Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protesters face off outside of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, June 6, 2024. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel protesters face off outside of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, June 6, 2024. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Protesters face off outside as art exhibit debuts at Contemporary Jewish Museum

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Updated June 8

Pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel demonstrators clashed Thursday evening in the plaza outside of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco, as inside hundreds of visitors got their first glimpse of the controversial, new exhibit California Jewish Open.

Activists with California Jewish Artists for Palestine (CJAFP) and allies waved Palestinian flags and chanted slogans including “CJM, pick a side, justice or genocide” and “Occupation is a crime, from S.F. to Palestine.” They also distributed flyers to passersby demanding that the CJM call for a permanent cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war and join the cultural boycott of Israel.

“CJM, you do not represent us, you do not represent Jews and people of conscience,” Steph Kudisch, an artist and CJAFP organizer, said in a microphone while facing two long lines of guests waiting to pass through metal detectors and enter the museum. “We call on you today to wake up!”

At one point, a handful of people who said they had come to view the exhibit on opening night attempted to interrupt the protest. They waved Israeli flags and played Israeli music through a handheld speaker. After several minutes, a San Francisco police officer approached the group and told them to move.

A member of that group, which included French-speaking Jews, shared a video with J. of a person wearing a “Custodial Staff” T-shirt and lanyard around his neck confronting a pro-Israel demonstrator. He can be seen taking swipes at the demonstrator’s phone as they record the video, flashing his middle finger and saying “F—ing Israeli” before walking into the museum.

CJM executive director Kerry King said in a statement sent to J. that he was a temporary worker for the museum’s custodial contractor and was immediately removed from the event.

“As an organization, we support the right to protest and free speech, and did not disrupt the planned event,” King said of the CJAFP protest, which was advertised as a “family friendly art action” and included music and art-making activities for children. “Both our community celebration and the protest action on Jessie Square proceeded peacefully and respectfully for the duration of the evening.”

California Jewish Artists for Palestine holds a protest outside of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, June 6, 2024. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
California Jewish Artists for Palestine holds a protest outside of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, June 6, 2024. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Meanwhile inside the museum, exhibiting artist Vanessa Thill altered her piece on the spot in an act of solidarity with the CJAFP artists, and in defiance of CJM guidelines. Thill broke off a section of her hanging, mixed-media sculpture, titled “Cleave-To (His Cheeks Were Beds of Spices),” and recited Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, alongside other artists in the second-floor gallery.

“With this crack, may we crack open empire,” Thill announced later to the demonstrators outside. “It’s not a contradiction to be a Jewish artist who believes in ‘Free Palestine.’”

In a phone interview on Friday morning, Thill, 33, explained that she recited Kaddish for specific Palestinian artists who have died in Israeli airstrikes or in Israeli custody, including painter Heba Zagout and writer Walid Daqqa, and for an elderly Israeli man who died in Hamas captivity, Amiram Cooper, a founder of Kibbutz Nir Oz. (The circumstances of Cooper’s death have yet to be confirmed.)

“I felt the murmur of the sound of the prayer echoing in the room, and you could tell people could hear it,” said Thill, who lives in Richmond and identifies as anti-Zionist. “It felt like a somber moment.”

It was the first time an artist has altered their own work while it is on view at the museum, according to King. She said the museum will leave the piece up.

Another artist participating in the exhibit, Ash Hay of Santa Rosa, announced to the protesters that they had altered the wall text describing their trio of pieces. CJM said Hay revised the text during the curatorial process, which is standard, and not at the opening.

In April, six anti-Zionist artists withdrew work that had been accepted into the open-call exhibit after the museum said it could not or would not meet their list of demands, which included full control over wall text and the ability to alter or remove their works at any time. (A seventh artist not affiliated with CJAFP pulled out separately without making any demands.) Senior curator Heidi Rabben and guest curator Elissa Strauss decided to leave blank spaces where those pieces would have hung.

Blank spaces where the withdrawn art would have appeared were marked with placards describing the reason for the blank space. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)
Blank spaces where the withdrawn art would have appeared were marked with placards. (Photo/David A.M. Wilensky)

On Thursday, fashionable museum guests came from across the Bay Area for a community celebration with the exhibiting artists. Shosh Blachman and Joel Biatch, a married couple from Berkeley, told J. they had never seen blank spaces for withdrawn art before.

“I appreciate the [artists’] desire to be silent,” Biatch said. Blachman added, “We rely on artists to provide social commentary, and it’s too bad that these artists were unwilling to let their work be included in the exhibit. It was a kind of self-censorship on their part.”

Laura Puras, who has a video piece in the exhibit, called the opening “a real lovely gathering of community and art, with much enthusiasm from the artists and friends.” The Palo Alto resident said it was unfortunate that the controversy surrounding the exhibit had overshadowed the artists’ “awesome” work.

“The museum did a great job, both in curating the show and in navigating the controversy,” said Puras, whose “Muted Tefillah: A Body Piece” explores prayer rituals.

Back outside, Kudisch, Sophia Sobko and Ava Sayaka Rosen introduced themselves as artists who had withdrawn pieces from the exhibit. The crowd cheered for each.

Speakers from CJAFP, Jewish Voice for Peace Bay Area and SFMOMA Workers for Palestinian Liberation addressed the crowd, as did an artist who altered their work as part of an action at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in February. (The Jewish CEO of YBCA resigned soon after the action.)

“I’m here not in spite of being Jewish, but because I’m Jewish,” Micah Bazant, a CJAFP member, said. “Zionism is a racist, colonial ideology that is used to justify apartheid and genocide.”

Kate Laster, another group member, said, “We do this out of love and solidarity.”

In anticipation of the opening of the new exhibit and the protest, which was advertised in advance on social media, CJM posted a statement to its Instagram account on Wednesday. The statement included a call for the return of Israeli hostages and “an end to the ongoing violence against Palestinian civilians.”

Despite the sometimes chaotic atmosphere, Thill described the CJAFP action as joyful. “I felt genuinely happy for the first time in a while,” she said. “I’ve never felt so held by such a nuanced and warm community.”

California Jewish Open will be on view through Oct. 20.

This article was updated to clarify that artist Ash Hay altered the wall text for their pieces before the opening.

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.