One of these murals is not like the others. Guess which one.
The General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) at San Francisco State University is asking people to sign a petition to urge the SFSU president to approve what could be the first Palestinian mural on a college campus in the United States. The mural, which celebrates the great Palestinian scholar Edward Said and other elements of Palestinian culture, would join the other murals above that honor Cesar Chavez and Malcolm X, as well as Filipino and Asian Pacific Islander communities.
In a February 7 open letter to conservative columnist Debra Saunders about free speech issues at the school, SFSU school newspaper editor Ian Thomas wrote:
Last summer the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) completed the process to send a mural to President Robert Corrigan for final approval. Associated Students Inc. had approved the mural through a democratic student government process by a 6-2 vote.
Corrigan blocked the mural from going up by immediately placing a moratorium on all new murals, stating the mural is “conflict-centered” and it “runs counter to values that we hope have taken deep root at San Francisco State, among them, pride in one’s own culture expressed without hostility or denigration of another.”
In an October meeting Corrigan reportedly called mural supporters “bigots,” which is the same term some people give to say… the Minutemen, which the Repubs have also rallied for on campus. [X]press supports this expression as well.
A character in the mural, “Handala,” by acclaimed Arab cartoonist Naji al-Ali is shown holding a pen and a key. The key represents the Palestinian “right of return” to what they deem their homeland. Some say that “right of return” represents the destruction of Israel. Through research and interviews I have found that Handala is a refugee child and is a used in many different contexts, depending on the specific use and the viewer. He is normally depicted as poor, with his hands held behind his back, sometimes he is shown throwing rocks.
The General Union of Palestine Students writes:
After over a year of painstaking efforts by the mural committee to follow the established process, the President of San Francisco State University, Robert A. Corrigan, prematurely denied the mural just before the final stage. It is 2007 and the mural is in jeopardy and needs your immediate help The SF State president, Robert Corrigan claims the mural represents a “culture of violence” and is “hate to Jews.” He is saying that the Palestinian house key and Handala are offensive but he does not explain why or what to support his claim.
He allowed other murals up on the Cesar Chavez Student Center, such as the Malcolm X mural, the Cesar Chavez mural, the Filipino Mural, the Pan Asian and Pacific Islander Mural, which depict struggles of refugees and colonialism, (http://www.sfsustudentcenter.com/about/murals.php) however the administration has been trying to stop our mural since day one before they knew anything about it.
SFSU newspaper editor Thomas goes on to say:
In my opinion the story…started when Corrigan limited the free speech of GUPS and the democratic process of ASI. What is he teaching us? I, and many on this campus, posit that Corrigan has set a poor example by limiting expression when he and/or his advisers didn’t like what the mural had to say.
So what exactly is it about the image of the Handala, the small boy with a red shirt in the right side of the mural, holding a traditional Palestinian key in one hand and an ink pen in the other, that is so offensive? Why has Corrigan unilaterally decided to halt the mural because of these “hostile” images?
One clue can be found in this op-ed published in the Bay Area’s Jewish newspaper J back in October. The executive director and board president of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council write approvingly of Robert Corrigan’s move in SFSU president keeping Jews safe with mural censure:
The proposed Palestinian mural focused on the life of Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor, and incorporates numerous symbols of significance to Palestinians. Permanent murals at SFSU are expected to focus on the ethnic American experience and to express pride in one’s culture.
At first glance the mural appeared to be relatively benign. Upon closer examination, however, it was clear that symbols of political resistance and hostility to Israel had been included, with enormous potential to create a divisive atmosphere on campus. While there were several troubling symbols, two stood out as explicitly offensive — an image of a key with the Arabic term “return” representing the purported Palestinian “right of return” and the concomitant destruction of the state of Israel, and a cartoon-like character known as “Handala” holding a sword. Handala has been used by Palestinian artists to represent active and often violent resistance against Israel.
Yitzhak Santis, JCRC’s Middle East Affairs Director, did invaluable research on the significance of these two symbols and why they would, as permanent fixtures on the side of a public building, send a chilling message to Jewish students and all on campus who support Israel’s rights. In short, the Palestinian key is more than just a key, just as a conical hat on the top of a man dressed in white robes is more than just a hat.
In fact, the key represents the many keys and deeds still held by Palestinians who left behind their homes and their belongings in 1948, with suitcases in hand, assuming they would be returning shortly. It represents not just the lost of their homes, but the loss of their homeland.
But in this op-ed, the symbolism of the key is unsubtly compared to the KKK, because the mere evocation of that history threatens Jews and the existence of Israel. By this reasoning, Palestinian students should equally never be forced to endure an image of an Israeli flag because it would send a “chilling message” to them about the displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 to make way for the State of Israel, and the ensuing repression experienced since 1967 by those living under an illegal occupation.
Hastings law professor and Palestinian American George Bisharat has written extensively about his own family’s experience in a cosmopolitan pre-1948 Palestine, both befriending and even protecting Jews, and then being displaced by the early Zionist military that took their home and thousands of others belonging to Palestinian families. With laser clarity, in this essay originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, he gets to the heart of the mural controversy, and the attempt to deny Palestinian memory or resistance to occupation and exile in any form:
A recurrent theme, however, even among the most compassionate, was the assertion that, in resolving issues between Palestinians and Israelis, “We cannot go back to the past,” and indeed, that we Palestinians must forget the past.
It struck me as ironic that such an admonition could issue from people whose claimed attachment to Palestine goes back 2,000 years. What this says is that who can remember, and who can be made to forget, is fundamentally an outgrowth, and an enactment, of power.
Viewed in this way, our remembering, is a form of continuing resistance to the defamation and erasure of our history.
But remembering Talbiyeh of the pre-1948 period is more than a form of resistance. Recalling that era, and the people it produced, involves envisioning a possibility for another future. Talbiyeh was a place of tolerance, compassion and enlightenment, its sons and daughters cosmopolitan, broadminded and welcoming.
In recalling and claiming this heritage, we are also promising that when Israelis are ready to recognize Palestinians in their full humanity, as no lesser beings than themselves, we will be there, in all our ingenuity, imagination, strength and, ultimately, even love.
To forget this rich legacy, then, is to deny our humanity, to negate our identity and to abandon a future in which Christians and Muslims are equal to Jews.