Since the 1970s, colorful murals — many of which convey social and political messages, ranging from support for indigenous movements in Central America to opposition to gentrification in San Francisco — have defined the visual culture and the built landscape in the city’s Mission district.
Clarion Alley, which stretches the length of a city block between Mission and Valencia streets, contains dozens of these murals. Among them is “Fresco of Arab Liberation” (also known as ‘Will to Live’), a work of social and political commentary in bursts of yellow and green, threatening high history.
Designed by local Arab activists and artists and unveiled in 2017, the mural was at the center of controversy this spring, when the San Francisco Public Library decided to include it in an exhibit at the main branch that was due to open. in March. But after library officials raised concerns about anti-Semitic content, the exhibit was suspended.
At the center of the controversy was a small phrase hidden in the lower right of the mural. He says, “Zionism is racism.
Asked about the controversy recently, Tye Gregory, executive director of the SF-based Jewish Community Relations Council, explained: “Zionism, the belief in Jewish self-determination, [is] neither more nor less racist than Japanese self-determination or Italian self-determination. For some reason, Israel and Zionism are the only entities that are called that. And that points to anti-Semitism.
The multimedia exhibition entitled “Wall + answer”, which included the controversial mural, was featured at online events in 2020 and 2021. Curators asked 16 poets to respond to four murals selected by Clarion Alley Mural Project, the collective that supports the site of art. A portfolio of the murals and poems has been planned alongside the public readings at the Main Library on Larkin Street.
When CAMP pitched the project to the library’s exhibits team in December, it was accepted, both parties said. The library has begun working with the collective in preparation for the March opening.
But when the works arrived at the library, the exhibitions team “had the opportunity to examine the work more carefully” and “[t]The phrase ‘Zionism is racism’ stood out,” the SFPL said in a statement to J. emailed by spokeswoman Kate Patterson on July 19.
“The slogan ‘Zionism is racism’ is widely considered anti-Semitic,” the SFPL said. “And staff were concerned that if displayed in an open public space, it would cause harm to members of our community and library workers.”
In its statement, the SFPL said “CAMP was encouraged to review the Library’s exhibition policy and guidelines” as part of the application process. They “declare that the Library has final authority over the review, selection, and arrangement of all exhibits at the San Francisco Public Library” and that it “reserves the right to reject any portion of a exposure or change the display mode”.
In a letter of June 23, the ACLU challenged the decisions made by the SFPL, saying they raised “serious First Amendment concerns.” The letter, written by the staff lawyer Hannah Kieschnick of the ACLU of Northern California, urged the library to “reverse” its decision and proceed with the exhibit as planned.
The “Arab Liberation Mural” was created by activists from San Francisco’s Arab Resource and Organizing Center and its youth arm, Arab Youth Organizing, as well as local and international artists, according to CAMP.
The work includes portraits of five Arab rulers, some living, some dead. Among them are Mehdi Ben Barka, a Moroccan activist who challenged French occupation, and Naji Daifullah, a Yemeni immigrant to the United States who organized farmworkers with César Chávez in the late 1960s and early 1960s. 70.
The mural also depicts Rasmea Odeh and Leila Khaled, aging former Palestinian activists who participated in violence targeting Israeli civilians. Odeh was convicted of aiding in the 1969 Jerusalem supermarket bombing; Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a US-designated terrorist group, participated in the hijacking of two commercial planes in 1969 and 1970. Khaled is celebrated, CAMP says in a description of the mural, as someone who “engaged in direct action that raised awareness of the plight of Palestinians on an international platform”. (Khaled sparked controversy at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University in recent years.)
In the foreground of the mural, a sea of people walk towards the viewer. Some hold up protest signs, including “No war! “Sanctuary for All” “Stop Urban Shield” and “Zionism is Racism”.
The library said it has discussed alternative solutions with CAMP to allow the exhibit to continue. A suggestion was made to “Photoshop” the phrase “Zionism is racism”. That idea was suggested by CAMP co-director Megan Wilson, according to the library, but Wilson disputed that the suggestion was made seriously. The library thought it was a good compromise, however, and said CAMP would be allowed to show “an unedited image of the mural” during a March 13 reading. It would also make the entire unedited exhibit available to the public in the library. special collections.
Wilson later told the library that the suggestion to remove the phrase “Zionism is racism” was “sarcastic,” according to the SFPL statement to J. Wilson, who did not respond to a request for interview of J., would say in blog posts and public letters stating that she, along with more than 30 CAMP board members and artists affiliated with the organization, rejected any suggestions for revising the exhibit and accused the library of censorship and silencing Palestinian stories.
“Zionism is a political ideology, which is used to defend an apartheid state,” she wrote in a statement with co-curator Maw Shein Win, a poet. “It is not a race and/or ethnic community, and to understand it as such is disrespectful to Jews and all communities that criticize and do not support the apartheid State of Israel.”
In a March 10 open letter To library officials, Wilson and the more than 30 artists and activists affiliated with CAMP accused SFPL of violating the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, specifically rules protecting intellectual freedom. The policy states: “In developing library exhibits, staff members should strive to present a wide range of opinions and a variety of viewpoints. Libraries should not hesitate to develop exhibits because of controversial content or because of the beliefs or affiliation of those whose work is represented.
The ACLU’s letter further galvanized movement among local activists to pressure the SFPL to change course. an AROC petition calling on the library to reinstate the exhibit had 1,674 signatures as of August 12.
“This mural has been a landmark for the community for over four years,” the petition reads. “Zionism is the official ideology of Israeli apartheid. This phrase captures the experiences of Palestinians and others struggling against Israel’s apartheid and colonial violence.
AROC, which supports boycotts of Israel, did not respond to a request for an interview with J.
Ultimately, groups supporting the mural refused to revise “Arab Liberation Mural” by removing the phrase. On May 6, City Librarian Michael Lambert, the SFPL’s top official, met with representatives of AROC, which “refused to accept a compromise that would remove ‘Zionism is racism,'” the court said. library. “Therefore, we could not proceed with the exhibition.”
“The library has and will continue to include Palestinian voices and organizations in its programs,” the library added, mentioning an AROC poster included in a 2021-22 exhibit titled “monsters and heroes” and the recent exhibition “Home Away From Home: Little Palestine by the Bay”.
“Wall + Response” is held for public viewing upon request in the Library’s Special Collections. The mural remains on display in Clarion Alley, which sees hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, according to CAMP. (This is one of the few murals in Clarion Alley that deals with the subject of Israel. A few feet away is a mural announcing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and a third depicts a Palestinian child throwing stones on tanks outside Jerusalem. Others say “Free Palestine” or criticize Zionism in passing, without becoming a focal point of the work.)
In its press release, the SFPL recalled its power to approve or reject exhibits. He said endorsement of the ‘Arab Liberation Mural’ would ‘set a precedent that would justify the exposure of other viewpoints that harm minority communities and identities based on race, gender, national origin , sexuality or religion”.
JCRC’s Gregory agrees.
“It’s not OK, if you’re trying to build an inclusive city, to have these kinds of messages on our walls,” he said. “It’s definitely not something that Jewish residents of San Francisco would feel comfortable having in the library.”