Skip to main content

Snubbed Biden human rights nominee warns against censorship over Israel

Human rights lawyer James Cavallaro says Biden administration's decision to revoke his nomination is creating 'litmus test on Israel-Palestine'
James Cavallaro served on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights under the Barack Obama administration, where he was president from 2016 to 2017.
James Cavallaro served on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights under the Barack Obama administration (AFP/File photo)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

After having his nomination to an independent international human rights post rescinded by the Biden administration, US academic James Cavallaro has warned that the Biden administration is contributing to a pattern of cracking down on speech critical of Israel.

"I'm used to being attacked for doing human rights work. I would say it's at a minimum disconcerting to feel that I'm being attacked by my own government for defending human rights, but unfortunately, I've hit a raw nerve," Cavallaro said in an interview with Middle East Eye on Tuesday.

"Now you have a litmus test - think about this - you have a litmus test on Israel-Palestine for independent experts in human rights bodies in the western hemisphere."

Cavallaro is a human rights lawyer who has taught at top American law schools, including Harvard and Stanford, and he currently teaches at Yale and UCLA. He was originally nominated by the State Department on 10 February for a position on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), referring to both north and south America.

It was not a guarantee that he would be selected, since a seat on the commission requires a vote from all members of the Organization of American States (OAS), but the State Department told Cavallaro they wanted him to be the US nominee.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

‘Criticise Israel, you can be cancelled’: Outrage after former HRW chief denied Harvard fellowship
Read More »

The position appeared to be a natural fit for Cavallaro, given his extensive experience and work on human rights in Latin America over the past several decades. He opened a Human Rights Watch office in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and previously worked in groups opposing rights abuses by the government of former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet.

He had also already served on IACHR, serving as president from 2016 to 2017, under the Barack Obama administration. 

"When they nominated me in 2013, what the folks inside State told me is one of the reasons we're nominating you is because you're very distant from US government," he told MEE.

But just several days after his nomination was announced this month, Cavallaro said he received a message from Algemeiner, a New York-based news website, asking him to comment on past social media posts.

The news site had found a number of tweets Cavallaro wrote, in which he called Israel an apartheid state and also said that Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, was "bought" and "controlled" by the Israeli lobby.

The latter tweet was a reply to an article by The Guardian outlining that Jeffries had received $416,000 in campaign donations from pro-Israel groups, and had also opposed placing conditions on aid to Israel.

Then, on Tuesday, Cavallaro said that he received a message from a mid-level official at the State Department, who informed him that they were going to pull his nomination.

"They knew who they're dealing with. It's 2023, you look someone up and in half hour you get a sense ... you figure out whatever people's political views are," said Cavallaro, who is the executive director of the University Network for Human Rights.

'Clear this is about Israel'

When asked about the decision during a news conference on 14 February, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said: "His statements clearly do not reflect US policy. They are not a reflection of what we believe, and they are inappropriate, to say the least."

During a news conference the next day, Price said "his social media commentary covered many issues, not just Israel".

"We believe IACHR commissioners should be independent, non-partisan voices. Nonetheless, as stated before, this commentary was inappropriate. Once this information came to light, we lost confidence that he would serve as a successful nominee," a State Department official told MEE.

According to Cavallaro: "It's clear this is about Israel."

'Human rights practitioners and scholars should not fear professional reprisal for expressing their views'

- Letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken

"It's not a secret, I'm someone who if you look at my Twitter feed, you'll find my criticism of Israeli policy of apartheid, but you'll also find my criticism of centrist Democrats."

The Associated Press reported last week that his nomination was pulled "in the wake of" the Algemeiner article, citing his critical tweets of Israel.

The human rights lawyer has since deleted the tweets referenced as a part of a "good faith" attempt to address the State Department's concerns, but told MEE that he still stands by his positions.

"Are Israeli authorities practising apartheid? Yes, there's a legal definition," Cavallaro said. "Do I believe that money plays an excessive and toxic role in our politics? Yes."

"Do I believe that there are people like Hakeem Jeffries who receive contributions from political action committees who have agendas, and then afterwards, once they're elected, they act entirely consistent with those agendas in ways that are highly problematic? Yes."

On Wednesday, a coalition of more than 400 organisations and individuals sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, calling on the State Department to reinstate Cavallaro's nomination, saying that the Biden administration's decision is "harmful to the global human rights movement".

"Human rights practitioners and scholars should not fear professional reprisal for expressing their views about human rights violations, especially those carried out by US allies," the letter said.

"This undermines free expression, academic freedom, and the work of all human rights advocates, particularly those who do not have the same kind of platform as Cavallaro."

Dwindling space for Palestinian rights

The revocation of Cavallaro's nomination comes as the space for criticism towards Israel and defending Palestinian rights appears to be dwindling in the US.

Last month, former Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth was denied a fellowship at Harvard Kennedy School over his criticism of Israel. Human Rights Watch in 2021 declared that the Israeli government's practices and treatment of Palestinians amounted to apartheid.

Roth told MEE at the time that the decision spoke "really poorly for the range of respectable discourse, particularly in a school". After major opposition to the decision, the Kennedy School ultimately reversed course and offered the human rights activist the fellowship.

'You're seeing a sequence of these cases because there are more and more people speaking out'

- James Cavallaro

And a major concern of both Roth and Cavallaro has been how these decisions will ultimately impact Palestinians in the US who criticise Israel.

"That person is not going to have the same level of protection that I have," Cavallaro said.

Also in January, President Joe Biden’s pick for a human rights position at the State Department, Sarah Margon, withdrew herself from consideration after she came under heavy criticism from a top Senate Republican who questioned her support for Israel.

Concerns have similarly been raised as dozens of states passed legislation requiring anyone doing business with the state to pledge not to boycott Israel.

In one case in the state of Georgia, journalist Abby Martin filed a lawsuit after her appearance at a public university in Georgia was cancelled because she refused to sign a contract that included a mandatory oath that she would not boycott Israel.

The state-level legislation was ultimately ruled unconstitutional by courts in 2021, however, Georgia has since passed a revised version of the law for larger contracts.

"​​You're seeing a sequence of these cases because there are more and more people speaking out," Cavallaro said.

"And all of that I think is leading that to an intensification of efforts on the side of those who support the Israeli governmental positions of oppression of Palestinians."

*This story was updated on 22 February 2023 to include a letter sent to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken by a coalition of more than 400 organisations and individuals opposed to the decision to revoke James Cavallaro's nomination.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.