Letters From the March 6/13, 2023, Issue

Letters From the March 6/13, 2023, Issue

Letters From the March 6/13, 2023, Issue

Toadying at Harvard… The work of democracy (web only)


Toadying at Harvard

Re “Why the Kennedy School Rejected Ken Roth,” by Michael Massing [Jan. 23/30]: The decision by Kennedy dean Douglas Elmendorf to deny Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth a fellow’s appointment reflects the toadying to Washington and to major donors that’s been going on at the Kennedy School for decades. In 1981, when I was a research fellow at what is now the Belfer Center, then-dean Graham Allison and much of the faculty hastened to retain political standing after Reagan’s election by moving to change the institution’s name to the Harvard School of Government. Learning of this attempt, the outraged mayor of Cambridge renamed Boylston Street, on which the school fronts, to John F. Kennedy Street. Seven years later, Derek Bok, the university’s president who had been upset by the scheme, finally pressured Mr. Allison to step down after the wheeling-dealing political science professor approved a draft agreement to make a rich Texas couple officers of the school in return for a $500,000 gift.

The school’s administrators have been equally shameless on the matter of human rights. In 1991, when the former Guatemalan defense minister Héctor Gramajo completed one of the school’s programs, he was handed papers during the graduation ceremony charging him with the deaths of thousands of Mayans. He left the country with his diploma.

Derek Leebaert
washington, d.c.

Hats off to Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government for enlightening us on how university decisions are influenced by wealthy donors, how various American Jewish establishment organizations use the false charge of anti-Semitism to suppress criticism of Israel, and how vulnerable our democratic institutions are to elite capture. To contain the damage to its faltering credibility, the dean of the Kennedy School, Douglas Elmendorf, reversed his decision to block a fellowship offer to Kenneth Roth, the former executive director of Human Rights Watch, which had issued a report titled “A Threshold Crossed” in April 2021 documenting Israeli apartheid. As Roth explained, “It wasn’t our non-existent ‘bias’ that led Elmendorf to veto my fellowship. It was fear of giving Harvard’s imprimatur to our impartial criticisms of Israel.

While Roth has reason to believe that Harvard withdrew his appointment based on the false accusation of anti-Semitism, which would intimidate others who might be tempted to criticize Israel’s violations of international human rights laws, Massing’s brilliant article also reveals the disturbingly close relationship between the university and the CIA, suggesting an additional reason for Harvard’s rejection: As the highest recipient of US foreign aid, Israel plays a strategic role in protecting the US empire. Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s observation 30 years ago still resonates today: “Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk.”

Before Harvard’s face-saving gesture, there was growing support among the university’s students, faculty, and alumni for Elmendorf to resign. But reversing his decision is not likely to protect the next truth-teller at an academic institution, journalist in the corporate news media, creator in the arts, or workers in other places of public and private employment who are vulnerable under the highly subjective International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of “antisemitism.” Ironically, Kenneth Stern, the Jewish scholar of the Holocaust who developed this definition as a research classification tool, warned against governments adopting it as a standard of accountability because it would stifle freedom of speech. If Harvard can be persuaded by wealthy donors and administrators with close ties to Israel and the CIA to reject a world-famous advocate of human rights, so can academic institutions with far smaller endowments intimidate and fire less well-known scholars and others who support human rights for Palestinians and the nonviolent tactics of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for resisting Israeli state violence and settler colonialism.

Building on the eye-opening revelations in Massing’s article, this is a strategic moment to protect the lives and human rights of Palestinians and other victims of America’s global domination policies, confront the rise in anti-Semitism in the US and around the world, and safeguard academic freedom and freedom of speech, the bedrock of democracy. Our challenge now is to use this example of Roth’s ordeal as a critical opportunity to make at least three demands:

  1. Full disclosure of the donors Elmendorf consulted with before rescinding the fellowship offer to Roth, who was accused of being anti-Semitic even though he is Jewish and his father was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp before escaping to the US in 1938.
  2. Development of federal tax authority that requires all donors to US academic institutions to disclose their identities and revokes the tax-exempt status of any institution that bows to donor pressure to censor academic inquiry.
  3. Rejection at all levels of government of the misleadingly labeled IHRA definition of “antisemitism,” the latest trope among Jewish and Christian apologists for Israel’s brutal oppression of Palestinians.

