The Arab Liberation Mural in the Mission District's Clarion Alley was created by activists with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Arab Youth Organizing and local and international artists. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
The Arab Liberation Mural in the Mission District's Clarion Alley was created by activists with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Arab Youth Organizing and local and international artists. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

How a dispute over a ‘Zionism Is Racism’ mural derailed an S.F. public library exhibit

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Since the 1970s, murals bursting with color — many carrying social and political messages, from supporting Indigenous movements in Central America to opposing gentrification in San Francisco — have defined the visual culture and built landscape in the city’s Mission District.

Clarion Alley, which runs the length of a city block between Mission and Valencia streets, contains scores of such murals. Among them is “Arab Liberation Mural” (also known as “Will to Live”), a work of social and political commentary in bursts of yellow and green, looming a story high.

Designed by local Arab activists and artists, and unveiled in 2017, the mural was at the center of a controversy this spring, when the San Francisco Public Library decided to include it in an exhibition at the main branch that was slated to open in March. But after library officials raised concerns about antisemitic content, the exhibit was put on hold.

At the center of the controversy was a small phrase tucked away in the bottom right-hand side of the mural. It says: “Zionism Is Racism.”

Asked recently about the controversy, Tye Gregory, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, explained, “Zionism, the belief in Jewish self-determination, [is] no more or less racist than Japanese self-determination, or Italian self-determination. For some reason, Israel and Zionism are the only entities that are called out in this way. And that points to antisemitism.”

The mixed-media exhibit titled “Wall + Response,” which included the controversial mural, was presented in online events in 2020 and 2021. Exhibit curators asked 16 poets to respond to four murals selected by Clarion Alley Mural Project, the collective that supports the art site. A portfolio of the murals and poems was planned alongside public readings at the Main Library on Larkin Street. 

When CAMP proposed the project to the library’s exhibitions team in December, it was accepted, both parties said. The library began working with the collective in preparation for the March opening.

But when the works arrived at the library, the exhibitions team “had an opportunity to scrutinize the artwork more carefully” and “[t]he phrase ‘Zionism is Racism’ stood out,” the SFPL said in a statement to J. emailed by spokesperson Kate Patterson on July 19.

“The slogan ‘Zionism is Racism’ is widely considered to be antisemitic,” SFPL said. “And staff was concerned that, if put on view in an open public space, it would cause harm to members of our community and library workers.”

In its statement, SFPL said “CAMP was encouraged to review the Library’s Exhibition Policy and Guidelines” as part of the application process. They “state that the Library has final authority over the review, selection and arrangement of all exhibitions at the San Francisco Public Library” and that it “reserves the right to reject any part of an exhibition or to change the manner of display.”

In a June 23 letter, the ACLU took issue with decisions made by the SFPL, saying they raised “serious First Amendment concerns.” The letter, written by staff attorney Hannah Kieschnick of the ACLU of Northern California, urged the library to “rescind” its decision and proceed with the exhibit as planned.

The “Arab Liberation Mural” was created by activists with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center of San Francisco and its youth arm, Arab Youth Organizing, along with local and international artists, according to CAMP.

French-speaking tourists visit Clarion Alley in the Mission on Aug. 8, 2022. Left: a mural with the colors and shapes of the Palestinian flag. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
French-speaking tourists visit Clarion Alley in the Mission on Aug. 8, 2022. Left: a mural with the colors and shapes of the Palestinian flag. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

The artwork includes portraits of five Arab leaders, some living, some dead. Among them are Mehdi Ben Barka, a Moroccan activist who challenged the French occupation, and Naji Daifullah, a Yemeni immigrant to the U.S. who organized farm workers with César Chávez in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The mural also features Rasmea Odeh and Leila Khaled, aging former Palestinian militants who participated in violence targeting Israeli civilians. Odeh was convicted for aiding a Jerusalem supermarket bombing in 1969; Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a U.S.-designated terror group, participated in the hijacking of two commercial airliners 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 about the plight of Palestinians on an international platform.” (Khaled has been at the center of controversies at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University in recent years.)

In the mural’s foreground, a sea of people march toward the viewer. Some are holding up signs of protest, including “No War!” “Sanctuary For All” “Stop Urban Shield” and “Zionism Is Racism.” 

The library said it discussed alternative solutions with CAMP to allow the exhibit to proceed. A suggestion was made to “Photoshop out” the phrase “Zionism Is Racism.” This 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 project “an unedited image of the mural” during a reading on March 13. It would also make the entire, unedited exhibit available for public viewing in the library’s special collections.

Wilson later told the library the suggestion to remove the phrase “Zionism Is Racism” was “sarcastic,” according to the SFPL’s statement to J. Wilson, who did not respond to a J. request for an interview, would say in blog posts and public letters that she, along with more than 30 CAMP board members and artists affiliated with the organization, rejected any suggestion to revise the exhibit, and accused the library of censorship and silencing Palestinian narratives.

“Zionism is a political ideology, which is being 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 an ethnic community, and to understand it as such, is disrespectful to Jewish and all communities who are critical of and do not support the apartheid State of Israel.”

In a March 10 open letter to library officials, Wilson and the more than 30 CAMP-affiliated artists and activists accused the SFPL of violating the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, specifically rules protecting intellectual freedom. The regulations state: “In developing library exhibits, staff members should endeavor to present a broad spectrum of opinion and a variety of viewpoints. Libraries should not shrink from developing exhibits because of controversial content or because of the beliefs or affiliation of those whose work is represented.”

The ACLU letter further galvanized the 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 Aug. 12.

“This Mural has been a landmark for the community for over four years,” the petition says. “Zionism is the official ideology of Israeli apartheid. This phrase captures the experiences of Palestinians and others struggling against apartheid and Israel’s settler-colonial violence.” 

AROC, which supports boycotts of Israel, did not respond to a J. request for an interview.

Ultimately, groups backing 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 from AROC, which “declined to entertain a compromise that would remove ‘Zionism is Racism,’” the library said. “Therefore, we could not proceed with the exhibit.”

“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 & Heroes and the recent exhibit “Home Away From Home: Little Palestine by the Bay.”

“Wall + Response” is being kept 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. (It’s one of a handful of murals in Clarion Alley that engage the topic of Israel. A few feet away is a mural advertising the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and a third depicts a Palestinian child throwing rocks at tanks outside Jerusalem. Others say “Free Palestine” or critique Zionism in passing, without becoming a focal point of the artwork.)

In its statement, the SFPL pointed to its authority to approve or reject exhibits. It said approving “Arab Liberation Mural” would “set a precedent that would justify the exhibition of other viewpoints harming 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 certainly not something Jewish residents of San Francisco would feel comfortable seeing walking into the library.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.