Friday, November 06, 2015

THE PORTLAND HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION INSULTS THE JEWISH COMMUNITY

The Portland Human Rights Commission, (HRC) has greatly insulted and put a deep-freeze on it’s relationship with the Jewish community of Portland by drinking the kool-aid served up by the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement. This action demonstrates a level of insensitivity to the reality of anti-Semitism by the HRC that questions the validity of that commission. By supporting a movement that singles out Israel, and no other country or organization, for human rights violations, the Portland Human Rights Commission has aligned itself on the side of bigotry. The core of the BDS movement is anti-Semitism; the goal of the BDS movement is not to end human rights violations, but to end the existence of the country of Israel and replace it with a Palestinian state. 

The BDS movement is an anti-Israel movement considered by many to be, at it’s core, anti-Semitic. BDS affiliates, such as the coalition Occupy-Free Portland, have chosen four companies as the target of their divestment campaign, based on their allegation of these companies alleged involvement in human rights violations. The HRC voted, at their October 7, 2015 meeting, to support the Occupy-Free Portland request to the Portland Socially Responsible Investment committee (SRI) to add these four companies (Caterpillar, Motorola, G4S and HP) to the City’s “do not buy” list.

The HRC Chair, Chabre Vickers, repeatedly stated that the focus of the HRC decision was about four companies, not about a country, nationality or religion. It is difficult for me to believe that members of the HRC agree with that, because all of the background information submitted to them by Occupy-Free Portland specifically focused on alleged violations by Israel. The majority of pro-BDS supporters at the November 4 HRC meeting did not speak about any of the four companies, they spoke about how terrible Israel is. It is crystal clear to any objective person that the Occupy-Free Portland/BDS movement is an anti-Israel movement. All of the background papers submitted with information about the four companies listed alleged human rights violations in Israel, even though these companies operate in and sell products to many countries world-wide, including the United States I might add. 

The United States Department of State has a fact sheet on anti-Semitism. As examples of anti-Semitism relative to Israel, the State Department says: 
Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation
Multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations

Notably, the HRC did not reach out to any of the four companies, and did not reach out to the major Jewish organizations in Portland for input before voting on the Occupy-Free Portland request. Following the October HRC vote, Jewish organizations asked for an opportunity to speak to the Commission at their November meeting, and this request was accepted. Interestingly, the HRC put out a press release (see below) on October 29 confirming their decision and digging in their heels. 

The November 4 meeting took place in a packed auditorium of the Portland Building, and it was a raucous affair. The invited speakers from the Jewish community presented their information, opinions, and expressions of dismay about the HRC decision. (The HRC chair, and eventually the building security person had to repeatedly tell BDS people in the room to stop shouting out and interrupting the Jewish speakers.) The speakers presented information about the BDS movement objectives and methods, pointed out that the four companies targeted by BDS provide equipment and services to Israel and the Palestinian Authority that are used to benefit all people in Israel and the West Bank, talked about the hypocrisy of a human rights commission supporting a movement such as BDS, talked about recent acts of anti-Semitism in Portland, and expressed their great concern that the HRC had taken an action that insulted the Jewish community without first consulting with, or asking for input from, that community. 

I attended the November 4 meeting; my wife was one of the invited speakers. It was notable that every invited Jewish presenter acknowledged that Israel has human rights issues that need to be resolved. Many stated that not all Jews support the current government of Israel and many of it’s decisions. They also pointed out that anti-Semitism is rampant around the world, and that the BDS movement foments anti-Semitism in many ways, including by association of Jews with Israel. 

Following the presentations by the invited speakers from the Jewish community, Commission members had an opportunity for comment and discussion. The two Jewish commissioners renounced their previous votes, explaining that they had not read the materials and did not really understand the issue up for vote (how embarrassing!). One commissioner accused the invited Jewish speakers of using code words for Islamaphobia - an astounding and untrue accusation that no commissioner challenged. Another commissioner complained that he wasn’t paid for his time on the HRC, and if people were so concerned about this action why didn’t they attend HRC meetings, and if people don’t like what he’s doing just fire him! Other commissioners defended the HRC decision, and repeated the tired explanation that it was not about any country or group of people, it was only about four companies. 

I left part-way through the public testimony portion of the meeting; however, I heard later that the Commission voted again, and the previous decision was affirmed by a 6-5 vote (I have not yet confirmed this). I guess this is progress, as the original vote was unanimous. [Update: it appears that the 6-5 vote was on whether or not to have a re-vote on the original item; there was not a re-vote.]  

