We want Portland occupation-free

January 4, 2016

Palestine solidarity organizations have come together in an ongoing campaign to get the city of Portland to boycott corporations profiting from the Israeli occupation. Maxine Fookson and Ned Roesh, members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in Portland and steering committee members of the Occupation-Free Portland Coalition, talked to Wael Elasady about what the coalition has already achieved, and what comes next.

CAN YOU talk about the Occupation-Free Portland Coalition and the goals of the campaign it's working on?

Maxine: Occupation-Free Portland is a coalition of all the Palestinian solidarity groups in Portland. Many of the groups had been working together as a coalition on the SodaStream boycott. But based on changes in SodaStream's situation and realizing that we were looking for a different kind of campaign--something more systemic than just de-shelving a product--we decided to take up the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.

In 2014, the city of Portland passed a resolution that the city would put a socially responsible lens on all of its investments. It set up a Socially Responsible Investments (SRI) Committee to recommend companies that the city would not invest in based on a set of criteria--and it's important to give a shout-out to the private prison divestment group in town that helped get this criteria in place originally.

One of the criteria of the socially responsible lens for the city is human rights violations, so it just seemed like a logical place to start to ask the city to not invest in companies profiting from human rights abuses of Palestinians and from the occupation of Palestine.

Members of Occupation-Free Portland at a demonstration
Members of Occupation-Free Portland at a demonstration (Occupation-Free Portland)

WHAT ARE the specific aims of the campaign?

Ned: The campaign is asking the city to place four corporations--Motorola, HP, G4S and Caterpillar, all of which are complicit in and profit from the Israeli occupation and serious human rights violations of Palestinians--on the city's "do not buy" list.

To accomplish this, there was a series of steps that we wanted to go through to build the campaign. The first was to win support from a body called the Portland Human Rights Commission (HRC). The HRC has no legal authority, but it has some moral authority, so we thought that was a good first step--and if we won there, we could take a certain seal of approval into our second step, which is to approach the SRI Committee.

I spoke on behalf of the campaign during the public-comment period. They had just been talking about how they were committed to housing justice, so I told them about an experience I had in Southern Gaza.

I was walking down a street in an area that was heavily bombed and devastated in the 2014 Israeli assault, and a man comes up to me and hands me a book and asks me to walk with him to show me around. We walk across this debris-strewn street towards this incredibly massive pile of debris of busted-up concrete and rebar, glass, and clothing.

When we get to the top of this massive pile, he pulls out this beautiful picture of a house and says, "This is my house. We're standing on it. The only thing that survived the bombing was this book. It's my doctoral dissertation on Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot, and I want you to have it."

I was pretty touched. What I took from what he was saying was that they can bomb our homes and destroy our neighborhoods and kill our people, but they cannot kill the ideas--not just the ideas contained in this book, but also the idea that the Palestinians deserve human rights, freedom and justice, like any other people in the world.

So I shared that story with the commissioners and then went on to say that the way you all as human rights commissioners can support the Palestinians here is to support our call, and we're asking a very simple thing: Portland should not invest its dollars in corporations like these four, which not only are complicit in human rights abuses, but they profit from it.

They were very appreciative of that viewpoint, and so we came back in October to their next meeting, and they voted unanimously to endorse our letter to the SRI Committee.

We were celebrating this victory, and we began to hear that the pro-Israeli opposition had learned what happened, and they begin to pressure the HRC, including threatening the chair of the HRC. Bob Horenstein, who is in charge of community relations for the Jewish Federation, said, "Unless you rescind that vote, shit will hit the fan."

Maxine: Furthermore, they placed several phone calls to local politicians, and as a result, several came out with statements against the campaign. This included Charlie Hales, the mayor; Ted Wheeler, a mayoral candidate; Wim Wiewel, the president of Portland State University; and Suzanne Bonamici, a Democratic congresswoman from northwest Portland.

It's worth mentioning that none of these politicians reached out to us to learn about the campaign--none of them really even had any idea what the campaign was about. They just immediately put out statements opposing the campaign. Their statements were very hollow, saying little more than that what we were doing was anti-Semitic. We wanted to laugh.

Of course Wim Wiewel opposes us. After all, he's the one setting up all these deals with Israel and going with American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to visit Israel. And Suzanne Bonamici takes her trips with AIPAC.

Ned: We also received word that Willamette Weekly would be doing a story on this, and so we contacted them and said that we know you're doing a story on our campaign, but you're not even checking in with our side! What kind of journalism is that?

We got a response from the reporter, so three of us from the steering committee set up an hour-long phone call with the reporter. I have to say that I think we presented our side really strongly and clearly, and we gave her tons of information and some pretty eloquent quotes that she could have used.

