On March 6-10, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights — the most important human rights body in the western hemisphere — held its 186th period of sessions in Los Angeles, on the campus of UCLA. On February 10, the Biden administration announced the selection of James Cavallaro, my former colleague at Stanford University, as the United States’s candidate to serve on the Commission. Cavallaro’s candidacy was to be launched during the Commission’s sessions in Los Angeles.
But on February 14, just four days after lauding Cavallaro as “a leading scholar and practitioner of international law with deep expertise in the region as well as the Inter-American human rights system,” the State Department abruptly withdrew Cavallaro’s nomination to the Commission — a body on which he previously served (including as president) after the Obama-Biden administration nominated him a decade ago. State Department officials informed Cavallaro that the reason for this sudden about-face was his public condemnation of Israeli apartheid against Palestinians, highlighted in an article published on February 13 by a far right media outlet that had also found Cavallaro’s tweets criticizing the role of pro-Israel lobby groups in U.S. politics.
When State Department spokesman Ned Price stated in a press briefing that Cavallaro’s views “clearly do not reflect U.S. policy” and “are not a reflection of what we believe,” he apparently missed the crucial fact that commissioners serve in their personal capacities and do not represent their countries of origin. In fact, independence from one’s own government is a key nomination criterion for any potential commissioner. Nevertheless, the State Department appears to have an Israel/Palestine litmus test — even for independent experts serving on human rights bodies in the opposite hemisphere from Israel/Palestine.
As many have noted, Cavallaro’s characterization of the Israeli government’s repression of Palestinians as apartheid is consistent with the findings of prominent Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organizations, advocates and scholars.
Cavallaro’s criticisms of the dangerous role of money in U.S. politics are similarly well-founded. On December 3, 2022, in a reply to a tweet about a Guardian story that highlighted New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries’s “close ties to AIPAC and other hardline pro-Israel lobby groups,” Cavallaro summarized the relationship between AIPAC funding and Jeffries’s positions on Israel/Palestine: “Bought. Purchased. Controlled.”
Where is the lie? AIPAC was Jeffries’s single largest donor in 2021-2022. As others have noted, Jeffries’s statements on Israel/Palestine “often read like lobby talking points.” Jeffries has stood against any attempt to impose conditions on the U.S.’s provision of nearly $4 billion in annual military aid to Israel, even opposing a bill introduced in 2021 by Congresswoman Betty McCollum to ensure that U.S. aid is not used for illegal land grabs in the occupied territory, demolition of Palestinian homes, forced displacement of Palestinians, or detention of children in Israel’s military court system.
The influence of pro-Israel lobby groups on Jeffries’s positions is no different from the influence of the coal, pharmaceutical, and other industries on the positions of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (who, incidentally, Cavallaro has also publicly criticized as “bought and paid for”). Both are examples of the toxic role of campaign contributions in U.S. politics — and ultimately, in U.S. policies that affect millions at home and across the globe.
AIPAC — which contributed nearly $21 million to U.S. politicians in 2021-2022 — is a lobby group like any other lobby group. As the prominent Nation columnist Dave Zirin wrote after Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was attacked for similar comments about the influence of AIPAC, “As a Jew, I want to welcome anyone who wants to criticize a lobbying coalition funded by arms manufacturers, evangelical Christians, and allies of the right wing edge of Israeli politics.”
But at the State Department, reaction to Cavallaro’s tweets was swift and severe. As Cavallaro recounted on the podcast Speaking Out of Place, he was informed that a February 14 meeting scheduled between Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, and Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States (the Commission’s parent body), had been canceled due to the fallout over his nomination. (The meeting apparently took place a week later, after Cavallaro’s nomination was withdrawn).
Declaring criticism of the influence of AIPAC contributions as somehow off-limits serves the agenda of Israeli government apologists and has a chilling effect on those concerned about the role of the pro-Israel lobby in shaping U.S. foreign policy. In December 2021, AIPAC announced plans to launch a super PAC — later named the “United Democracy Project” without any apparent awareness of irony — that has spent tens of millions of dollars to block Democratic congressional primary candidates who fail to adopt sufficiently hardline positions on Israel. After his AIPAC-funded defeat, prominent Jewish Congressman Andy Levin vowed that he would “continue to speak out against the corrosive influence of dark money on our democracy.”
Campaign contributions from lobby groups — whether the gun lobby, the fossil fuel lobby, the railroad lobby or the pro-Israel lobby — create conflicts of interest. We must be able to call out these conflicts without fear of reprisal. It is long past time to end the Israel/Palestine exception to criticizing money in politics.
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