Rabbi Dev Noily (center) with members of Jews on Ohlone Land in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco on Feb. 12. (David A.M. Wilensky)
Rabbi Dev Noily (center) with members of Jews on Ohlone Land in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco on Feb. 12. (David A.M. Wilensky)

Jewish activists for indigenous rights take issue with CJM’s Levi Strauss exhibit 

It was opening night for the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s new exhibition, “Levi Strauss: A History of American Style,” celebrating the Jewish icon who built a clothing empire in the years following the Gold Rush. Hundreds mingled and noshed inside, perusing famous denim garments, vintage ads and archival photos. Meanwhile outside, members of the group Jews on Ohlone Land held up a banner for exhibit-goers to see as they entered the museum: “The Story of the Gold Rush Is a Story of Indigenous Genocide.”

The exhibit, which had its opening-night event Feb. 12, includes a dose of nostalgia for the Gold Rush. The goal of the gathering outside was to remind exhibit-goers that the Gold Rush was also a stage in the destruction of Northern California’s indigenous population, including the Bay Area’s Ohlone people.

“As a community of Jews with genocide in our history, we know how important it is to tell stories of genocide,” said Rabbi Dev Noily of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, one of the founders of Jews on Ohlone Land. “We want to make the story of indigenous peoples more visible.”

The Gold Rush period, which was kicked off by a Native American man’s discovery of gold at Sutter Mill, saw enslavement, kidnapping, displacement and murder of thousands of Native Americans. According to historians, the indigenous population of California declined from 150,000 in 1850, the year California became a state, to 30,000 in 1870. In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom formally apologized to California indigenous peoples on behalf of the State of California.

About 40 people gathered in a circle in front of the museum. They read from accounts by indigenous people and listened to a radio interview with East Bay Ohlone activist leader Corrina Gould talking about the Gold Rush and its impact on indigenous people.

RELATED: Colorful exhibit shows how Levi’s jeans became an American icon

“We also discussed what their story means for us as Jews, living in a diaspora as immigrants to this place, but trying to make it our own,” said Ariel Luckey, co-founder of Jews on Ohlone Land.

There were no Ohlone people at the museum, but that was part of the point, said Laura Callen, a member of Jews on Ohlone Land. “This gathering is specifically for Jews. It’s about Jewish people speaking to Jewish people,” she said.

Before the Levi Strauss exhibit opened, Jews on Ohlone Land contacted the Contemporary Jewish Museum to express concerns that the exhibit would valorize the Gold Rush without taking into account the harm done to native communities during that period.

It was a friendly exchange, according to Noily, and one that will continue after the Levi Strauss exhibit is over.

“We are aware of concerns that narratives about the American West often omit the story of the immense suffering of indigenous people,” said a statement from the museum. “While the subject of the exhibition is the blue jean and Levi Strauss, a Jewish immigrant who built an iconic company headquartered in San Francisco, the CJM’s presentation also explicitly acknowledges the dark and tragic aspects of American history during the gold rush-era, most notably the genocide of Native Americans.”

Indeed, wall text in one part of the exhibit notes that the history of Levi’s is “intertwined with many of Manifest Destiny’s problematics — including colonialism, the genocide of Native Americans, and the exploitation of Chinese labor in developing the country’s railroads.”

Books on Levi’s and the history of the region available at the museum include “The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area.”

Books on display at the Contemporary Jewish Musuem's Levi Strauss exhibit include one history of Bay Area indigenous peoples. (David A.M. Wilensky)
Books on display at the Contemporary Jewish Musuem’s Levi Strauss exhibit include one history of Bay Area indigenous peoples. (David A.M. Wilensky)

Lori Starr, executive director of the CJM, included a “land acknowledgement” in her remarks at the exhibit opening. “The Museum acknowledges that it is on the traditional lands of the Ramaytush Ohlone People of Yelamu, and pays respect to elders, both past and present, of the Ohlone people,” she said.

A growing trend, land acknowledgements are offered at the beginnings of events to recognize the indigenous peoples of the places where events are held. In one of the most prominent examples, Taika Waititi, a director of Jewish and indigenous New Zealand heritage, offered one at the Academy Awards just a few days earlier.

On the whole, interactions between members of Jews on Ohlone Land and opening-night attendees were friendly. Some knew each other, waving hi as they passed. In one notable exception, one museumgoer shouted mockingly at the demonstrators, “We took the land and we keep it! We took the land and we keep it!”

Some museum patrons took pamphlets or stopped outside for a moment to hear why the group was there. Inside, some could be heard discussing what they had learned.

“Our intention was to be respectful and engaging. This was not a protest,” Luckey said, adding, “We accomplished what we set out to do. We held a public space to hear and share the darker side of the history of the Gold Rush.”

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky