Human rights advocates are warning that the Biden administration's decision to withdraw its nomination of law professor James Cavallaro to serve on a human rights commission could be the latest incident that chills free speech regarding violent Israeli policies in Palestine, as Cavallaro said he was shut out of the position due to his condemnation of Israel's apartheid regime.
Cavallaro was nominated last Friday to sit on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a watchdog within the Organization for American States which he previously served on from 2014-17.
The nomination was met with applause from the human rights advocacy community, but on Tuesday Cavallaro said on social media that he'd been informed by the U.S. State Department that the nomination had been withdrawn "due to my statements denouncing apartheid in Israel/Palestine."
Cavallaro, the founder and executive director of the University Network for Human Rights (UNHR) at Wesleyan University, said he responded to the State Department's news by noting that mainstream human rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Israeli organization B'Tselem have all stated that Israel's illegal settlements, restriction of Palestinians' movement, and other policies amount to apartheid. The United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine also said last year that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is apartheid.
The Algemeiner, a newspaper that the UNHR called "a fringe, Trump-affiliated media outlet" in a statement Wednesday, reported on Cavallaro's comments about Israel as an "apartheid state" on Monday, in an article that also focused on a tweet written by Cavallaro in December saying U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has been "Bought. Purchased. Controlled" by the anti-Palestinian rights lobby.
That tweet was written in response to a Guardian article detailing Jeffries' close ties to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other pro-Israel lobbying groups, which donated $460,000 to the Democratic leader last year. Cavallaro also tweeted that right-wing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was "bought and paid for."
"We were not aware of the statements and writings," U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Tuesday.
Cavallaro acknowledged on Wednesday that he removed some of his tweets "proactively and in good faith," to address the State Department's concerns about his public statements on his "personal views on U.S. policy."
In 2019, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) received criticism for her comments on the pro-Israel lobby giving millions of dollars to like-minded lawmakers annually in order to advance pro-Israel legislation—attacks that groups including Jewish Voice for Peace denounced as "disingenuous" at the time, noting that "lobbies influence politics."
The withdrawal of Cavallaro's nomination comes a month after the Harvard Kennedy School, under pressure, reversed its decision to rescind a fellowship invitation to former Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. The longtime rights campaigner accused the school of retaliating against him for his statements about apartheid in Israel.
The decision to withdraw Cavallaro's nomination, said Roth, "suggests that only Israeli apologists are acceptable" for human rights positions. He noted that the UNHR director's views on Israel are "a completely mainstream position for any human rights defender."
"There is consensus today across the human rights movement on Israel's system of apartheid, and many other prominent voices—from the former U.N. secretary-general and director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry to the South African government and French foreign minister—have referenced apartheid in relation to Israel's systematic subjugation of Palestinians," said the UNHR. "When it comes to human rights in Israel/Palestine, the U.S. State Department is the outlier."
Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU's Human Rights Program, warned that the State Department's decision "sends a dangerous message and chills speech critical of Israel."
David Kaye, a former U.N. special rapporteur on free expression, called the withdrawal "a huge and totally unjustified mistake."
"While Cavallaro's potential participation on the commission would have absolutely no impact on U.S. policy on Israel, the withdrawal of his nomination will have real consequences for human rights in the Americas," said the UNHR. "Cavallaro has been a courageous and committed voice for justice for victims of human rights abuse across the region; as an experienced commissioner in his second term, he would have advanced the cause of human rights in the hemisphere significantly."