A bridge in white and blue

PHOTO: Members of Portland's Jewish community gather at Tom McCall Waterfront Park for a picture alongside the Morrison Bridge, illuminated in white and blue in solidarity with Israel after the Simchat Torah attacks. (Regina S. for Oregon Stands with Israel)

The Jewish Review
Across the globe in the days following the Simchat Torah terrorist attacks in Israel, civic monuments and government buildings were turned into illuminated displays of solidarity with Israel. Portland was no exception, with blue and white light bathing the support towers of the Morrison Bridge over the Willamette River. But the process to get there, and what came after, was hardly as simple as flipping a switch. 
It started shortly after the news of the attacks broke to the world. Antonel Urdes, an Israeli and member of the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel Advocacy Committee, was thinking about the illumination of San Francisco’s city hall and wanted to see if Portland could do something similar. He emailed city officials who replied that they couldn’t make that happen – they simply didn’t have the equipment. 
“But then they said, ‘you know, in the past, the bridge was lit up,’” Urdes recalled.
“The bridge” is the Morrison Bridge, built in 1958. Like most of Portland’s bridges, it is owned by Multnomah County. Its concrete piers are illuminated by 16 lamps, installed by the Willamette Light Brigade in 1987 and upgraded to LEDs in 2007. Willamette Light Brigade, a nonprofit organization that aims “enhance and beautify the city of Portland by lighting the bridges that span the Willamette River,” continues to operate the lights. Anyone can pay WLB to set the lights on the bridge to whatever color scheme they choose, but the county government has the authority to override WLB or its donors and dictate the colors of the bridge lamps. 
Urdes realized he had a friend who worked in the county’s government: Commissioner Sharon Meieran. A member of Congregation Beth Israel, Meieran is the board’s lone Jewish member. Urdes sent her a text Monday night after the Greater Portland Jewish Community Gathering in Solidarity with Israel.
“It was late; It was past 10 pm,” Urdes said.” “She said, ‘Can I just call you?’ I think it was close to midnight and she called me.”
They planned to submit a resolution to the Board of Commissioners that Thursday at their regular meeting, expressing solidarity with Israel and directing County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson to light the bridge in blue and white, the colors of the Israeli flag. Such a resolution needed three yes votes from the five-member Board. Urdes thought time was of the essence. 
“I said that I think we need to do it sooner rather than later,” he explained, “because I think that there’s a momentum to everything.”
Michelle Bombet Minch, the chair of JCRC’s Israel Advocacy Committee, was keeping in touch with Urdes throughout the process. On Thursday morning, she received a message from Urdes saying they needed two people to provide public comment to the Board of Commissioners meeting – which was about to get underway. Urdes had an unavoidable schedule conflict, so Minch took on the task.
“The problem is you normally  have to submit your request for testimony the Wednesday before,” she said. “This was Thursday morning, so we had missed the deadline.”
With Commissioner Meieran’s help to overcome technical difficulties, Minch was able to appear virtually for the public comment period alongside Israeli Deputy Consul-General Matan Zamir.
“Over 1,200 Israeli women, children, elderly have been killed, slaughtered, burned, and beheaded by Hamas terrorists,” Zamir told the Board. “Holocaust survivors, 85-year-old women in their wheelchairs were taken by Hamas terrorists into Gaza. It is very difficult for a person to digest, to comprehend what has happened on Saturday in Israel.”
“Israel is suffering tremendous loss. We are suffering deeply. This is our family, our friends,” Minch told the Commissioners. “At a time like never before, we need to know we have the support of our country and the people surrounding us.”
It was not Minch’s first time appearing in front of a public body, but this time was different – both in terms of immediate circumstance and the scale of events she addressed.
“When I give testimony, I usually write it out and read it out loud a few times,” she said. “And here I am in my pajamas. I went into the Zoom meeting and I was talking from the heart.”
The process did not become more streamlined after the public comment period ended. 
The Board spent most of its meeting discussing natural disaster mitigation plans, circling back around to discussing their response to the terror attacks at the end of the agenda. 
Commissioner Julia Brim-Edwards moved to direct Pederson to light the bridge for seven days, while Meieran proposed a statement condemning the attacks in addition to the bridge lighting. 
