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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Abcarian: Two universities backtrack but fail to apologize

By Robin Abcarian
Published: January 29, 2023, 6:03am

I thought my mind was playing tricks on me when I first read that Kenneth Roth, who led Human Rights Watch for three decades, had been disinvited to a fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights.

That cannot be right, I thought: A man who has spent his adult life crusading against human rights abuses was judged to be a bad match for an institution devoted to advancing human rights around the world?

But yes, as it turned out, after Roth had accepted an invitation to a yearlong fellowship at Harvard during which he planned to write a book, the Kennedy School’s dean, Doug Elmendorf, nixed the arrangement.

Why? Because, according to people who spoke with Elmendorf, Human Rights Watch has an “anti-Israel bias.” The speculation is that pro-Israel donors had their thumbs on the scale, and Elmendorf folded. That would be a shame.

Human Rights Watch turns out reams of reports about repressive regimes — Sudan, North Korea, Iraq. It has criticized China, Saudi Arabia and, at times, the United States. In a 2021 report, the group declared that Israel commits the crime of apartheid against Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. A 2022 report by Amnesty International came to a similar conclusion.

Obviously, this angered some American pro-Israel groups, like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, which have accused Human Rights Watch of antisemitism. In any case, Human Rights Watch has also addressed abuses by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

The loud outcry led Harvard to change its mind about Roth, a Jewish man whose father escaped Nazi Germany in 1938. He will be taking his talents to Harvard after all.

It’s a happy outcome, I suppose, although as Roth and others wondered, what might the outcome have been for someone less connected, less celebrated? I’m encouraged to think this disturbing tide of reflexive censure may be turning just a bit.

An obscure art history professor who was let go from Hamline University in Minnesota recently after showing her students images of the Prophet Muhammad has become something of a cause célèbre after her case went public.

Adjunct professor Erika López Prater was well aware that some Muslims object to seeing images of the prophet, so she warned students in her class syllabus and during the class just before she showed what she described as two “reverential” images made by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons.

“I told my students if they didn’t feel comfortable engaging visually, they were free to do what made most sense to them,” she said.

After a student complained, the school’s vice president of inclusive excellence declared that showing the image was “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful and Islamophobic.”

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This generated a tremendous outcry both in academia and news outlets. The idea that López Prater had violated her duty to respect her students was outlandish, given the many warnings she gave.

According to a discrimination and defamation lawsuit that López Prater filed in Minnesota state court, an offer to teach another Hamline course next spring — which she had accepted — was revoked. Just after López Prater filed her lawsuit, the school emailed a statement to reporters saying that it had made a mistake.

As far as I can tell from voluminous coverage of both the Harvard and Hamline controversies, neither institution has actually issued public apologies to the professionals who were harmed. They really ought to, though.

Among the many rules of common sense that these institutions of higher learning seem to have forgotten in the rush to placate critics: When you are in the wrong, apologize to those you’ve offended or hurt.