Arreguin speaking at a podium
Berkeley mayor Jesse Arreguin at Fearless Cities International Municipalist Summit in Barcelona, June 9, 2017 (Photo/Flickr-Sylvia Fredriksson CC BY 2.0)

Berkeley mayor objects to appointment of Bazian to city commission

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin is not pleased with the appointment of controversial UC Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian to the city’s Peace and Justice Commission, saying Bazian is not qualified to serve as a public official because of his “anti-Semitic statements and actions.”

Hatem Bazian
Hatem Bazian

Arreguin said he is frustrated he doesn’t have the authority to block Bazian’s appointment, which was made in September by City Council Member Cheryl Davila, but vowed to oppose Davila’s nomination of Bazian as her standby officer in case she is unable to serve during an emergency or disaster.

“There’s documentation showing things he has said that are very offensive and inappropriate and anti-Semitic,” Arreguin told J. “And on that basis, I think it’s a very serious issue about whether this person should be in public office.”

Arreguin pointed specifically to a pair of cartoons that Bazian retweeted in July 2017. One of the cartoons showed a Jewish man raising his arms in celebration above the caption: “I can now kill, rape, smuggle organs & steal the land of Palestinians.”

Bazian, the founder of American Muslims for Palestine, was criticized by the UC Berkeley administration, which determined the cartoons “crossed the line” into anti-Semitism. Bazian apologized and deleted the images.

Bazian, also a co-founder of Berkeley-based Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim undergraduate college in the U.S., responded to Arreguin’s comments yesterday by referring J. to a letter he wrote to Berkeley City Council members in September.

In the letter, Bazian said he mistakenly retweeted “an image that was offensive and disrespectful to members of the Jewish community” after not carefully reading through it.

“The tweet itself is not defensible and does not add to understanding any of the issues related to the Palestine-Israel conflict,” he wrote. “I am deeply sorry for causing pain and anguish to the Jewish community and for lack of careful examination on my part of the specifics of the image and text included.”

Three Berkeley rabbis were among Jewish community members who objected this summer to Bazian’s nomination as a standby officer. Rabbis Yoel Kahn of Congregation Beth El, Chai Levy of Congregation Netivot Shalom and Yonatan Cohen of Congregation Beth Israel said in a letter to Arreguin that they oppose Bazian’s appointment.

“Prof. Bazian has a history of encouraging and personally engaging in speech which is offensive, uncivil and encourages demonization of others, including many citizens of Berkeley,” the letter said.

Bazian’s approval as a standby officer for Davila is pending. Arreguin said he and Council Member Susan Wengraf on Sept. 13 proposed tightening the qualifications required of such officers. Among the changes he would consider, the mayor said, is disqualifying anyone who has made “racist, sexist or anti-Semitic statements.”

Standby officers are selected to serve temporarily during an emergency or disaster if an elected official has been killed or seriously injured, or is missing. Currently, the only qualifications are that they do not have a financial conflict of interest, and have not been convicted of bribery or malfeasance in office.

“These are people representing the people of Berkeley,” Arreguin said. “And people that have made divisive or discriminatory statements, should they be in a position of public trust? I severely doubt that.”

The Peace and Justice Commission is a 15-member board that advises the city council and school board as well as developing educational programs to enhance citizen awareness of issues.

As a member of the city’s Human Welfare and Community Action Commission in 2015, Davila presented a resolution calling for Berkeley to consider divesting from some companies doing business with Israel. Davila was removed from the commission for six months for proposing that resolution.

Arreguin said city commissions have been used in the past as forums for push for foreign policy agendas, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that such boards “should focus on peace and justice issues in the city of Berkeley.”

Davila did not respond to an email seeking comment on Arreguin’s statements.

Though he cannot remove Bazian from the Peace and Justice Commission, Arreguin said he will make sure that the commission doesn’t become a forum for anti-Israel action.

“Certainly, if he pushes forward proposals to the city council on divestments or other issues challenging the state of Israel, I will oppose those actions,” the mayor said.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.