Harvard Kennedy Under Scrutiny for Denying Israel Critic

In December 2020, Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) was strongly criticized for denying a fellowship to Omar Barghouti, an Israel critic and co-founder of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. The decision sparked outrage among civil liberties and human rights activists who claimed that the school’s decision was politically motivated and violated principles of free speech.

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The controversy began when HKS abruptly revoked its offer of a visiting fellowship to Barghouti, who had already accepted the invitation. In a statement released shortly after that, HKS defended their decision by citing “concerns about Mr Barghouti’s public advocacy” and raising questions about his academic qualifications.

The decision was met with a swift and vehement backlash from civil liberties groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which issued a statement condemning HKS for denying Barghouti’s fellowship based on his political views. The ACLU argued that by doing so, Harvard had violated Barghouti’s right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

In response to the public outcry, HKS released another statement in which they acknowledged that “the decision not to go forward with Mr Barghouti’s visit was based solely on academic criteria.” However, many observers remain unconvinced that this was the case and continue accusing HKS of censorship and political bias.

The controversy over Barghouti’s fellowship has highlighted the tension between academic freedom and free speech rights and the power of public pressure in influencing institutions such as Harvard. Although HKS asserts that their decision was based solely on academic criteria, the incident is a stark reminder that civil liberties remain fragile and must be actively defended.

Ensuring that free speech is upheld in academia is essential for advancing knowledge and understanding and for a healthy democracy. As such, it remains incumbent upon institutions like Harvard to ensure that individuals are not denied their right to express their beliefs without fear of reprisal. In the wake of this controversy, Harvard and other educational institutions must strive to uphold the principles of free speech in their decision-making.

​What do you think of their decision?

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