Multnomah County Commissioners Fail to Approve Statement on Israel Attack After Tense, Tearful Debate

UPDATE: The Morrison Bridge will be lit in Israel’s colors tonight, but commissioners were divided on a resolution showing support for the move.

STANDING TOGETHER: Commissioners Lori Stegmann and Susheela Jayapal march with County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson. (Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County)

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners debated for an hour today how to support Israel and its citizens after the weekend attack by Hamas, but failed to reach agreement on a statement or on a resolution showing that the whole board supported lighting the Morrison Bridge in blue and white.

Commissioners spent most of the hour discussing a plan to light the bridge, which can be done without a vote of the board. Chair Jessica Vega Pederson promised to light it, but Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards wanted a resolution directing it in order to show board support for Israel, which she said is overdue.

“We may be the only major local government that hadn’t had some sort of statement,” Brim-Edwards said. “If it were in the United States, it would be as if 30,000 people were killed.”

Vega Pederson didn’t say when the bridge would be lit, a concern for Brim-Edwards. “There are times when you have to react to the moment,” Brim-Edwards said.

The debate began when a visibly shaken Brim-Edwards said she was vexed by the county’s silence on Saturday’s attack.

“I just want to note that I’m disappointed that we didn’t start our meeting with some acknowledgment of what happened this week,” Brim-Edwards said.

Pederson said there would be time for the matter later in the meeting and pressed on with debate about how to mitigate natural disasters in Multnomah County.

They returned to the issue later. Commissioner Sharon Meieran, the only Jewish member of the board, said she wanted it to issue a statement on the attack and light the bridge.

“It’s something we did when Ukraine was invaded,” Meieran said.

Other commissioners weighed in. Broadly, the debate centered on whether to decry the attack on Israel, which killed more than 1,200 people, or pledge support in equal measure to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where retaliatory Israeli bombing has killed more than 1,500, according to media reports.

Brim-Edwards’ resolution called Hamas’ action an “act of terrorism” that took the lives of more than 1,000 civilians. She asked the county to light the bridge “in support of Israel and the Jewish community for a seven-day period.”

Commissioner Lori Stegmann, meantime, argued for a broader message.

“I feel like it would be tone-deaf not to acknowledge our community members who are Palestinian or Middle Eastern,” Stegmann said. “While this is a horrific act that has been committed, there has been a long-standing conflict of colonization and displacement of Indigenous people.”

Stegmann recommended people read material from left-leaning news site Democracy Now and from Amnesty International to learn more about the conflict.

The board debated a statement for the board put forth by Meieran without coming to an agreement, then moved on to Brim-Edwards’ shorter resolution to direct the chair to light the bridge.

Vega Pederson said the resolution was unnecessary because she had already agreed to light the span. Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said supported illuminating the bridge but said she was uncomfortable with issuing an accompanying statement that discussed the losses on just one side. Nor was she willing to edit the resolution in real time at a board meeting.

”I don’t think I can acknowledge loss of one group when there are Palestinian lives being lost as well,” Jayapal said. “I think it’s very difficult to draft this kind of amendment in the moment.”

In the end, Brim-Edwards’ resolution to direct Vega Pederson to light the bridge failed, with Vega Pederson, Jayapal and Stegmann voting against it. Meieran and Brim-Edwards voted in favor.

After the vote, Brim-Edwards said she hoped the county would issue a statement before the end of today. She said she would put something out in her name alone by then.

“Sometimes with delay, you’ve missed the moment,” Brim-Edwards said.

Later in the day, Vega Pederson used her executive authority to light the bridge in blue and white starting tonight for five nights, according to two people familiar with the situation.

Shortly after that, Vega Pederson, Meieran and Brim-Edwards put out a statement on the Hamas attack, saying: “We, the Multnomah County Chair and Commissioners named here, unequivocally condemn Hamas’ appalling terror attack on Israel and the people of Israel. We light the Morrison Bridge tonight to say that we stand in solidarity with Israel at this devastating moment for its people. And we stand with our own Jewish community that is suffering from the loss and injury of loved ones, the unknown fate of family and friends, and the existential threat to the State of Israel. We know the situation in the Middle East is complex and nuanced, and this statement does not reflect our individual or collective views on the broader history and the suffering of the people in the region. But we cannot stand silent in the face of the deadliest day for Jewish people since the Holocaust. We stand for peace. The bridge will be lit blue and white for the next five nights.”

Jayapal and Stegmann didn’t sign the statement. Each issued their own independent statements tonight, which contained some differences in language from each other. Jayapal’s statement is here. Stegmann’s can be found here.

This post was updated throughout the afternoon.

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