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San Francisco library cancels exhibition over 'Zionism is racism' phrase

While the library deems the phrase 'Zionism is racism' as harmful, organisers and community members disagree
The Arab Liberation Mural features five Arab leaders and includes the phrases: 'Stop urban shield'; 'Sanctuary for all'; 'No war'; and 'Zionism is racism' (Clarion Alley Mural Project)

It began with a mural in 2017.

Five years ago, the "Arab Liberation Mural" went up in San Francisco's Clarion Alley. It was made in partnership with the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (Aroc) and created by community organisations like the Clarion Alley Mural Project and artists and Jewish allies who wanted to honour Arab, Muslim and migrant histories and their struggles against racism and xenophobia.

The mural features five Arab leaders including Rasmea Odeh, Mehdi Ben Barka, Nagi Daifullah, Leila Khaled and Basel al-Araj. 

To 'censor a beautiful, powerful mural showing Palestinian resilience' is upsetting

- Khadija Awad, Palestinian student

The project also has an audio programme where people can hear interviews and descriptions of each person portrayed. The mural features statements like “Stop urban shield”, “Sanctuary for all”, “No war”, and “Zionism is racism".

The latter would become a problem five years later.

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Now, the San Francisco Public Library is under heat for censoring the "Arab Liberation Mural" and their arguments that the phrase "Zionism is racism" is antisemitic and harmful. 

In March, the Clarion Alley Mural Project organised "Wall + Response" in collaboration with local poets and organisations, and featured poems responding to the political, social and racial justice narratives depicted in four murals in Clarion Alley.

The project was scheduled to be featured in the Bay Area's main library branch on 12 March and would have public programming throughout the summer, CBS reported

But one week before the event was scheduled to begin, the San Francisco Public Library told the organiser that the "Arab Liberation Mural" had to be removed. 

After much back and forth, the library told the organisers that they were willing to proceed with the mural if the statement "Zionism is racism" was taken out.

"The slogan, 'Zionism is racism,' is widely considered to be antisemitic 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," the library's statement said. 

The organisers refused to remove the statement so the library decided to cancel the entire exhibition. People are calling it censorship, but the library disagrees. 

"The decision to ask the organisation to consider an alternative presentation of the work was not predicated on favouring one group’s viewpoint over another’s, as the library does not advocate or necessarily endorse the viewpoints of exhibitions or exhibitors," a spokesperson for the San Francisco Library told MEE.

"The library has and will continue to include Palestinian voices and organisations in its programs. As recent as this winter, the main library showcased a poster by the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC) as part of its Monsters & Heroes exhibition.

"The library also recently presented two exhibitions, Home Away From Home: Little Palestine by the Bay and Born among Mirrors, both of which shared stories and perspectives from the Palestinian community. The Special Collections and History Center retains a copy of the Wall + Response folio, which is now available for public viewing." 

'An honest phrase'

The library argues that as a public institution, they have the power not to showcase things they deem as harmful. But to organisers and Arab residents, the phrase "Zionism is racism" isn't harmful at all. 

"Very simply put, the library censored the voices of working-class Arab youth in San Francisco and its decision worked in the interests of apartheid-apologists," Lara Kiswani, the executive director of Aroc, told MEE.

"Zionism is racism. Israelis who occupy Palestine are very clear on this. The ideology that is motivating colonisation, segregation and violence against Palestinians is Zionism. Historically, architects of racist policies and institutions rarely outright say their actions are racist.

"The defenders of apartheid South Africa (including US presidents) would argue that apartheid is not racist. Defenders of Jim Crow would argue it is not racist. Trump and his white supremacist followers, would argue that they are not racist," Kiswani said.

"Our hope, and really our assumption, is that public institutions like the San Francisco Library would be a natural space for education on Zionism, its impacts on the world, and to build solidarity with those impacted. That is what this mural was about. That is what we thought the library was for."

According to Christopher Statton, the co-director of the Clarion Alley Mural Project, the mural was chosen because of the way it fit into the Wall + Response exhibition, highlighting communities that have experienced oppression or have not had their stories told in the mainstream.  

Statton believes art plays a role in creating discussion. And not allowing this mural to be presented at the library is harmful. 

“Those discussions might be difficult, they might be messy. And we might not all land on the same agreement. But one of the reasons we insisted on keeping ‘Zionism is racism’ is because it’s an important piece of the mural,” Statton explained. 

“It's important for the discussions around what that phrase is saying, but also in respect to the artist, that if we edit the artist's work, then we are no longer exhibiting their work as they intended.”

Libraries as sanctuaries

Khadija Awad is a Palestinian student in San Francisco. She told MEE she had been following the mural story since March and explained how the library is the best part of any community. And for them to “censor a beautiful, powerful mural showing Palestinian resilience” is upsetting.

“I have seen the mural multiple times. It’s even more beautiful in real life than it is in pictures. But libraries also serve as sanctuaries,” she said. “It’s hard to understand why a library would have such a big problem with such an honest phrase. 'Zionism is racism' is not anti-Semitic.”

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged the cancellation of the mural exhibition, citing First Amendment concerns. According to a letter sent by the ACLU to the San Francisco Public Library, it said: "Public libraries play a special role in the education of community members and the free exchange of diverse ideas and information.

"That role is severely undermined when a library devalues certain viewpoints over others. I urge you to rescind your decision to cancel the Wall + Response exhibition and to instead use the exhibition as an opportunity to foster open dialogue about the perspectives expressed in the Arab Liberation Mural."

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Ellen Brotsky, from Jewish Voice for Peace - San Francisco, said the library was taking a position in support of Zionism by its censorship. "San Francisco is a city where so many progressive Jews, both anti-Zionists and non-Zionists, view Israel as an apartheid state that is racist in ideology and practice towards Palestinians. By its actions, the library is taking a position in support of Zionism," she told MEE. 

For Kiswani, the mural sends a message of solidarity, community power and self-determination. All things that she believes are key issues at this time and key issues in San Francisco. 

"The fight to defend the exhibit is indicative of the uphill battle communities of colour face in San Francisco. And the solidarity of the muralists, artists and communities involved reflects the world we are fighting for," she said.

"It is the height of irony that an art project designed to highlight and resist repression being faced by racial justice movements would be the subject of racist censorship."

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