Palestinians have been subject to massacres, humiliating checkpoints, home demolitions, and military control to drive them out of their homeland through ethnic cleansing. It is a disgrace to Holocaust remembrance that Israeli Jews have been doing to Palestinians—with US support—what European Jews experienced at the hands of the Nazis. Palestinians, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust and were the majority population before Israel was created out of their homeland in 1948, are contemporary victims of the Nazi genocide.

Bob Griss
potomac, md.

The writer has been a coordinator of a Nation discussion group in Washington, D.C., for more than 17 years. 

The Work of Democracy

An organization with 48,000 members will have as many perspectives, but “Why Striking University of California Workers May Vote ‘No’ on Their Contract” [online, Dec. 22, 2022] tells a misleading story of the UC academic workers’ strike. In Sammy Feldblum and Lavanya Nott’s telling, an inept bargaining team rushed decisions and pushed a weak contract. In reality, democratic buy-in to bargaining was significant, and the result was the strongest contract for academic workers in history.

The authors cast doubt on the democratic processes that guided our bargaining teams without acknowledging that our bargaining process is among the most open of any union in the country. While there was discontent on virtual channels (Twitter threads, Zoom meetings), our picket lines and workers committees supported the bargaining team throughout the strike and ultimately voted “yes” to ratify our contract. Bargaining caucuses were open to members as were bargaining sessions themselves until the final week of mediation. To characterize membership as excluded and wholly discontented is inaccurate.

Furthermore, the “vote no” campaign lacked concrete plans to continue striking. Their campaign resources even claimed the opposite: “you do NOT have to commit to withholding labor if you vote ‘no’ and a ‘no’ vote is not synonymous with a vote to continue the strike.” Yet a “no” vote without a commitment to strike carried the risk of destroying our progress. The university would have had every incentive, and legal right, to revert to their previous—and worse—offer.

The article claims that we bargained “as if the strike were weak.” As members of the bargaining teams, we were shocked to read this. Bargaining teams are legally required to negotiate and compromise, but at no point did our bargaining teams make decisions with a perception of the strike being weak. On the contrary, we believed that the best time to negotiate is when our strike is powerful because that is when we have the most control over the course of negotiations.

We are proud of the power of our strike and our bargaining strategy, which yielded greater wage increases in 2.5 years than our last 20 years of wage increases combined.

Nick Geiser
University of California, Los Angeles
SRU-UAW, Bargaining Team Representative

Aarthi Sekar
University of California, Davis
UAW 2865, Bargaining Team Representative

Sammy Feldblum and Lavanya Nott Reply

We appreciate our bargaining team members’ response. For locals as large as ours, democracy is necessarily a work in progress. In addition to the formal mechanisms they note, the high turnout on the ratification vote was itself a triumph of democracy within the union. But we witnessed a sustained reluctance to consult membership on important bargaining decisions. To illustrate, we shared a picket line with UCLA’s 2865 bargaining team representatives. When the proposal was floated to drop our wage demands substantially, our picket overwhelmingly asked the bargaining team to refrain from authorizing the change without first polling the workers they represent. In spite of this ask both went ahead and voted “yes” on the change that evening. In the last two weeks of the strike, an effective department-by-department feedback mechanism was instituted; it ought to have existed from the very beginning.

Nowhere did we characterize membership as wholly discontented. Still, a sizable chunk was indeed unhappy: 11,737 “no” votes were cast, and three campuses out of 10 forcefully voted down the contract. We believe it is in the union’s interest to examine why these numbers were so high, instead of dismissing the sentiment they represent offhand.

Our respondents are shocked by the contention that they bargained as if the strike were weak. Yet their own language that “the best time to negotiate is when our strike is powerful” implies they believed the strike was growing weaker—and acted on that belief. Meanwhile, they ignore our assessment of the strategic rationale for a “no” vote, which we explicitly argued represented a commitment to continue striking. Rather than engaging us, they point to an apocryphal tweet communicating a message with which we disagree—while suggesting, wishfully, the “no” vote campaign only existed online.

Our interlocutors are battling phantoms. The contract contains wins; the strike certainly won us more than we would have without it. The pivotal question at the time we published our article was: Could we win even more? Our respondents think not, and indicate we stood to lose more than we stood to gain. We disagree.

Sammy Feldblum
Lavanya Nott

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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