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CEO of Popular California Cultural Center Quits Over Antisemitic Climate

The Jewish interim CEO of a prestigious arts center in San Francisco is resigning from her position, calling her decision “a direct result” of antisemitism she has experienced in the wake of a protest by pro-Palestinian artists on exhibit.

“For me as an individual, the last weeks have been excruciating. Not just as a leader, but as a Jewish leader,” Sara Fenske Bahat wrote in a March 3 resignation letter. She added that she felt unsafe in the museum she led, which has been closed for nearly a month following the artists’ protest.

Bahat posted her resignation letter on LinkedIn on Thursday, writing in a post, “While this was long in the cards, in the last few weeks, the climate around Israel-Palestine in the Bay Area became untenable.”

The controversy at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which has drawn criticism from local officials, is the latest in turmoil roiling the arts and culture world since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

Across the country, pro-Palestinian creatives have taken to increasingly militant tactics in their efforts to protest what they characterize as inappropriate support for Israel by institutions with which they are associated.

Yerba Buena erupted as a frontier on February 15 when a group of eight artists on exhibit altered their works to add pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel messages such as “Ceasefire” and “Stop Funding Genocide.” They demanded that the center join a larger movement to boycott Israel and remove all “Zionist board members and funders.” The protest was organized in part by the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace.

In response, the museum closed its galleries, issuing a statement condemning the language used by the artists as “neither productive nor tolerable” and saying it would not agree to “discriminate on the basis of religion, ethnic background, or national origin.” 

The board of directors also said that “our hearts break for the tragic loss of innocent life in Palestine and Israel,” and promised to reopen the exhibit. The board said it would begin conversations with the artists by the end of the week, while emphasizing that the artists violated their agreements with the museum by altering their works. 

But the planned reopening didn’t happen. Days after that statement, Bahat, who has run the center on an interim basis since 2022, told the artists that their work would soon be taken down, according to Bay Area public radio station KQED. Her request to meet with the artists individually was rebuffed by the collective, which reportedly insisted on a group meeting instead. That still hasn’t happened, according to the artists. 

The museum has yet to reopen at all to the public, and the artists have accused Yerba Buena of censorship and called for a boycott of the center. A group of at least 15 museum employees and hundreds of cultural figures signed an open letter in support of the artists, demanding that the museum “call for a permanent and unconditional ceasefire,” sign onto the Israeli boycott pledge, apologize to and reinstate the affected artists, and address the museum’s “legacy of extraction from Indigenous communities.” 

All of this has made it impossible for Bahat to continue to lead the institution, she wrote in her letter. 

“The vitriolic and antisemitic backlash directed at me personally since that night nearly three weeks ago has made being here intolerable,” she wrote. “I no longer feel safe in our own space, including due to the actions of some of our own employees.”

She suggested that following the artists’ demands to boycott Israeli artists and cultural centers would be “not only illegal, and in violation of our lease agreement (let alone our mission), it is immoral for an organization that believes the arts are a pathway to bettering and connecting individuals and society.” The museum is publicly funded by the city of San Francisco.

“I am horrified by the suffering of Palestinians. I disagree with the government of Israel on many fronts,” Bahat wrote. “It is a human tragedy on an unfathomable scale when thousands of people anywhere in our world are dying. No matter where they live, what they believe, or how they identify.”

She added, “At the same time, I know many in the YBCA community strongly believe Israel has a right to exist, and ‘for all’ includes us.”

In her letter, Rahat suggested that the artists protesting the museum would take her resignation as a victory. But an organizer of the protest, Paz G, told KQED that they were instead “disappointed.”

Paz G said, “As a collective we firmly believe in transformative justice, and are really sad to hear that resigning and relinquishing all responsibilities was the CEO’s only response.”

A spokesperson for the museum told KQED it does not have a new interim CEO in place yet, and that it has no current plans for when it will reopen. The local government has also gotten involved since Bahat’s resignation, with San Francisco County Supervisor Hillary Ronen recently calling for a special hearing into the museum’s decision to close and calling its actions censorship.

“Instead of making room for perspectives of these artists, YBCA, which promoted the exhibit as showcasing diverse voices, responded alarmingly by shutting down the exhibit,” Ronen said during a Board of Supervisors meeting the day after Bahat’s resignation. “These actions translate into no field trips for our high school students and canceled film, dance and art performances for the public at large. It is also concerning to me that all the censored artists are people of color.”

In a statement on Wednesday, the museum’s board thanked Bahat and said it had accepted her resignation. The board also reiterated its decision to keep the museum closed and to reject the protesters’ demands, saying, “We will not address a reasonable aspect of someone’s act while ignoring the hateful aspects.”

Since the outbreak of the war on Oct. 7, Israel-related protests have also occurred at the literary free-speech group PEN America, which saw an event disrupted by pro-Palestinian authors; at the New York Jewish cultural institution 92NY, where staff resigned after leadership canceled an event featuring an author who had signed a letter critical of Israel; at the art magazine Artforum, and the Berlin Film Festival; and at an art museum at Indiana University, which cited safety concerns when canceling a planned exhibit of a Palestinian artist who compared Gaza to Auschwitz.

https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/article-790973