As the number of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli military forces in Gaza continues to rise, Jewish and allied activists in Portland are calling on the state’s congressional representation to press for a cease-fire in the region.
Heather Dorfman, a member of the Portland chapter of the national organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), said her organization is working to stop a genocide of civilians in Gaza—who one Israeli government official referred to as “human animals” earlier this month.
“Israel has made its goal very clear, both through actions and through words,” Dorfman said. “And so we are saying that there has to be an immediate ceasefire. The U.S. has to use our position and our power to pressure Israel and Israel’s supporters to end this violence immediately and to stop the devastating, catastrophic loss of life that we’re seeing minute-by-minute.”
Other members of the Jewish community in the Portland area, however, see things differently.
Bob Horenstein, director of community relations and public affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, said Israel “cannot return to the status quo” in Gaza following Hamas’ attack and declined to back calls for a cease-fire.
“We certainly support much more humanitarian aid for those who live in or have been evacuated down to the southern end of the [Gaza] strip, but we cannot support a ceasefire,” Horenstein said.
The fissures in the Jewish community mirror broader fissures across American society since October 7, when fighters from the Islamist militant organization Hamas launched a brutal attack on Israeli soldiers and civilians living in the vicinity of the besieged Gaza strip.
The Hamas attack claimed more than a thousand Israeli lives, with Hamas militants taking hundreds of Israelis hostage. Among the civilians killed were a number of children, elderly people, attendees at a music festival, and committed peace activists who spent much of their lives fighting for Palestinian rights.
The attack resulted in the largest loss of Jewish life on any single day since the end of the Holocaust, leaving Israelis and many members of the global Jewish community reeling and grieving.
But as a number of activists pointed out, the story of the current conflict between Hamas and Israel did not begin on October 7.
The Gaza strip, a narrow, densely populated piece of land on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, has been under a total Israeli blockade for more than 15 years. People are not allowed to enter or exit Gaza without Israeli permission, which is rarely granted. Gaza has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, with Human Rights Watch calling the land an “open air prison.”
According to international human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Israel currently operates an apartheid regime in the occupied Palestinian territories including Gaza and the West Bank designed to “maintain a cruel system of control over Palestinians” in violation of international law. Israel has rejected those claims.
With an eye toward that broader context, hundreds of Jewish activists in Portland have responded by calling for a cease-fire aimed at preventing the loss of further innocent life. But no one in Oregon’s congressional delegation has, thus far, explicitly signed onto that request.
That includes Oregon’s two Democratic senators, Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley. In a statement issued last week, Merkley called the Israeli bombing campaign “deeply concerning” and accused the state of creating a “humanitarian catastrophe,” but stopped short of calling for a cease-fire. He has since signed onto a statement calling for "humanitarian pauses" to the fighting, but has not clearly called for a cease-fire.
Wyden, who is Jewish and whose parents fled Nazi Germany, said two weeks ago in an appearance on KOIN that the U.S. would “assist Israel as an ally very clearly” with munitions and intelligence.
Since Wyden’s comments, Israel has reportedly killed over 5,000 people and wounded thousands more. More Palestinian children have already died in Israel’s attacks than Israelis died in total on October 7, with hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza now homeless and Israel now reportedly preparing a ground invasion of the strip. Wyden has not signed onto the statement calling for "humanitarian pauses."
Last Thursday, hundreds of JVP activists gathered outside Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s Northeast Portland office to demand that he sign onto a congressional resolution calling for a cease-fire. Thus far, Blumenauer has declined to meet that demand.
Local politicians have positioned themselves similarly. Following the Hamas attack and outbreak of the war, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners decided to light the Morrison Bridge in the Israeli national colors—reportedly frustrating county workers.
But Dorfman said the response from Oregon’s national politicians, particularly Portland’s congressional representative, has been especially disappointing.
“We come from a state that often purports locally and on the national stage to be progressive and focused on human rights… and we’re not seeing that,” Dorfman said. “We’re not seeing them stand up.”
For the moment, that puts Oregon’s representation in line with the national Democratic Party’s response. President Joe Biden has advocated for a partial restoration of humanitarian aid to Gaza, but has backed Israel’s military response and failed to publicly call for any kind of de-escalation to the violence.
In fact, diplomats working at the State Department were reportedly told not to use the words “de-escalation” or an “end to violence” in Gaza in the aftermath of the Hamas attack. At least one State Department official has since resigned in protest of the department’s policy on Israel/Palestine.
For many, the last several weeks have raised urgent questions about what a moral Jewish response to the violence in Israel and Palestine looks like—whether it means supporting Israel’s military response whatever the cost, or about protecting innocent people whether they are Jewish or not.
Horenstein, for instance, said his organization is “solidly behind the right of Israel to defend its people” and claimed the national JVP organization has engaged in antisemitic tactics and “is not part of the mainstream Jewish community.” Congregation Beth Israel, one of Portland’s most prominent synagogues, proclaims “Solidarity with Israel” on their webpage on the conflict.
But Dorfman said her and many others’ objections to the Israeli military campaign against Gaza is rooted in their understanding of Jewish history.
“A phrase that Jews return to ever since the Holocaust is ‘Never Again,’” she said. “We’ll never let this happen again. And we’re saying, we’ll never let this happen again for any people. Not just for Jews, but for any people.”
Dorfman said she is optimistic about the “groundswell” of support JVP and other anti-occupation and Palestinian rights organizations have received from Portlanders in recent weeks, and said JVP and other aligned organizations like the Palestinian rights organization SUPER at Portland State University are planning further public events for this weekend.
“We don’t feel that us calling for Palestinian liberation is in any way incongruent from our identities as Jewish people,” Dorfman said. “In fact, we feel a real responsibility based on our understandings of Jewish traditions, beliefs, and values to call for the liberation and the life of Palestinian communities.”