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Jayapal sister’s congressional candidacy alarming Portland Jewish leaders

Days after Oct. 7, Susheela Jayapal declined to sign onto a statement condemning Hamas and standing with Israel

Pro-Israel activists in Portland, Ore., are bracing for what could be a bitterly divided House race as longtime Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) prepares to retire at the end of his current term, opening up a rare vacancy in one of the state’s most progressive districts.

The Democratic primary field, which is expected to grow in the coming weeks, has so far drawn two candidates, most prominently Susheela Jayapal, a former Multnomah County commissioner whose younger sister, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus and is among the most outspoken critics of Israel in the House.

While the elder Jayapal, 61, had no discernible history of public engagement on Middle East policy until recently, her approach to the war between Israel and Hamas suggests there is little distance between the two siblings on such matters — fueling concerns among local pro-Israel advocates who have yet to coalesce behind a viable candidate.

One major source of contention stems from an emotionally charged county board meeting days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attack, when Jayapal, who stepped down as commissioner last month to launch her campaign, voted to reject a resolution seeking to show unified support for lighting a Portland bridge in blue and white.

“I don’t think I can acknowledge [the] loss of one group when there are Palestinian lives being lost as well,” Jayapal said of the resolution, even as she endorsed illuminating the Morrison Bridge in solidarity with Israel.

Later that day, Jayapal drew heightened scrutiny from Jewish and pro-Israel leaders after she chose not to include her name on a joint statement — signed by two commissioners and the county chair — condemning Hamas and standing with Israel as well as Portland’s Jewish community.

“We were disappointed that she didn’t sign on,” Bob Horenstein, the director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “I can only surmise that she didn’t feel like it was balanced.”

Sharon Meieran, the lone Jewish commissioner on Multnomah County’s board, who led the statement, said that Jayapal had initially seemed open to adding her name but ultimately pulled out “at the very last minute,” even after some of the language had been revised at her behest during a strained editing process. 

In written comments to JI last week, Meieran alleged that Jayapal had also tried to remove a Holocaust reference from the draft statement, creating further tension behind the scenes. “I was somewhat reassured when Commissioner Jayapal indicated she would consider signing on to the statement,” Meieran said. “But then I heard that she had sought to remove reference to the Holocaust.”

“I refused to remove the reference,” Meieran said, noting that the request had been conveyed by her communications director. “As someone who had numerous family members murdered in the Holocaust, one of the most terrifying aspects of the Hamas attack was the scale and targeting of innocent civilians because they were Jewish. No one affected by the Holocaust could fail to feel the connection.”

Meieran said she could not speculate about Jayapal’s reasons for backing out of the statement but explained that she was “surprised” and “deeply saddened” by her former colleague’s decision. “The situation in the Middle East is complicated beyond measure at every possible level,” she acknowledged. “But issuing a statement seemed like the least our board could do.”

In a statement shared with JI on Sunday, Jayapal said it was “unequivocally false” that she had sought to excise the Holocaust reference. “In fact, I had suggested the language that was ultimately used (‘the deadliest day for Jewish people since the Holocaust’) as an alternative to the original language, which I feel made an equivalency with the Holocaust, which is a singularly horrific event on an incomparable scale,” she countered.

“While working on edits with my colleagues, it became clear that the urgency of the moment superseded the time it would take for us to agree on what words to use to describe our strong condemnation of terror and violence against civilians,” Jayapal continued. “That’s why there were separate statements. My views then and now are largely shaped by my conversations with Jewish community members in Multnomah County.”

Jayapal’s response, which was more broadly worded and released the same day as the joint statement, denounced Hamas while expressing support for the bridge lighting as “a symbol of our absolute condemnation of violence in all its forms, and of our solidarity with the people of Israel in this moment of their grief.”

“My heart breaks for all those across Israel and Palestine who are living in a state of war and continued violence,” Jayapal said in her Oct. 12 statement, which did not mention the Holocaust or explicitly cite the Jewish community, “and for the loss and fear that all their families and friends here in Multnomah County are experiencing. It is unimaginable.”

“What I make of it is that she is running for Congress and is weighing the political implications of what she might say,” said a person familiar with some of the deliberations behind Jayapal’s recent comments on the Hamas attack, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “She was going to try very hard to issue a statement that she hoped would appease both sides.”

Despite her opposition to the board resolution, Jayapal insisted in a separate statement to JI last week that she had been “clear and consistent” about her support for lighting the bridge. “I said so from the dais in the public meeting, I said so in my statement afterwards, and I said so in local news interviews.”

Hannah Love, Jayapal’s campaign spokesperson, clarified in an email to JI that the former commissioner’s “position was that lighting the bridge was within the county chair’s authority, not the board’s.”

As Israel’s war against Hamas shapes the trajectory of several Democratic primaries across the country, Jayapal’s recent maneuvering — and the resulting fallout — underscores the perils some progressive candidates are now facing as they navigate a politically charged issue that is sowing increasingly sharp divisions among party members.

“There are strongly felt perspectives on both sides of the conflict here locally,” said Jake Weigler, a Democratic strategist in Oregon, speculating that Portland’s activist community may push candidates “to stake out a clear position that could then drive national groups to get more involved in the race.”

