A passerby inspects the “Stop the Genocide in Gaza Now!” mural in San Francisco's quiet Noe Valley neighborhood, Nov. 1, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
A passerby inspects the “Stop the Genocide in Gaza Now!” mural in San Francisco's quiet Noe Valley neighborhood, Nov. 1, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Mural calling to end ‘genocide’ in Gaza roils S.F. neighborhood

The first time the “Stop the Genocide in Gaza Now!” mural was defaced, someone painted “Stop Hate” and “10/7/23” on it in red spray paint.

The second time, someone added the words “by Hamas” to the artist’s message — with the new, implied message being, “Stop the Genocide by Hamas Now!”

The third time, someone used white paint to obscure large sections of the mural, including the figures of a Palestinian family clutching each other in a pile of rubble and looking up at a bomb falling on their heads.

As Israel wages war against Hamas after the terrorist group massacred 1,400 people in southern Israel and took around 240 hostages on Oct. 7, another kind of battle is taking place more than 7,000 miles away — this one over a piece of provocative street art in a typically quiet San Francisco neighborhood.

The Gaza mural has divided the residents of Noe Valley since it appeared in mid-October on the facade of a mixed-use building on 24th Street, a high-traffic area with cafés, salons and boutique shops. Many residents have embraced it, turning it into a memorial for the Palestinian civilians who have died in the war by placing flowers and electric candles on the ground in front of it.

Others, including the unidentified person or persons who defaced it, oppose its presence.

Rabbi Gedalia Potash of Chabad Noe Valley said the mural is “quite upsetting” to the members of his synagogue and preschool community. Rafael Mandelman, whose San Francisco Board of Supervisors district encompasses Noe Valley, said he has received “many” calls and emails from concerned residents and is looking into whether the mural violates any permitting or other city rules.

“As a Jew with relatives in Israel and family, including a grandfather who died in the Holocaust, I have my own feelings about the language and imagery of the mural,” he said in a statement. “That said, Noe Valley is home to people with relatives on all sides of this conflict.”

On Nov. 2, a mural that says "Stop the genocide in Gaza now!" in San Francisco's Noe Valley neighborhood was vandalized for the third time. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
The mural by Chris Gazaleh, as seen on Nov. 2, has been defaced three times. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Beyond accusing Israel of carrying out a genocide in Gaza — more than 10,000 people have died, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry — the mural raises other challenging questions: Is it art or antisemitic propaganda? Does a large mural depicting a scene of war belong in a neighborhood known for having lots of families with young children? And is it OK to deface public art if you disagree with it?

In interviews last week, several Jewish residents of Noe Valley told J. that the Gaza mural tests their liberal values. They argued that it contains antisemitic imagery, pointing out that the bomb above the Palestinians’ heads is decorated with a modified version of the Israeli flag in which the Star of David has been replaced with a dollar sign. (The words “Made in U.S.A.” also appear on the bomb, a reference to the billions of dollars of military aid that Israel receives from the U.S. each year.)

“I love living here, and I love how much freedom of expression is valued in our city, but if it crosses a line into an antisemitic trope, then I have an issue with it,” said Jordi Pollock, who lives a few blocks from the mural with her husband and two children. “This mural is clearly antisemitic.”

Marc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, agreed with her analysis, saying the imagery references a myth advanced in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an antisemitic Russian hoax text. “By replacing the Star of David with a symbol for money, it resuscitates this awful antisemitic myth, implying that Jews and Jewish wealth are part of a sinister conspiracy to bring harm to the world,” he wrote in an email.

The muralist, Chris Gazaleh, is a Palestinian American artist and activist in his 30s who grew up in San Francisco and Dearborn, Michigan, according to SF Weekly. He has painted other Palestinian-themed murals in San Francisco and Oakland, including a 3,000-square-foot scene overlooking the U.S. 101 freeway in which Palestinians are shown climbing over the separation barrier that Israel constructed around the West Bank. He also sells “Free Palestine” T-shirts and hoodies on his website.

Gazaleh's mural overlooking the Market Street onramp to 101. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Gazaleh’s mural overlooking the Market Street onramp to 101. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

Each time his Gaza mural was defaced, Gazaleh posted photos of it on his Instagram account, which has 13,000 followers, and railed against “Zionists” and “ideologues” in bitter captions. He restored the mural after the first two defacements. He also added red paint resembling dripping blood to some of the letters.

On Monday, he posted the name and photo of the man he believes is responsible for the vandalism. “Anyone who defaces a mural saying stop a genocide deserves to face justice,” he wrote in a caption. (J. could not reach the man, and the posts disappeared from Gazaleh’s account after a few hours. He claimed that Instagram removed them.)

In response to an inquiry from J. about what he hoped to achieve by painting the mural, Gazaleh replied, “I just want people to know we are humans too. That’s all.”

