Free speech, hate speech: The Cavallaro scandal


Another vocal anti-Zionist claimed free-speech martyrdom last week in the latest example of an individual harboring visceral hatred of Israel being rewarded with a prestigious position.

Professor James Cavallaro, an expert on human rights in Latin America, had been nominated the previous week to a three-year term as a commissioner with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, a body within the Organization of American States (OAS). It was a position that Cavallaro had held before, having been previously nominated by President Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry.

He certainly had no reason to doubt that he was a shoe-in who would bring, in the words of a US State Department press release, “valuable expertise to the commission’s work.”

Either the State Department doesn’t know about the social-media antics of its nominees, or it doesn’t care. When a colleague at the Algemeiner news outlet, Andrew Bernard, began sifting through Cavallaro’s Twitter feed, he discovered a cesspool of abuse directed at several targets, including the good professor’s ostensible boss, President Joe Biden.

In one April 2020 tweet, he referred to Biden as “Nasty MFer Joe.” In another tweet the previous month, he opined sarcastically that Biden’s electoral success in the US South “must mean he is no longer a senile gaffe machine.” For someone who professes to loathe former President Donald Trump, Cavallaro sure sounds a lot like him.

Similar treatment was dished out to other politicians. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) was dismissed as a “shameless [explative].” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was told she was a “pedantic, pompous and self-righteous individual” who would be well-advised to “learn from the Palestinian people” [this was in reply to Collins’ tweet urging Israel to ignore Trump’s advice to bar left-wing Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from visiting the country]. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) was excoriated as a “racist imbecile.” And so on.

Once Cavallaro’s tweets were exposed, the State Department speedily withdrew his nomination. At a press briefing, spokesman Ned Price emphasized that Cavallaro’s social-media attacks on Israel (more on those in a moment) were not the only factor behind the decision to pull him out of the running. “I know that [Israel has] been the focus of much of the commentary, but it went well beyond that,” explained Price. “Some of his commentary … was deeply inappropriate. Once that information came to light, we lost confidence in this individual and his ability to serve as a successful nominee.”

True, calling your boss a “Nasty MFer” in your Twitter feed isn’t exactly going to make you a “successful nominee.” But assisted by the fact that the majority of Cavallaro’s tweets consisted of attacks on Israel, his supporters have portrayed his canceled nomination as one more instance of the unaccountable power of the Israel Lobby in the United States, which has allegedly subjected him to the same treatment as former Human Rights Watch chief Ken Roth, whose offer of a fellowship at Harvard University was rescinded (and then placed on the table again once the school conceded it had made an “error.”)

Rising to Cavallaro’s defense, Agnès Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, complained that the US government was “attacking a brilliant human-rights lawyer” for his insistence that Israel is an apartheid state, fretting that instead of engaging with the “legal and empirical” evidence for this claim, it was “censoring, shutting down debates and threatening.”

Yet in all of Cavallaro’s countless tweets, there is not one shred of reasoned, evidence-based argument that Israel is the reincarnation of the racist regime that ruled South Africa for most of the last century. What there is, however, is a lot of shouting and finger-pointing.

“Did they say anything about high-level, US Congressional delegations legitimating and praising the Israeli apartheid state?” he tweeted at Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) after the latter posted a photograph of himself meeting with Palestinian students in Ramallah. Another tweet, directed at OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro, questioned why that organization had declared Hamas to be a terrorist group.

“If you’re promoting global solidarity, how about supporting human-rights instead of US foreign policy?” wrote Cavallaro, inadvertently spotlighting why someone with his views should not be representing this country in any international forum.

On social media, at least, Cavallaro singularly fails to prove the false contention that Israel is an apartheid state. Instead, he uses the hoary technique of repeating something often enough that people start to believe it. And that, in turn, opens the path to even more outlandish claims.

For example, Cavallaro seems quite taken with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda about Ukraine being governed by “neo-Nazis.”

Replying to an Anti-Defamation League briefing pointing out that neo-Nazis are a marginal force in Ukraine, Cavallaro once more turned on the sarcasm, writing that “being a Ukrainian neo-Nazi is fine, but supporting the rights and dignity of Palestinians is antisemitism. Got it.” Again, we have to ask whether someone willing to legitimize the favorite talking point of a US arch-enemy is best placed to represent this country at an international agency.

The most heinous tweet of all was a blatantly antisemitic one. “Bought. Purchased. Controlled,” Cavallaro posted above a link to a Guardian article on the support given by AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups to US House Speaker Hakeem Jeffries. Doubtless, he believes that the same shadowy network backing Jeffries is responsible for booting him from his nomination.

The fact remains that if the State Department had carried out due diligence on Cavallaro, this scandal would not have emerged. In that sense, this whole debate feels contrived, especially as the warning about Cavallaro was sounded by a Jewish news outlet, which is pretty much all the evidence that anti-Zionists need when they falsely claim they are being “censored.”

There are no new lessons to be drawn from the Cavallaro episode. We have witnessed similar situations many times before, all of which follow a similar script: An appointment is announced, the appointee is held up as beyond reproach, the appointee’s social-media feeds give the lie to that claim, and the appointment is scotched, thereby inviting accusations of the truth being smothered by an outside body — be it “Zionists,” “the Israel Lobby” or a related nomenclature.

Those who buy this interpretation do so because they are already predisposed to it. As for the rest of us, we can breathe a sigh of relief that, as Cavallaro’s fate demonstrates, not everyone is taken in.