Berkeley City Councilmember Cheryl Davila speaking at a press conference about homelessness in Berkeley, Dec. 2016 (Screenshot/YouTube)
Berkeley City Councilmember Cheryl Davila speaking at a press conference about homelessness in Berkeley, Dec. 2016 (Screenshot/YouTube)

Berkeley city councilmember accused of firing commissioner who failed Israel litmus

A member of the Berkeley City Council has been accused of applying a political litmus test regarding support for Israel to a sitting Berkeley commissioner, who was dismissed when he did not provide a sufficient answer.

According to a Dec. 14 article in Berkeleyside, Cheryl Davila, elected to the City Council last year, last month dismissed Transportation Commissioner Ben Gerhardstein after he declined to state a position on whether Berkeley should divest from companies that do business with Israel.

Gerhardstein, who was appointed to the commission by former Councilmember Daryl Moore, provided Berkeleyside with an email chain backing up his assertion.

“You indicated that a non-transportation issue was important to you in selecting a transportation commissioner,” Gerhardstein wrote to Davila on Nov. 27, after he had been removed from the commission. “During our first meeting, you noted that as a Human Welfare and Community Action Commissioner you authored a recommendation to Council to divest from companies benefiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, which raised your profile.

“You said that the issue was important to you and you asked whether I was pro-Palestinian (and supported divestment) or a Zionist. You noted that you were asking all potential District 2 commissioners this question and suggested that you were only interested in appointing divestment supporters to commissions.”

In a written response to the Berkeleyside story, Davila did not dispute the charge, but framed it as an attack on Palestinian rights. “Every council member replaces the appointees of their predecessor,” she wrote. “That’s standard practice in Berkeley politics, and this is no different. [Gerhardstein] is one disgruntled guy, who disagrees with my position on Palestine. For this to be considered newsworthy is another reflection of the ongoing suppression campaigns to smear anyone who supports Palestine. The campaign to silence support for Palestinian rights is how I came to be a councilmember in the first place.”

Davila is an outspoken proponent of BDS (the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel). According to the City of Berkeley’s published record of campaign contributions, her campaign drew financial support from local anti-Israel activists U.C. Berkeley lecturer and SJP founder Hatem Bazian (currently under fire for anti-Semitic tweets from earlier this year), Barbara Lubin of the Middle East Children’s Alliance, and Donald Wagner from Friends of Sabeel. While serving as a member of the city’s Human Welfare and Community Action Commission in 2015, Davila sought to pass a Berkeley City Council resolution supporting divestment from Israel. The resolution was defeated by a vote of 5-2.

Davila did not respond to J.’s request for an interview.

Ilana Kaufman, the East Bay-based Public Affairs and Civic Engagement Director for the Jewish Community Relations Council took note of the Berkeleyside story, and said in a written statement: “Councilmember Davila’s publicly stated goals are to create unity, support affordable housing, treat homelessness and mental health with compassion, ensure positive youth engagement, expand sustainable environmental practices, and increase economic suitability for all. These are important goals for District 2 and vital civic priorities for the entire city. However, we know enough to be deeply troubled and encourage the Berkeley community to pay attention to what happens in City Hall, and how it happens, and to find meaningful ways to get more involved, including by serving on commissions or running for office.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.