“What I make of it is that she is running for Congress and is weighing the political implications of what she might say,” said a person familiar with some of the deliberations behind Jayapal’s recent comments on the Hamas attack, who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “She was going to try very hard to issue a statement that she hoped would appease both sides.”

The Portland contest is among a few House races in the Pacific Northwest that Democratic strategists and Jewish activists in the region expect to draw spending from leading pro-Israel groups, even as they have yet to disclose their plans.

“There are strongly felt perspectives on both sides of the conflict here locally,” said Jake Weigler, a Democratic strategist in Oregon, speculating that Portland’s activist community may push candidates “to stake out a clear position that could then drive national groups to get more involved in the race.”

But while pro-Israel groups are already setting their sights on House races where far-left incumbents have been among the most strident critics of Israel, it is unclear how such organizations are assessing a growing number of open-seat races fueled by a new burst of impending retirements.

Democratic Majority for Israel is “closely” following the Portland race but is still weighing where it will direct its resources, according to a source familiar with internal deliberations. A spokesperson for AIPAC, meanwhile, said in an email to JI that the group is “in the process of evaluating congressional races” but has “made no decisions at this time.”

With six months to go until the May primary, the race is almost certain to draw more candidates, setting up a potential clash between “an anti-Israel progressive and a pro-Israel progressive,” as one pro-Israel leader in Portland who opposes Jayapal put it in a recent conversation with JI.

One likely candidate who could possibly gain traction within the pro-Israel community is state Rep. Maxine Dexter, who has been characterized as a pragmatic progressive but does not appear to have issued any statements on Middle East policy. In a recent email to JI, Dexter, who is expected to launch a campaign soon, said she has received “strong encouragement” to run and will be announcing her plans this week.

While Dexter did not address questions on her approach to Israel — and local Jewish activists surveyed by JI were unaware of her positions — Meieran said she is “excited about her potential candidacy.”

“I can’t speak to her views on Israel, but I was impressed that she attended an event hosted by Congregation Beth Israel in Portland last night to learn about the Zioness movement,” Meieran told JI on Saturday. “The focus was on intersectional identities and how standing up for social justice and Zionism are not mutually exclusive, but rather are inextricably linked. Showing up and being willing to listen and learn matters, now more than ever, and Maxine walks that walk.”

Eddy Morales, a Gresham City councilman with ties to national Democratic leaders, is also running for the seat held by Blumenauer — who has embraced more critical positions on Israel — for more than 25 years.

In an email to JI last week, Morales, who has visited a kibbutz that was targeted during the Oct. 7 attack, shared his own views on the Israel-Hamas war, which he addressed on social media days before Jayapal released her own statement.

A pro-Israel leader in Portland, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his privacy, said there is growing concern among other like-minded local activists that Jayapal’s Middle East policy positions “will not differ that much from her sister.”

“We must do everything we can to prevent any further atrocities and crimes against civilians, no matter what they look like or where they live,” he said. “Today, as people in Palestine and Israel mourn and seek safety, we must demand that our leaders support immediate steps to help those in danger, like continuing to bring hostages home, preventing and stopping massive civilian deaths and restoring food, water and electricity in Gaza.”

He added that the U.S. “must also demand long-term solutions for people of the whole region, whether they’re Palestinian or Israeli, and support those who simply want to live their lives and raise their families in peace.”

As the race unfolds, the pro-Israel leader in Portland, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his privacy, said there is growing concern among other like-minded local activists that Jayapal’s Middle East policy positions “will not differ that much from her sister,” who faced bipartisan backlash last summer for calling Israel “a racist state,” remarks she later walked back. The progressive leader also drew scrutiny on Sunday for comments that some House colleagues accused of equivocating over Hamas’ use of sexual violence against Israeli women.

For her part, Jayapal’s rhetoric as an aspiring congresswoman has been more carefully worded than that of her sister, who has endorsed her campaign. Still, her comments so far have indicated that they are aligned on hot-button issues including calls for a cease-fire and conditioning aid to Israel.

In a statement shared on social media last week after JI had reached out to her campaign for comment, Jayapal voiced hope that the now-broken truce between Israel and Hamas would be “a step towards a more long-term and mutual cessation of hostilities, or ceasefire.” 

During an interview with a local TV station last month, Jayapal, a former corporate lawyer, also suggested that she is in favor of reconsidering the continuation of U.S. funding to Israel, noting that she supports humanitarian and military assistance “where necessary and with appropriate conditions.”

Morales, for his part, did not address requests for comment from JI regarding his positions on such issues. Dexter declined to weigh in on specific policy questions until she makes a decision about whether to run.

The Jewish federation in Portland is planning to organize a forum to hear candidates’ views on Israel and other subjects of interest to Jewish voters in the coming months, according to a spokesperson for the organization.

Elizabeth Mazzara Myers, a Democratic strategist in Portland, said she assumes that the war in Gaza will “play a role” in the race, especially if candidates stake out contrasting views. “I expect many of the candidates in this district are going to be shades of gray in terms of progressive Democrat policy differences,” she told JI last week, “so that actually may be a space where there are differences.”

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