Jordi Pollock (Photo/Courtesy)
Jordi Pollock (Photo/Courtesy)

Pollock studied art history as an undergraduate at Stanford and said she opposes the destruction of art on principle. But she also said she feels it was inappropriate for Gazaleh to erect a large piece of “propaganda” in a prominent location without the consent of the rest of the neighborhood. “It was put up with no warning, no dialogue and no way to follow up,” she said. “They wanted to cause a controversy.”

She added, “I have a ‘Bring Them Home’ sign in my window because I want to bring attention to [the hostages held by Hamas], and I want people to stop and think. But I’m not putting up anything with Islamophobia or something that would incur hate. That’s what I feel like this mural does.”

The uproar over the Gaza mural seems to be as much about its content as its location. In contrast to the nearby Mission District, which has a working-class vibe and a high tolerance for public expressions — from busking and preaching to painting murals and flying flags — Noe Valley is a more affluent, staid and, by San Francisco standards, remarkably pristine neighborhood. Its nickname is “Stroller Valley,” a nod to its high concentration of families, including many Jewish and Israeli ones. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg once owned a home there.

Leah, a Jewish physician who has lived in Noe Valley for four years and asked that her last name not be published for fear that speaking out could affect relationships with patients, said she experienced a range of emotions after seeing the mural, from anger to fear to concern that passersby will be misled by its message.

“If you took off the dollar sign, would the mural be OK then? I’m conflicted,” she said. “This idea that bombs are being dropped on cowering families and there’s no mention of why that might be happening is mis-education to me.”

She said she visited Gazaleh’s website because she wanted to learn more about him. “His beliefs are that Zionism is fabricated and that we’re colonists, and obviously we don’t agree with that,” she said. She also took exception to another of his San Francisco murals in which a Palestinian man is depicted preparing to throw a rock at an Israeli tank, with text reading “Resistance Is Justified When People R Occupied.”

“Art is beautiful and subliminal,” Leah said. “It’s different than yelling at a rally or just having a big sign with words. It penetrates deeper than words.” That’s why, she said, it’s important that people be able to choose when and where to encounter it.

Visitors to Clarion Alley, the famed art corridor one neighborhood over in the Mission that contains dozens of murals (including one by Gazaleh), can choose to go there to see art that pushes boundaries, she said. “But I can’t choose walking down my neighborhood street with my child, and that’s where the ethical question comes in,” she said.

Gabe, Leah’s husband, said he found the use of the word “genocide” and the dollar sign to be offensive. He described a recent confrontation he had with a person he believes is the property owner’s son outside of the building. “I told him I thought it was a hateful message and I don’t want to walk by it, and he told me to walk on the other side of the street,” Gabe said.

But he rejects the “just put your head down” approach to dealing with antisemitism. “We know where this road of antisemitism leads historically, and I think we just need to extinguish and not let this type of antisemitism fester,” he said.

The building at 4018-4020 24th St. is owned by Salameh Family Trust and has five units, according to public records.

Samir Salameh, an interior designer who is linked to the building on a rental website, did not respond to emails and a voicemail message seeking comment. In 2019, he told local news site Hoodline about his plans to open a Mediterranean restaurant in the building’s ground floor retail space that is now covered by the facade and mural.

“I’m a Palestinian gay man who’s been in the Bay Area since I was 2,” he said. “It’s in my DNA to be a gracious host and to make people happy. This street is my home, and I love it. I want to make it feel special, and [for] everyone to feel welcome.” The restaurant never opened.

On Thursday, just about everyone who passed the mural stopped for a moment to take a closer look. Someone had left a small sign reading “Free Palestine.” A Palestinian flag was flying outside a window on the third floor of the building.

Hector Perez, the manager of the Vive la Tarte café located next door, called the mural a “relevant and timely” piece of art. “I think it’s a good thing to talk about it, but is it going to add more conflict to the conflict?” he said.

A local hairdresser said the mural had brought a passerby to tears. “I don’t think they should put things up that are controversial,” she said.

Potash, the Chabad rabbi, said the muralist should make a new mural with Jewish artists “that reflects peace and harmony for all of us.”

Closeup of writing added on top of the defaced portion of the mural, Nov. 6 (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Closeup of writing added on top of the defaced portion of the mural. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

On Monday, the conflict over the defaced mural was still raging. Someone had written “Stop Killing Palestinian Children And Stealing Palestinian Land” on a section that had been covered with white paint. Another person added, “Please don’t kill children, Jewish OR Muslim. Pretty please?”

Nearby, a letter written by a group of Jewish residents was taped to a telephone pole. “We accept the valid rage of Palestinians, at a situation that is beyond their control,” it read. “It’s a situation to which Israel, many Arab nations, and many other world powers, including the U.S., have contributed. None of us wants Palestinian civilians to suffer. We do want to understand more fully the message you hope to communicate with your mural. We are bothered that others have defaced this mural. We prefer to communicate openly.”

It continued, “We only have hopes for peace if we can make peace ourselves, wherever we are — starting here, on 24th Street.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.