuse. Instead, it has only further poisoned the campus discourse and silenced those who would stand up to hate.

The writer is president of the American Jewish Congress.


© 2020 American Jewish Congress.