I am now wondering how this HRC precedent will play out. Will they consider requests to recommend “do not buy” for other companies allegedly involved in human rights violations anywhere in the world, including here in the United States? Or is that distinction only applicable to companies that do business in Israel? 

Following this text I’ve added the HRC press release, and my letter to the HRC dated November 3. 


And by the way, who is Occupy-Free Portland? Well, here is a screen shot of their web site: 




Portland HRC press release:

 October 29, 2015
For Immediate Release
City of Portland Human Rights Commission Endorses Occupation-Free Portland’s Proposed Statement to the Socially Responsive Investments Committee
PORTLAND - On October 7, 2015, the Portland Human Rights Commission (HRC) unanimously voted to support Occupation-Free Portland’s request to the City’s Socially Responsible Investments committee (SRI) to place four U.S. companies on the City’s “Do Not Buy” list: Caterpillar, G4S, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions.

As a commission guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, HRC based its decision to endorse Occupation-Free Portland’s letter solely on the four companies’ involvement in human rights violations in Israel and Palestine. This was not an issue relating to religion or nationality, but solely on human rights impacts, and a request to the City of Portland to divest from companies profiting from violent conflict.
HRC’s endorsement of the letter was specifically for the Occupation-Free Portland request to be presented to SRI, where that City body would use their process to determine whether the request fits their guidelines for recommendation to Council.
The process that led to HRC’s endorsement of the letter began with public testimony at HRC’s September 2, 2015 meeting. After hearing from numerous community members, HRC requested additional information and additional time for review; and communicated to attendees that the commission would hold a vote at the October 7, 2015 meeting. This process allowed Human Rights Commissioners a full month between the time the request was introduced, to the time at which the vote took place.
Regardless of any post-meeting renouncements, the unanimous vote stands unless another full-Commission vote takes place.

“Our job as Human Rights Commissioners is to hear and take action on human rights issues,” said Audrey Alverson, HRC vice chair. “This work, by default, is difficult and uncomfortable and often involves push back. We recognize that many issues we are asked to consider are complex and multi-faceted; and as a commission, we work to hold true to our mission of upholding the ideals expressed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ideal that those rights are endowed to all human beings, regardless of their politics. Our decisions may be unpopular to some or even to the majority, but human rights issues wouldn’t exist if these positions were popular.”

As an all-volunteer advisory body to City of Portland’s elected leaders, the HRC is not charged with making decisions nor declarations on City policy, but rather with advising elected leaders on human rights issues within the city. One avenue through which HRC’s advisory statements and endorsements are informed is by receiving community input in a variety of forums, including regularly scheduled public comment at HRC’s monthly meetings.

The HRC works to eliminate discrimination and bigotry, to strengthen inter-group relationships, and to foster greater understanding, inclusion, and justice for those who live, work, study, worship, travel and play in the City of Portland.

For more information, please contact Jeff Selby at jeff.selby@portlandoregon.gov

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421 SW 6th Ave Suite 500 | Portland, OR 97204 US



 My letter to Portland HRC:
TO: Chabre Vickers, Chair, Portland Human Rights Commission
FROM: Paul A. Fishman, community member
SUBJECT: Basic issues with and effects of the HRC decision regarding divestment
DATE: November 3, 2015

Ms. Vickers:

Thank you for reviewing and considering my comments on the issues and effects of the subject decision by HRC. Please distribute these comments to members of the Commission. Thank you.

ISSUES

The HRC press release issued on October 29, 2015 contained the 4 bullet points pasted below (italics). My comments are the non-italicized text. 

As a commission guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, HRC based its decision to endorse Occupation-Free Portland’s letter solely on the four companies’ involvement in human rights violations in Israel and Palestine. This was not an issue relating to religion or nationality, but solely on human rights impacts, and a request to the City of Portland to divest from companies profiting from violent conflict.

What is the history of the HRC similar actions against investment in any corporations? Are there examples of the HRC recommending economic action (i.e. non-investment or divestment) against corporations other than the four targeted in this case? Does the HRC have a policy to “request to the City of Portland to divest from companies profiting from violent conflict”? If yes, how has this policy been applied to other cases? If no, why now? If this type of action is not HRC policy, and HRC has no history of this type of action, then the statement that this “was not an issue relating to religion or nationality” is not true; this is an action specifically aimed against Israel. The organization that brought this request to the HRC works exclusively against Israel, and not against any other nations. 

