To the great relief of campus Jews, the unveiling of a controversial mural at San Francisco State University’s Student Center on Nov. 2 proved to be more of a cultural celebration than yet another rally against Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian territories.
The mural — more than two years in the making — shows Palestinian American scholar Edward Said in the foreground with numerous symbols of Palestinian culture and history in the background.
“We’re happy that the unveiling of the mural occurred so smoothly,” said David Schneider, assistant director at S.F.’s Anti-Defamation League. “We’re thrilled there were no anti-Semitic or anti-Israel remarks made.”
About 300 people attended the two-hour unveiling ceremony, which Jewish Studies professor Marc Dollinger described as “dignified.”
Palestinian students spoke from the podium about feeling proud of their heritage. They expressed gratitude for support from the university and general community.
“I believed the political environment was too divided and too discriminatory,” said Nasser Halteh, a 2007 graduate and active member of the General Union Palestine Students (GUPS) and the mural committee. “But culture defeated politics, and today we celebrate.”
In addition to the many speeches, the ceremony featured the debkah folk dance troupe Al Juthoor, hip-hop group Arab Summit and the Dance Brigade, an interpretive dance troupe that aims to highlight the complex problems of contemporary American women.
A group of about 20 Jews — including students, professors and community leaders — met at Hillel before the unveiling and stood together at the event. Ken Kramarz, director of campus advancement for Northern California, briefly spoke to the group before they walked to campus.
“Our role here is to take the high road,” he instructed. “I don’t expect something will happen, [but] if it does, let’s keep the peace. Shalom bayit.”
SFSU’s mural-proposal process wasn’t always so lengthy. But since 1994 — when a Malcom X mural was unveiled with the addition of anti-Semitic symbols (obviously not approved) — university officials have refused to approve any mural with imagery that celebrates one culture at the expense of another.
Given the emotional, politically fraught nature of Israeli-Palestinian relations, the approval process was particularly long this time around. Several students at the ceremony admitted that they never thought they would see the mural on display in their lifetime.
“The process was very hard and very painful and very rewarding,” said Jackie Hussary, a member of GUPS and the mural committee.
The mural went through several drafts before it was approved. An early version featured Handala — a Palestinian cartoon character some people claim is a symbol of violent resistance — holding a key in his hand. Campus Jewish groups claimed this was a veiled reference to Palestinians’ right of return to Israel and the destruction of the Jewish state.
In August, Palestinian students agreed to remove Handala and the key. That was the final step in getting the design approved by campus officials.
Sonia Nimr, a professor of history at Birzeit University near Ramallah, congratulated students on the mural’s completion, but also talked about the challenges of living in the West Bank.
“Occupation is more than just bullets and bombs, though it is that [as well],” she said. “Occupation is worrying every morning when I take my son to school and wondering if he will come back or not.
“Occupation is a constant effort by Israelis to make us feel estranged from our homeland. But homeland is not only geography. It can be here,” she said, pointing to her heart.
Kramarz spoke with Palestinian and Jewish students after the ceremony. One Palestinian, who lived in Gaza until recently, told Kramarz that the mural ceremony was the first time since 2000 that he had attended a party with food, dancing and music.
During a Shabbat dinner held at Hillel later that evening, Kramarz said most of the Jewish students who attended the ceremony found it to be an interesting, peaceful display of Palestinian culture.
“I think they felt happy for their fellow students,” he said. “I think they felt like this creates an opening to have a meaningful exchange with Palestinian students.”