Harvard Fellow Kenneth Roth, Criticism of Israel, and Academia
Washington, D.C. | www.mpac.org | January 20, 2023 — Freedom of expression is one of the founding principles of our nation, without which we cannot grow and improve as a society. One of the most important institutions in which this principle is expressed is the university.
Over the last two weeks, we have seen two highly accomplished individuals denied their rightful place in the nation’s institutions of higher learning. Last week, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) expressed its deep concern over the effective firing of an art professor, Erika López Prater, from Hamline University, for showing a fourteenth-century painting of the Prophet Muhammad to her class. We reaffirm our support for Dr. López Prater’s right to show the painting and call upon Hamline University to restore her to her teaching position.
Just as depictions of the Prophet become lightning rods of controversy and debates about free speech, so too does another long-standing source of controversy in academic and public debate: criticism of Israel.
Around the same time that Hamline University moved to restrict academic freedom, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center denied a fellowship to former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth. This denial was not due to his qualifications for the fellowship, which are stellar, but rather, due to Mr. Roth’s critical stance towards the government of Israel.
Whereas we must condemn and fight against Islamophobia and antisemitism at every turn, we must not weaponize them to silence political rivals or violate core democratic principles. This will have the effect of diluting our capacity to fight against hate in our midst.
Public discourse and dialogue on pressing issues stand at the heart of the intellectual enterprise. We must encourage critical and engaged thought, and hone our ability to debate and learn from opposing perspectives.
It is possible and likely that the cases discussed above and the viewpoints expressed by Dr. López Prater or Mr. Roth will be met with disagreements. However, it is important to listen to what opposing voices have to say and engage diverse viewpoints.
While we are heartened that the Harvard Kennedy School decided to reverse its initial judgment and grant Kenneth Roth a well-deserved fellowship, we must be cognizant of the ongoing issue of academic censorship and do all within our power to prevent this from reoccurring in the future. The case of Mr. Roth should not have required a public uproar of opposition for his fellowship offer to be reinstated. He has a clear-cut and distinguished record as a leading human rights activist. Unless we act to bolster the right to expression, others in academia who are less well-known than Mr. Roth may suffer a different fate.
For many, the takeaway from the cases at Hamline and Harvard may be to shy away from expressing their thoughts for fear of reprisal or out of concern for the potential loss of future job prospects. We express our deep concern over the unjust treatment of Dr. López Prater and must learn from the case of Mr. Roth at Harvard to fortify our commitment to academic freedom and viewpoint diversity.
We deserve better from our institutions of higher learning.
Salam Al-Marayati, President
Muslim Public Affairs Council
David Myers, Distinguished Professor and Sady & Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History
University of California, Los Angeles