HRC’s endorsement of the letter was specifically for the Occupation-Free Portland request to be presented to SRI, where that City body would use their process to determine whether the request fits their guidelines for recommendation to Council.

Does HRC have a policy or directive for making recommendations or requests to the SRI? If yes, what is that policy, and what are the criteria by which HRC should take such actions? Has HRC made such recommendations or requests to the SRI previously? If yes, what and when?

The process that led to HRC’s endorsement of the letter began with public testimony at HRC’s September 2, 2015 meeting. After hearing from numerous community members, HRC requested additional information and additional time for review; and communicated to attendees that the commission would hold a vote at the October 7, 2015 meeting. This process allowed Human Rights Commissioners a full month between the time the request was introduced, to the time at which the vote took place.

As recorded in the minutes of the HRC for September 2, 2015, three community members spoke about this issue. Two of the speakers are affiliated with the Occupy-free Portland coalition, and it is likely that the third is also affiliated with this group. This truly does not constitute “hearing from numerous community members.” In fact, you heard from three people who do not represent the Jewish community of Portland. The HRC requested additional information from the commenters, and did not seek any information or input from persons representing the major Jewish organizations in Portland. HRC members certainly are aware of the controversial nature of the BDS movement and it’s affiliates, including Jewish Voice for Peace and Occupation-Free Portland. “The process” referred to in the HRC press release was a flawed process. 

Regardless of any post-meeting renouncements, the unanimous vote stands unless another full-Commission vote takes place.

Based on the controversy sparked by this HRC action, I suggest that it would be wise for the HRC to examine it’s actions and policies. Was the vote taken within the framework of HRC policy, directives and mission? Should HRC have a policy and process for taking up requests such as this from members of the public? I also request that the HRC suspend the October endorsement until such time that the HRC has policy and process in place to deal with this kind of issue. 

EFFECTS

The endorsement by the HRC of this divestment action has the very unfortunate effect of promoting anti-Semitism. I understand that the HRC action was not intended to promote racism; however, every action involving Israel promotes anti-Semitism and often racial attacks and incidents against Jewish people all over the world, including in the United States and Portland. The situation in and around Israel and Palestine is very complex, and too often individuals and organizations, such as the Portland Human Rights Commission, fall into the trap of inadvertently supporting anti-Jewish sentiments and actions. 

It is important for the Portland HRC to understand the unique situation of Jews in relation to the country of Israel. No other ethnic group is the subject of bigotry because of the actions of a nation where they do not necessarily live. When an African country commits violations of human rights, Black people are not attacked around the world. When an Asian country commits violations of human rights, Asians are not attacked around the world. In the unique situation of Israel and Jews, the actions of Israel are all to often an excuse to attack Jews everywhere. 

The recent action by Portland HRC is part of a larger movement to isolate and de-legitimize Israel. Why doesn’t the HRC recommend divestment from companies that sell products to the many countries where terrible violations of human rights are an every day occurrence? Why have the 4 companies subject to this divestment recommendation  been singled out? It is ironic that the computer you are using right now certainly has components made by Motorola and HP, and that a lot of the construction equipment owned by the City of Portland is made by Caterpillar Corp. 

The country of Israel is often the only country singled out for human rights violations, and is an object of a double standard when other nations are not targeted. Such talk and actions are anti-Semitism, as defined by the United States Department of State (attachment A). 

The terms “Zionism” and “Zionist” are often code words for anti-Semitism: “...the expression “Zionist” – support for Israel as the Jewish homeland – is often used as an anti-Semitic code word for “Jew” in mainstream debate.” (source Anti-Defamation League 2001; on genocidewatch.org website).

We also hear, too often, that Israel is guilty of genocide against the Palestinian people; this is also not based on fact. Attachment B is a table of countries in various stages of the 10 Stages of Genocide, for 2014 (Genocide Watch). Israel/Palestine is near the bottom of the list, and is not considered in an advanced stage.

Thank you for considering my comments.



ATTACHMENT A
Fact Sheet: Anti-Semitism
United States Department of State 




Source for Attachment A: 



Genocide Watch, table from 2014 Countries at Risk Report



































2 comments:

michelle said...

well done- i understand that the vote was to decide if there should be a revote -- and not a vote on the issue itself.

Paul said...

thanks for the clarification, Michelle...

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