Winning real victories for Palestinian rights

Palestinian residents of the West Bank town of al-Walaja and their supporters block a Caterpillar machine being used to build Israel’s wall in August 2010.

Anne Paq ActiveStills

Palestinian rights activists can learn from a municipal divestment campaign in Portland, Oregon.

Portland’s city council voted in April to end all investments in corporations, including Caterpillar, the company targeted by our group of campaigners.

This falls short of a real win for Palestinian rights – and it’s why the campaign needs to continue to win a clear-cut victory.

The campaign began after the city of Portland established a socially responsible investment policy for its $1.7 billion investment portfolio, funded largely by property and business taxes.

The policy established a screen of criteria that includes human rights concerns, environmental violations, unfair labor practices, extreme tax avoidance, and abuse of monopoly power.

The Occupation-Free Portland coalition called on the city to divest from four corporations – Caterpillar, G4S, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions – because of their complicity in Israeli abuses of Palestinians’ human rights.

Our campaign drew little attention until the Portland Human Rights Commission endorsed our letter to Portland’s Socially Responsible Investments committee.

The local chapter of the Jewish Federation and other pro-Israel forces marshaled all their clout and solicited condemnations of the commission from Portland’s mayor, a member of Congress, two mayoral candidates, and Portland State University president Wim Wiewel.

Intimidation campaign backfires

An uglier campaign of intimidation targeting the Human Rights Commission was meanwhile underway. Leaders of the commission were reportedly subjected to intimidation and threats. Emails and phone calls were made to the city office that oversees the body, some even threatening physical harm to members of the commission.

The milder intimidation included the promise that an article would be appearing in the local Willamette Week newspaper. A biased story disparaging the “obscure commission” soon appeared.

These tactics turned out to be a colossal blunder. The threats backfired, particularly because women and people of color made up the majority of the Human Rights Commission and saw them correctly as a form of racist bullying.

At a packed community meeting that drew more than 100 supporters of Palestinian rights, far outnumbering the Federation’s supporters, the Human Rights Commission stood behind its vote, with its chair noting that she had heard nothing to disprove corporate complicity in violations of Palestinians’ human rights.

Word of the intimidation campaign spread throughout the progressive community and factored into our next victory, a 4-2 vote by the Socially Responsible Investments committee recommending divestment from Caterpillar, the only one of the four companies in which the city was actually invested. The committee openly cited Caterpillar’s role in violations of Palestinian human rights in its final report.

We realized that a sea change had occurred among many progressives in Portland. Prominent rabbi Michael Cahana acknowledged this when he told The Oregonian newspaper: “There’s a great deal of sympathy for the Palestinian cause [in Portland].”


But early on in the campaign, fear of the Jewish Federation’s clout led to a proposal that we ally with other forces, such as climate justice and private prison divestment campaigns, to get at least two of our targeted companies, G4S and Caterpillar, on the city’s Do Not Buy list.

To make this “intersectional” alliance, proponents cautioned that Palestine might have to take a “back seat” because the issue is controversial and putting other causes at the forefront would ensure a wider coalition.

We could “go under the radar” of the Jewish Federation, it was suggested, and “spin” the outcome as a boycott, divestment and sanctions victory simply because we were part of the intersectional alliance.

It’s hard to believe that anyone in the South African boycott, divestment and sanctions movement ever proposed an organizing strategy in which a city council would divest from Polaroid because its factories were polluting local rivers and then try to “spin” the divestment victory as a blow against apartheid.

Acquiescence to the phenomenon known as Progressive Except for Palestine can only win hollow victories. No liberation struggle ever announced itself by saying, “Our struggle is controversial; therefore, it may have to take a back seat to other struggles.”

The whole point of a divestment resolution citing Israel’s human rights violations is its political impact, as evidenced by the opposition’s reaction to every student divestment resolution on US campuses that has passed to date. None of those resolutions has resulted in any significant material change in universities’ holdings. But their political impact has been incalculable and continues to reverberate.


Every human rights struggle has been divisive and controversial. Acknowledging that many regard the Palestinian struggle as such should not translate into accepting the notion that Palestinian rights are controversial.

Genuine intersectionality makes no demand on anyone to take a back seat because all understand the mutuality of their interests. Political philosopher Angela Davis interprets intersectionality in this way:

The question is how to create windows and doors for people who believe in justice to enter and join the Palestine solidarity movement. So that the question of how to bring movements together is also a question of the kind of language one uses and the consciousness one tries to impart. I think it’s important to insist on the intersectionality of movements. In the [prison] abolition movement, we’ve been trying to find ways to talk about Palestine so that people who are attracted to a campaign to dismantle prisons in the US will also think about the need to end the occupation in Palestine. It can’t be an afterthought. It has to be a part of the ongoing analysis.

In Portland, we were fortunate that our intersectional allies were stalwart and truly understood and supported the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. The organization Enlace (Spanish for “links”) particularly stood out as a principled ally.

Yet the injunction to “de-center Palestine” to strengthen our case for divestment came from within the Palestine solidarity movement itself.

Can older activists recall anyone in the anti-apartheid movement calling for de-centering South Africa?

Building an alliance

Our goal was to get Portland to divest from Caterpillar and by that standard, we succeeded. But we failed to break the Progressive Except for Palestine paradigm because no city officials called out Caterpillar for its role in violating Palestinians’ rights.

Nevertheless, we built an alliance that city council must reckon with. The opposition didn’t bother to show up to the final hearing, and no one attempted to silence the numerous voices speaking out against the Israeli occupation.

What had been unthinkable only a few years ago came to fruition: a city council chamber that heard testimony from dozens of people regarding Israel’s brutal oppression of Palestinians.

Years of divestment campaigning within religious denominations laid the foundation for widespread community support for Occupation-Free Portland. Faith leaders signed a statement calling for divestment from Caterpillar and met with city councillors in support of it.

Those faith delegations may well have led the local Democratic Party establishment to sit up and take notice – a bill assailing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement failed to get a hearing during a recent state legislative session. The same was true of the role played by the Portland chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace in disputing the Federation’s claim that it spoke for the Jewish community.

Municipal divestment campaigns like the one in Portland take on the once unshakable US bipartisan political consensus in support of Israel, without which there would be no occupation.

Yet because the city council issued no clear statement in support of Palestinian rights, we cannot know whether the decision to divest will be made permanent or will be revisited when the anti-occupation coalition appears quiescent or worse, nonexistent.

Campaigners must never lose sight that their aim is to change consciousness and announce the ascent of a new political consensus in support of the Palestinian freedom struggle.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.




Thanks for this. We have to recognize to recognize that divestment’s purpose is its political impact, it’s not an end in itself to be achieved by shortcuts that sideline our principles