Berkeley City Hall. November 6, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

The Berkeley rent board passed a resolution condemning the Israeli government’s attempted eviction of Palestinians from land in Sheikh Jarrah.

The resolution, which the board approved this month, has been cheered by some as promising support of Palestinians, reviled by others who think the board is veering out of its lane by commenting on international policy. The ending of the resolution calls for the condemnation of Israel.  

“WHEREAS, the organizations and individuals perpetrating the evictions in Sheikh Jarrah are by their own admission undertaking these actions to convert the neighborhood from majority Palestinian to majority Jewish, in what amounts to a campaign of ethnic cleansing, meaning the political domination of a territory by one ethnic group over another through forced removal … ”

Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board

The resolution is, for supporters and the board member who drafted it, a welcome political statement against Israeli oppression of the Palestinians in the veins of other stands Berkeley city leaders and its residents have made against unjust regimes for decades.

Rent Board Commissioner Soli Alpert led the effort for the city’s 41-year-old board, which “provides tenants with increased protection against unwarranted evictions and is intended to maintain affordable housing and preserve community diversity,” to take a stand against the removal of Palestinians from their homeland. He said he started thinking about it during the clashes between Israel and the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank during a near-war between the two factions in May, and June’s meeting was the first opportunity to bring the issue up in front of the rent board. It was an issue that took more than an hour and a half of public comment and plenty of behind-the-scenes staff time to address.

“The direct connection to the city of Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board is housing,” said Alpert, who is Jewish. “These are the definition of evictions, and they aren’t really evictions. They’re really just property seizures. The city of Berkeley, in general, has a long history of standing up for human rights around the world and this is a part of that tradition.”

It is true that the city of Berkeley adopted some of the toughest anti-South African measures in the nation in the 1980s to protest South African apartheid, including divestment in South African products which led to billions of dollars of California pension funds being pulled out of the country.

The effort of Alpert and the rest of the rent board’s members was applauded by many people in the city and who attended the meeting, noting this condemnation is similar to the stands the city has taken against injustice in the world.

“I do feel it’s really important to speak to the Palestinians,” said Berkeley resident and landlord Ellen Brotsky, a volunteer with Jewish Voice for Peace. “I and so many other Jews in Berkeley are delighted that the board has passed this resolution.”

Brotsky and other pro-Palestine supporters call the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, including forced evacuations from property and military strikes, “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.” This resolution is not an anti-Semitic move, Brotsky noted, rather a move against the aggression of the Israeli state. 

Supporters say United States taxpayers’ money goes toward the Israeli government.

“It’s our money and our power that allows Israel to occupy the Palestinian territory. I think we have an obligation as Americans to respond,” Alpert said.

The city’s rent board, with its mission to keep tenants from being unfairly evicted and to stabilize rents in a city with widespread homelessness, is a wholly appropriate place to take this stand, Alpert and Brotsky said, their views echoed by dozens of speakers at the board meeting.

“It’s a nonbinding, symbolic resolution,” Alpert said. “We don’t do it every day but we certainly do it. There is no part of our society that doesn’t have full responsibility for human rights.” 

Yet there are also many people who think the rent board acted out of its purview spending time and city resources on a purely symbolic declaration at the exact time with potentially disastrous post-pandemic evictions loom as people owe tens of thousands of dollars in back rent, and the homelessness crisis has the potential to get worse, not better.

“I’ve been involved in Berkeley politics for 25 years and I’ve never seen a resolution coming out of the rent board like this,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who represents District 6, which includes the Berkeley Hills. “The rent board has a very specific responsibility and that is to make sure that tenants and landlords are treated fairly. There are a lot of important things that the rent board has to do now that we are coming out of COVID-19. I think it’s beyond their authority to be passing resolutions like this.”

Wengraf said the Berkeley City Council has a little bit more ability to take stances on international issues but it has chosen not to do that now because they are trying to deal with the very difficult challenges of the COVID-19 fallout. 

Wengraf suggested the rent board might be wise to follow the council’s lead amid COVID-19 in focusing on more local issues, rather than “international politics, over which they have no influence or authority.”

“I think a lot of people have lost faith in the rent board because they think the rent board isn’t paying attention to what they were elected to do. It reflects very poorly on an elected body when they do something like this.” 

Rabbi Joshua Ladon, a Berkeley resident who spent nearly a decade in the early 2000s in Israel trying to understand Palestinian voices in occupied Palestine by gaining rare access to the West Bank and Gaza, likened the rent board’s declaration to something that would be published by the satirical news organization The Onion.

“There’s something in the symbolic resolution that becomes a spectacle and may do things domestically or in Berkeley that is really quite divisive,” Rabbi Ladon said.  “I want Berkeley to be better. I want Berkeley to aspire to be this city that takes seriously the moral obligation of living in a moral society. It’s not just a stay in your lane; it’s actually don’t lose sight of the deep, significant, important issues that are challenging for Berkeley today.”

Ladon added: “I understand the Jewish world has quite a range of commitments and understandings. At some point the participation of elected officials in activities which call out the activities of others … at times, that’s important and impactful but this didn’t seem like one of those times.”

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Laura Casey is a freelance writer covering Berkeley and the East Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has written for a number of local publications. She is also a full-time investigator at an East Bay law...