The next day, the story comes out, and virtually nothing we said was in the story. It was totally framed by the other side, and anything she did say about us was really irrelevant. Then she had all these quotes from Bob Horenstein in there.

So under this pressure, the chair of the HRC decided to give the Jewish Federation 45 minutes to present the other side. They took nearly an hour, and they brought in this cadre of people to speak from Stand With Us NW, the Jewish Community Relations Council, and the Jewish Federation, all about how awful the HRC decision was.

We mobilized speakers on our side. And the HRC didn't budge--the vote held, which was a great victory for our side.

IN BERKELEY, California, something similar happened, but there, a member of the local human rights commission was fired for supporting the city divesting from Israeli crimes. Why do you think you were able to withstand the backlash here?

Ned: It's a great question, and I don't know the whole answer. But some of the answer might be that as soon as we heard about the backlash, we met with the mayor's office, and we let them know that there is such a thing as the First Amendment, and this really is a freedom of speech issue. There is nothing anti-Semitic about what we are doing, and we laid out the justification for this campaign.

Maxine: I agree, and I really think the credit goes to the HRC members. The voices of the opposition came across as clearly privileged and as the voice of power. They said in various ways "This hurts us," "Nobody cares about us," "Things are really bad in Israel/Palestine right now"--and not even a mention about Palestinian deaths or about the lack of parity or power.

Ned: It was evident in that meeting that our side represented the future, and their side the past.

Their side was exclusive, it was insular, it was privileged, it was lacking in diversity. We had the president of the NAACP, which was really powerful, because she was able to call out the racism of the opposition with a certain credibility. We had Palestinians, Jews, Christian clergy, and generally a very diverse group of people who spoke. It represented in many ways a community that we want to build and a community that the HRC could identify with.

Maxine: The HRC also came to understand, like we did, the connections between the struggle for justice in Palestine and questions like police brutality here in the U.S. because Israel was exposed in our testimony as exporting its policing techniques and military technology, which have been tested on the occupied Palestinians and then sent to places like Ferguson or Baltimore or along the U.S./Mexico border. I think that connection was understood well by the HRC and critical.

THE HRC endorsement was an important first step for the campaign. What pressure do you expect when bringing this issue before the SRI Committee and for implementation by the City Council?

Maxine: I'm sure there will be mega-opposition. I would guess when we testify at the SRC Committee, they will do something. I think it will be interesting--their opposition can't be based on any of the actual issues that we are bringing up against the companies. We have documentation of human-rights abuses by multiple nonpartisan groups, such as the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Israeli human rights groups. There is a lot of documentation on these four companies.

They will have to try and find some loophole to oppose us because they can't challenge the facts. So what will be their strategy? Maybe: This isn't what we meant by a socially responsible investment policy? We meant it's okay to divest from companies committing human rights abuses, but we didn't really mean companies that abuse Palestinian human rights?

Ned: So we will be bringing this issue before the SRI Committee. Many of the members appear to be progressive, and we will see where this goes. There's a strong possibility that we will win again at the SRI Committee. At the City Council level, I don't know if we reached a tipping point where it's worth it in politicians' minds to take a stand on justice for Palestine when they may lose potential allies or social and political capital over this issue. Time will tell.

Maxine: The steps we've taken with the HRC and the SRI Committee prove to me that when you are at the grassroots and you have a committee made up of citizens, they get it. They get the connections--they get what it's all about.

When you move to the realm of elected officials, such as the City Council, then it becomes a question of political capital. This further goes to show that at the top, people don't operate out of moral beliefs or because this is the right thing to do. They operate because someone with a lot of influence calls them up and says, "This is anti-Semitic, this is a divisive measure, this is the wrong way to do this." And that's where their power comes from--these are big funders who endorse their campaigns.

THE GREAT part about this campaign is that it really touches on the question of democracy and free speech in this country.

Maxine: Absolutely--that says it well in terms of summing up what happens at the HRC. It could well play out like that at the SRI Committee. So I do think it's democracy. We could have the outcome at the HRC, matched by a similar outcome at the SRI Committee, and then we go to the City Council, where we watch the democratic process run into power politics.

Ned: The other thing is that at the City Council level, we will be testifying. So even if we lose, we will be getting our message out, and there can be subsequent testimony and future council meetings if we choose to. So it's not that this campaign is going to end; it will morph into the next phase.

Most importantly, this campaign has really helped us broaden awareness and an understanding of the systemic entrenchment of the occupation--that it's not just a couple of products made in illegal settlements. It's the whole entrenched occupation that's being supported by these multinational corporations making their profits from this.

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