Portland Human Rights Commission Upholds Divestment Recommendation

On Wednesday November 4, at the end of a tense three and one half hour hearing, attended by some 300 people, the Portland Human Rights Commission (HRC), reaffirmed their endorsement of Occupation-Free Portland’s (OFP) letter to the City’s Socially Responsible Investments Committee requesting that Caterpillar, G4S, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions be placed on the City’s Do-Not-Buy list for these companies’ human rights violations in supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. 

The audience included many supporters of OFP: Palestinians, members of Jewish Voice for Peace, local clergy, and others of diverse backgrounds.  The post below was written by JVP member Maxine Fookson.

The torch of human rights burns a little brighter today.  The Nov.4th hearing came as a result of intense pressure and outright bullying by the Greater Portland Jewish Federation and other allied groups to the October endorsement by the HRC of OFP’s letter to the City proposing that these companies be put on the do-not-buy list.

The HRC was accused of endorsing a proposal that involves foreign policy (out of their purview), creating a divisive and threatening feeling in the community, and being anti-Semitic.

In support of the HRC at this latest hearing, the director of the Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights (the office that oversees the voluntary HRC) , Dante James began the meeting with an inspirational statement. He spoke of the universality of human rights even when it is difficult. He encouraged openness and fairness in the proceedings.

Our decisions are enshrined in Universal Human Rights. If there were no controversy, human rights victories would not exist. And without that controversy, as a Black man, I would still be seated at the back of the bus. -Dante James, Esq., Director of the Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights

The evening began with about six presenters from the Jewish Federation and other allied groups–all opposing our proposal. Rather than addressing the substance of the OFP proposal, these presentations focused on why the proposal was hurtful to the Jewish community.

The HRC was challenged as to not knowing enough about “a complex issue” to make this kind of decision. There was no mention or acknowledgement of any injustices in the occupation, and NOTHING about the companies in question.  The speeches showed quite an insular view and reflected a lot of privilege and finger pointing toward the commissioners

 “I’m a Palestinian and both sets of my grandparents were born in Palestine and were forced out by gunpoint by Israeli militia’s in 1948. My grandparents had to walk to the border and ended up in Damascus, Syria. In fact my Grandmother is today not only a refugee of the Nakba but also a refugee of the the civil war in Syria.

So I find it particularly painful that several of the speakers tried to use the human rights violations suffered by the Syrian people and Syrian-Palestinians in particular to justify the human rights violations Israel inflicts on the Palestinians. Its painful and cynical.

Its critical to understand that these violations are enabled today because of the complicity of the US government which gives Israel billions in Aid. As well as US corporations and US institutions which are invested in the oppression of Palestinians.

Well I know that peace will come one day but it will only come when justice has been guaranteed for the Palestinians. The decision today is both a victory for making Portland one step closer to being Occupation Free and it takes us one step closer in the struggle for justice.”

-Testimony from Wael Elesday, member of Occupation Free Portland

What followed was public testimony from about 30 community members (from both sides).  Several clergy gave first hand testimony of what they had seen on trips to Palestine and Israel. Two members of JVP testified. Several Palestinians talked about their own childhood experiences under occupation.

One Palestinian presenter spoke of how, when she was a child, she thought that all bulldozers were made for was to uproot olive trees and destroy homes in her neighborhood in Jerusalem.

The President of the Portland NAACP spoke eloquently, affirming that–YES, the community needs a public and brave dialogue on Israel-Palestine. But she challenged much of the underlying racism in the testimony that had implied that the HRC, largely made up of people of color, was unable to “understand the issue” or evaluate if there were human rights abuses occurring.

HRC testimony

Our decision was to stay calm and to refrain from any booing or other disapproval. We each had small signs that said on one side, “Human Rights” and on the other side “Thank you HRC”. Instead of booing or applauding, we silently held up those signs. After the proceedings, one of the Commissioners told me that the signs were such a support and that looking out at them were what got her through the very tough meeting.

HRC Signs

The contrast between the self-serving comments and lack of engagement with the HRC by the opposition and the absolute dignity and presence of the HRC members (with exceptions of the two who made the public statements of how they failed to prepare and thus voted for something they had no idea about) was truly astounding.

The HRC Chair was absolutely amazing in her grace in the face of, not just criticisms at the hearing, but very intense bullying by Federation officials in the weeks before the hearings. She guided the commissioners so professionally and with a lot of space and consideration to the end decision that their original votes stood.

The commissioners said they would have been open to a re-vote had they heard any new research or information to lead them to believe that what we had presented about the human rights abuses of these companies was inaccurate or incomplete. They said, they heard no new evidence to that effect.

OFP again applauds the HRC for standing up to charges that their endorsement is anti-Semitic, divisive, and a foreign policy issue, as opposed to being about human rights.  As human rights advocates, the commissioners seemed to understand that these accusations are all smokescreens to censor free speech and to halt all discussion of human rights violations committed in the Israeli occupation.

The essence of this Commission’s mission is to make certain Portland understands that the decisions it makes can implicate international human rights, and that our city’s actions should remain consistent with human rights principles. -Testimony by JVP Member Steven Goldberg

OFP is aware that censorship and silencing of criticism of Israeli policy is at the core of the opposition. This is occurring wherever groups are calling out the abuses that companies involved in the Israeli Occupation of Palestinian lands are committing.

A meeting that could have easily descended into chaos turned out to be a striking example of what a dedicated group of individuals, the HRC, committed to implementing a human rights agenda can do. They engaged the community in a much needed and vitally important conversation.

They showed all of us how one can stand for principles in spite of the heat and divisiveness that taking such a stand brought up.

They stood their ground – for which they were the victims of heavy pressure and hurtful accusations – to support a human rights issue that is one of the great moral issues of our time.



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