Portland, like communities across the country, is bracing for the outcome of November’s presidential election. But for two of the city’s smallest religious communities, the race carries particular weight.
The Muslim American community was one of the first religious communities targeted by Trump during his 2016 campaign for president and one of the first targeted after his inauguration—with his executive order banning travel from a number of predominantly Muslim countries still preventing many Americans from visiting their families.
Jewish Americans, meanwhile, have seen their loyalty to the United States repeatedly called into question by Trump. Antisemetic hate crimes are at a record high and mass shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Jersey City have further shaken Jews across the country.
Neither community is monolithic, but both are expected to overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates next month, and both—despite their very different histories in America and relationships to whiteness—have reason to be fearful of post-election white supremacist violence, regardless of the election's outcome.
Leaders in both communities said that they are preparing to mobilize and activate mutual aid networks in the aftermath of the election, bracing for a period of chaos, cruelty, and uncertainty. But they also see their communities as resolved—committed to fights for justice with extremely high stakes.
Muslims in Portland have been targeted with abuse and harassment for years, most notably when avowed white nationalist Jeremy Christian harassed a young Somali immigrant wearing a Hijab and her Black friend on a MAX train in 2017 and stabbed the three people who came to their defense.
They have also been surveilled in an unmatched way by law enforcement. The Portland City Council voted last year to remove the city from the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF)—a group of local and regional law enforcement agencies that works to combat domestic terrorism and has consistently been accused of bias against non-white people and left-wing activists—over the objections of then-Portland Police Bureau (PPB) chief Danielle Outlaw and Mayor Ted Wheeler.
Portland Imam Abdullah Polovina was born in Yugoslavia, and lived through the Bosnian War in Sarajevo before moving to the US in 2001. Polovina said that for many Muslims in the US, politics has been a scene of pain—something to be avoided rather than engaged with.
“Politics hurt,” he said. “The negativity is there… I’ve been here since 2001, [and] when you see what’s going on, you cannot say that even with this election and in some elections in the past, you don’t feel some huge change. It doesn’t matter who wins the election.”
But that feeling might be changing.
“I think that people have had no choice but to become politicized,” said Olivia Katbi Smith, who serves on the board of the Oregon chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). “I think that people have to pay attention to politics now in a way that maybe they didn’t feel like they needed to before—which has been a good thing and a bad thing.”
That is reflected in who is on the ballot. Three Muslim women are running for office in Oregon this year: Rima Ghandour for a position on Multnomah County Circuit Court, Nafisa Fai for Washington County Commissioner, and Nadia Hasan for Beaverton City Council.
Zakir Khan, the board chair of CAIR Oregon, said that the slate of candidates is indicative of a new, Trump-era approach to politics in the Muslim community driven by the eagerness of young people to engage themselves in politics and take the fight for their communities to the ballot box.
“For a long time in Oregon, that wasn’t the case,” Khan said. “Muslims did their own thing and stayed within their community. But you're now seeing a large number of Muslims who are pushing for change.”
The emerging Muslim candidates, Khan said, should “show people that our community is realizing the political power that is within them that they can utilize to create inclusive spaces across the state.”
“Where you see a mosque, you will see a strong community,” he continued. “People are contributing to Oregon’s community, to Oregon’s cultural sphere, but also just the wellness of the state. I don’t get the impression that people want to leave. People have put down roots here.”
That political engagement has included groups advocating for the city to end its cooperation with the JTTF following federal actions in the city this summer, and pushing for legislation reforming the state’s hate crimes law, which passed last year. The city is now being pushed to end all cooperation with the JTTF by a range of progressive organizations.
Similarly, while an increased number of Jewish Americans are inquiring about the possibility of leaving the US for Canada, Europe, or Israel, that doesn't seem to be the case in Portland.
Neither Rabbi Ariel Stone, who leads Congregation Shir Tikvah, nor Rabbi Michael Cahana, who leads Congregation Beth Israel in Northwest Portland, have reason to believe that a critical mass of Jewish Portlanders will depart the country in the aftermath of the election.
Still, for both congregations, security has become a major concern over the last four years.
Cahana said that his congregation has received threats in the past that warranted FBI attention, while Stone said that, prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, her congregation’s leadership ramped up security to a degree that made them all uncomfortable.
“We’re supposed to be opening our doors to all comers, not suspecting everyone of malicious intent,” Stone said.
That increased security included having a group of Jewish antifascists provide security during the congregation’s Hanukkah party last year.
“There’s a sense on a millennial level that we’ve been here before,” Stone said of rising white nationalism in the country. “On some level, the Jewish people know what to expect, and what to do. But there’s also a real sense of disappointment.”
“I have family in Israel,” she continued. “I have family in Europe. And I can’t say it hasn't crossed my mind. One of the big choices that we all will make is, what hill are we going to die on? Where are we going to make our stand?”
Stone has no plan to leave. She has thrown herself into local politics this year, organizing against police violence with Portland Interfaith Clergy Resistance and endorsing Sarah Iannarone's mayoral run.
Cahana echoed Stone’s resolve, describing the Jewish community as “invigorated” by the stakes of this election and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that swept the country in the summer—and, in Portland, have continued into the fall.
“We’ve certainly gone through periods of time when it has felt very personal and it has been about a personal fear for safety,” Cahana said. “Certainly following the Tree of Life massacre. That was very personal. And the fear was very real. And we’ve had instances in Portland of threats and things that felt like we had to put our guard up very personally.”
“But I think that if I were trying to put a finger on this moment, that’s not what I’m feeling the most,” he continued. “I think [it’s] the issues of Black Lives Matter, the question of use of police, those kinds of things—and the issue of white supremacists coming to town and wanting to do battle on our streets.”
In many Jewish circles, the increased attention paid to racism and police brutality has meant grappling with Jewish acceptance into American whiteness—an acceptance that, however conditional, has given Jewish people of European heritage privileges not enjoyed by many other marginalized communities. (That acceptance into American whiteness is not extended to the 15 percent of American Jews who are also people of color.)
“Jews in America were not considered white, the generation before me,” Cahana said. “I think that's part of what we’re struggling with. Our whiteness, from an American perspective is so new, that it’s hard to risk it. And my faith is in younger generations who absolutely get it.”
For Maxine Fookson, a Jewish nurse and local activist who is not affiliated with a synagogue, that relative privilege is front of mind.
“I don’t have any special need to be held up or protected as a Jew,” Fookson said. “I have a responsibility as a Jew, knowing my history, to stand up for communities who are truly being oppressed and targeted by white nationalism.”
“In some moments I think, ‘Oh my God, we've got to get the hell out of here,’” she continued. “But not seriously. This is my home. I’m an American. I don’t see myself leaving. I see myself staying and fighting.”
Not everyone has a choice.
“The United States has always been a racist, capitalist endeavor,” Katbi Smith said. “Muslims and Arabs, Muslims especially, don’t have the privilege of saying, ‘Okay, we’ll just immigrate to Canada.’ There’s really no choice but to stay and try to build an alternative, to build a better world, out of what we have here.”