Portland's Human Rights Commission Sparks Anger With Vote to Divest of Companies in Israel

Two members of the commission have renounced their votes.

In May 2014, Portland city government made national headlines by dumping all of its Wal-Mart bonds.

The idea, championed by City Commissioner Steve Novick, led to Portland City Hall last December expanding its "do not buy" list of corporations in which it refuses to invest its $940 million portfolio. That list currently includes Wal-Mart and fossil-fuel companies such as Chevron and Exxon Mobil.

Earlier this month, the Portland Human Rights Commission, an independent offshoot of the city's Office of Equity and Human Rights, endorsed a proposal that would ask the city to grow its "do not buy" list—to include companies that activists say play a role in the state of Israel's occupation of Palestine.

Now, however, two members of the commission have renounced their votes, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland has accused the volunteer group of legitimizing a campaign that could foster anti-Semitism, and Mayor Charlie Hales has said he would block the effort to divest from the four companies.

"The issue is complex and hurtful for the communities involved," Hales wrote in a statement.

The episode shows how an obscure commission that has no official role in setting city policy—Portland's Socially Responsible Investments Committee, not the Human Rights Commission, recommends to the City Council whom to include on the "do not buy" list—can nonetheless prove divisive.

Occupation-Free Portland, a coalition of Portland churches, activists and a group called Jewish Voice for Peace, says Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, G4S and Caterpillar support the Israeli occupation of Palestine by supplying personnel and equipment such as radios and bulldozers.

But Bob Horenstein, director of community relations for the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, says divesting from the companies will do nothing to advance peace. He says the true goal of groups such as Occupation-Free Portland is to undermine Israel. He calls Jewish Voice for Peace a "fringe" group out of touch with the mainstream Jewish community.

"This has nothing to do with human rights," says Horenstein. "It is yet another attempt by the boycott/divestment/sanction movement to delegitimize the state of Israel and demonize the supporters of the state of Israel."

The city's Human Rights Commission walked into this debate seemingly by happenstance.

The Portland City Council adopted its "do not buy" list in October 2013 and tapped a committee to study Portland's investment policies to ensure they were socially responsible.

This summer, 65-year-old Jewish activist Ned Rosch and others formed Occupation-Free Portland to urge city leaders to decline to invest in companies that are, in their eyes, complicit in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

"We're trying to balance the scales of justice in a situation that is highly unjust," says Peter Miller, a member of the coalition.

The city isn't currently invested in Motorola, Hewlett-Packard or G4S. It is invested in Caterpillar, and does buy products from the companies, including fire equipment from Motorola paid for with money from Portland's $72.4 million fire bond issue, which voters approved in 2010.

Rosch and others spoke to the Human Rights Commission in September, seeking the group's endorsement. The commission voted at its Oct. 7 meeting to give its approval.

Marcia Suttenberg, one of two Jewish members of the commission who voted to endorse the coalition's message, says she regretted the vote almost immediately. She says supporters of the cause made statements after the vote that were "offensively anti-Israel."

Suttenberg had missed the September meeting but voted anyway.

"I didn't know what we were voting for," she says now. "It was kind of rushed through."

Chabre Vickers, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission, defends her group's actions. "We encouraged them to use the public process," she says. "I do believe we followed our job, which is to listen to the public."

Portland isn't the first city where the idea of divesting from companies that do business with Israel has been raised this fall.

Last week, a Berkeley, Calif., commission rejected a similar proposal, in a three-hour hearing marked by shouting matches. The Costra Costa Times reported a member of the Berkeley City Council fired his appointee to the commission for proposing the idea without telling him first.

Portland's committee on socially responsible investing isn't scheduled to make new recommendations for the city's "do not buy" list until next year. Even so, Occupation-Free Portland's proposal is unlikely to gain traction without support from the mayor.

Vickers has invited members of the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland to the Human Rights Commission's Nov. 4 meeting.

"The Human Rights Commission didn't do their homework," says the federation's Horenstein. "The fact that they could consider a controversial issue like this without reaching out to the mainstream Jewish community is mystifying."

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