The Berkeley City Council reluctantly discussed a controversial appointment by Cheryl Davila on Tuesday, July 24. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley City Councilwoman Cheryl Davila’s appointment of a controversial professor as her emergency replacement officer prompted an impassioned discussion — and a debate about Israel and Palestine — at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Davila has nominated Hatem Bazian, Zaytuna College co-founder and UC Berkeley lecturer, to serve as her emergency standby officer. Each City Council member appoints up to three such proxies, who are prepared to step in temporarily during emergencies and disasters if the elected official has been killed or seriously injured, or is missing.

Bazian, who leads an Islamophobia research initiative at UC Berkeley and teaches Islamic law and society at Zaytuna, has faced criticism for tweets and statements considered by many to be anti-Semitic.

Last fall, he retweeted a pair of memes, including an image of a gleeful Hasidic Jewish man with the caption, “Mom, look! I is chosen! I can now kill, rape, smuggle organs & steal the land of Palestinians *yay* #Ashke-Nazi.” The other image showed North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in a yarmulke, standing in front of nuclear weapons and boasting that he just converted the country to Judaism so he could legally use the nukes and receive aid from the U.S.

Bazian apologized for retweeting the images, telling the Daily Cal he had not noticed the “extremely offensive” image of the Hasidic man, and saying he had not read the Kim Jong-un caption carefully, and had meant to take aim at Israel, not Jewish people. He deleted the retweet.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, critics also brought up a comment Bazian reportedly made at a rally as a graduate student about 15 years ago, where he said, “Take a look at the type of names on the buildings around campus — Haas, Zellerbach — and decide who controls this university.”

At the Tuesday meeting, Davila asked why her appointee had not been approved yet. Mayor Jesse Arreguín explained that some nominees were still undergoing background checks, and other pieces of the appointment process were being reconsidered. He and other council members had wanted to postpone the item until September.

Davila said the bureaucratic hold-up was an excuse to delay or prevent the approval of Bazian, as some appointees have been confirmed while others’ background checks were still pending in the past.

The council is engaged in “shenanigans,” Davila said. Bazian is a “prominent member of the community” but “he happens to be Palestinian, and I believe that’s the issue here,” she said.

Councilwoman Lori Droste told Davila it was Bazian’s controversial history that would prevent her from voting in support of the appointment.

“I received several emails about your appointee and some of the anti-Semitic behavior he has engaged in,” Droste told her colleague. “I just want to be honest and frank with you. He has tweeted some photos mocking Jews, and that’s why I wouldn’t be able to vote for him.”

Concerns about Bazian’s statements and tweets might not be enough to stop his appointment, however. Arreguín told the council they could not legally vote against a standby officer appointee because of the person’s political opinions or background.

Bazian did not respond to requests for an interview.

Members of the public lined up Tuesday to both blast Davila’s choice and defend the professor.

Two Jewish women commented that they’ve worked with Bazian and know him to be respectful of Jewish residents.

“It’s been a big surprise to me,” said a member of Jewish Voice for Peace about the controversy surrounding Bazian’s appointment. “There’s a lot of confusion I think, between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, and not that sometimes the two of them aren’t mixed, but very often they’re very different. I am an anti-Zionist Jew. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as being able to be a Jewish state and a democracy, in the same way as I don’t believe the United States can truly be a democracy if it’s considered a Christian country.”

Speaker Wendy Kenin said Bazian’s retweets and statements were not simply critical of Israel.

“That’s not anti-Zionist, that’s anti-Jew,” she said of the “Ashke-Nazi” hashtag. “This city is becoming more and more hostile against Jews, and it’s coming from our leadership now…we don’t even have a chance to speak up for Palestinian rights as Jews because we get attacked all the time just because we have an affinity with our ancestral land as well.”

Councilwoman Cheryl Davila said she believes she’s under “an orchestrated attack” by her fellow council members. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Some speakers and officials questioned why standby officers are allowed to live outside districts they’re in line to represent. According to speakers Tuesday, Bazian does not live in Davila’s West Berkeley District 2. Arreguín said that the”legitimate” question was one reason to postpone a vote on Davila’s and others’ appointees until the council had more time to consider the issue.

Some officials expressed frustration that the council had taken so much time discussing a non-urgent matter that was clearly not going to approved Tuesday night.

All members of the council, except Davila, ultimately voted to move the item to a September meeting.

The appointment of Bazian is not the first time Davila has drawn attention over other issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has been active in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement for several years.

In late 2017, a Darryl Moore appointee accused Davila of kicking him off the city’s Transportation Commission because he didn’t pass a litmus test of hers requiring all appointees to be pro-Palestine and support the city’s divestment from companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation, which she had proposed in 2015. Other Davila commissioners told Berkeleyside they did not feel they had faced the same ultimatum, but that Davila had also brought up Israel and Palestine in their interviews too.

Davila herself was appointed by Moore to Berkeley’s Human Welfare Commission & Community Action in 2009, but the former councilman removed her in 2015 over, he said, her handling of the Israel divestment proposal. Bazian wrote a letter in Davila’s defense at the time. The incident prompted her to run for Moore’s seat, which she won in 2016. Bazian contributed to her campaign.

In April, when Bazian invited Haneen Zoabi, the first Arab woman elected to the Israeli Knesset, to speak at a conference at UC Berkeley, Davila hosted a reception for her at City Hall.  Some pro-Israel advocates criticized Davila for having an event with the politician, who is outspoken in her belief that Israel is a fascist country and American Jews should oppose it.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, one speaker accused the council of “ganging up” on Davila over a minor matter, and the councilwoman appeared to agree.

Davila shared an anecdote about a city staffer who recently asked her if she knew there was “an orchestrated attack” against her.

“I said yeah,” Davila said. “I wanted to put that into the record.”

One speaker Tuesday, Kelly Hammargren, herself an emergency stand-in for Kate Harrison, noted that, regardless of the outcome of Bazian’s appointment, people on opposite sides of the ages-old, entrenched conflict in the Middle East are probably not going to come to an agreement on the Berkeley City Council dais or through the public-comment microphone.

“It’s a sensitive issue. We’re not going to solve it here,” she said.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...