Pederson said that she would be lighting the bridge, a move that was within the purview of the County Chair as the county’s chief executive officer, which she saw as rendering Brim Edwards’ proposal moot. The commissioners debated for over an hour on the issue, eventually not voting on Meieran’s proposal and voting down Brim-Edwards’ motion three to two; Meiran and Brim-Edwards in favor, Pederson and Commissioners Lori Stegmann and Susheela Jayapal in opposition. 
“I feel like it would be tone-deaf not to acknowledge our community members who are Palestinian or Middle Eastern,” Stegmann said. “While this is a horrific act that has been committed, there has been a long-standing conflict of colonization and displacement of Indigenous people.”
Jews are indigenous to the area.
Stegmann suggested that those interested review information from Amnesty International and Democracy Now to learn more about the conflict. Amnesty International accuses the State of Israel of apartheid and war crimes. Democracy Now is a left-wing media outlet that has also accused Israel of apartheid. 
”I don’t think I can acknowledge loss of one group when there are Palestinian lives being lost as well,” Jayapal said. “I think it’s very difficult to draft this kind of amendment in the moment.”
Later that day, Pederson ordered the bridge to be illuminated in solidarity with Israel for five days, beginning Oct. 12; a 14-day lighting for Breast Cancer awareness sponsored by the Pink Lemonade Project was cut short. 
Pederson, Meieran and Brim-Edwards issued a statement that day, saying “We know the situation in the Middle East is complex and nuanced, and this statement does not reflect our individual or collective views on the broader history and the suffering of the people in the region. But we cannot stand silent in the face of the deadliest day for Jewish people since the Holocaust. We stand for peace.”
The county also issued statements from Jayapal and Stegman. 
“I unequivocally condemn Hamas’s appalling terror attack on Israel. I support lighting the Morrison Bridge as a symbol of our absolute condemnation of violence in al its forms, and of our solidarity with the people of Israel in this moment of their grief,” Jayapal’s statement said in part. “No single statement can capture the complexities of the region’s history and current situation. What is clear is this: all people deserve to live in peace, safety and freedom.”
Stegman also condemned the attacks by Hamas. 
“Multnomah County is home to individuals and families with connections to both Palestine and Israel,” she said. “While the future remains uncertain, collective efforts toward liberation and justice can cultivate hope, drive impactful change, and ultimately pave the path toward peace.”
Minch and Urdes were happy with the outcome of the process. Both are active in Oregon Stands With Israel, a grassroots effort that has sprung up in the wake of the Simchat Torah attacks to organize support for Israel in the area. A large group hired a photographer to capture them in front of the illuminated bridge one evening. Urdes said Israelis living in Hillsboro would drive into Portland at night to take selfies next to the bridge, and people headed to the airport would snap pictures from their car windows to send to friends in Israel. 
“At the end of the day, I didn’t care exactly how it was done. I was just very happy to put it there,” he said. “It means everything for a lot of people.”
“We accomplished the goal, which was to get it lit up,” Minch said. 
But just as the process wasn’t smooth, neither is it over. Two days after the Board of Commissioners meeting and her initial statement, Pederson directed that for the next five-day block, Oct. 17-21, the bridge would be illuminated in all white “representing our collective call for peace.”
“In recent days, we have seen tremendous harm and suffering inflicted on the Palestinian population in Gaza by the Israel Defense Forces, including the terrifying call to remove more than one million people from northern Gaza with only 24-hours notice,” her statement read.
“It was sort of a veiled attempt, in my opinion, to not support Israel,” Minch said.
Oregon Public Broadcasting later reported that bridge operators, who are employees of the county, asked through their union that the county change its policies regarding the lights on the bridge. OPB’s story also indicated that a bridge operator refused to work a scheduled shift to protest the lighting of the bridge in solidarity with Israel.
“We are writing to request that in the future you refrain from using the bridges for any political displays that might cause moral offence [sic] to the operators working there, or which might cause them to feel unwelcome in their workplace, or which might make the bridges or the operators a target for political violence,” the operators’ letter, delivered through AFSCME Local 88, said.
Text messages to Commissioner Meieran were not returned as of press time. 


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