Oregon lawmakers ditch bills backed by Israel lobby

Caterpillar machinery is used by Israeli forces to destroy the Shepherd Hotel in occupied East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlement colonies, January 2011.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler

Following sustained pressure by Oregon human rights activists and faith leaders, three separate bills targeting supporters of Palestinian rights failed to get a hearing in the state legislature during a recent session.

Two of the measures condemn the 2016 UN resolution against Israeli settlements and one impugnes the Palestinian-led campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Activists say that the failure of the bills should encourage campaigners fighting back against similar anti-BDS measures in state legislatures and the US Congress.

The nonbinding measures were backed by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, a chapter of the Jewish Federations of North America – a coalition of Jewish communal organizations that organizes nationwide efforts to combat the movement for Palestinian rights.

The national organization works closely with Israel’s Jewish Agency, a body that encourages Jewish settlement in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Members of the Oregon Free Speech Coalition, which brings together activists from Palestine solidarity organizations around the state, say that the victory against the Israel lobby group’s initiative is due to steady grassroots campaigning.

“What it shows is that when we confront a challenge like this, when we systematically go out and ask for support from the many different activists and sympathizers from across the secular and religious communities, there is a surprising amount of support there,” activist Tom Beilman told The Electronic Intifada.

Activists say that legislators received hundreds of emails and phone calls urging them to oppose these bills. They thanked Ginny Burdick, the senate majority leader who also chairs the rules committee, for deciding not to give the bills a hearing.

The Portland chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which has previously campaigned in support of the city’s move to divest from Caterpillar because the Israeli army uses its equipment to demolish Palestinian homes and kill human rights activists, also urged state lawmakers to drop the bills.

JVP activists told state officials that the measures backed by the Jewish Federation do not represent the views of all Jews in the state.

At the same time, 37 pastors and faith leaders around Oregon wrote to state representatives in April criticizing the effort to shut down human rights advocacy.

“These bills and similar bills that have been introduced in many other states are aimed at chilling free speech and suppressing those of us who wish to use moral, legal means of changing the behavior of the state of Israel,” the faith leaders said in a joint letter. “All of us, out of compassion and religious conviction, support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as a way in which we can act to change the behavior of Israel.”

The faith leaders noted moves by a growing number of denominations to support the BDS campaign.

“These bills attack us”

The most important political decision campaigners made was to listen to the faith leaders, Rod Such, a Portland-based activist and contributor to The Electronic Intifada, explained.

“They said that [these bills were] ‘demonizing us – we have just passed these pro-BDS bills in our denominations, and now these bills attack us and what we’re advocating for,’” Such told The Electronic Intifada.

“Others argued that this is our chance to educate legislators about BDS, and we shouldn’t pass up that opportunity too,” Such said. “We should show them that BDS is a nonviolent method of fighting Israel’s apartheid policies.”

Though the results have not yet been posted online, the communications director for the Oregon State Senate Majority Office confirmed to The Electronic Intifada that the bills had failed to get a hearing in the rules committee in May, as state and national issues took precedence.

Many bills die before they are able to be heard in the state senate, the official explained, especially those that could be “potentially controversial.”

Oregon lawmakers did pass a bill during the same session declaring that marionberry pie would be the official state pie – clearly a matter of overwhelming consensus.

That bill passed the senate by 29-1.

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).