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What Does “From the River to the Sea” Really Mean?

Dear Reader,

Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American member of Congress, for “promoting false narratives” about Hamas’s October 7th attack and for “calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.” The censure came in the wake of Tlaib saying that “the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions . . . can lead to resistance.” Instead of hearing Tlaib’s remarks as a diagnosis of the root cause of the violence, her fellow members of Congress were quick to frame them as a defense of terrorism, with 22 of Tlaib’s Democratic colleagues joining Republicans in approving the censure. And in a reprise of what seems to have become an annual ritual, Tlaib was once again forced to argue on the House floor for her own humanity, and for the humanity of other Palestinians. It is difficult to watch Tlaib pleading with her colleagues year over year to see her, to acknowledge her truth. “The cries of the Palestinian and Israeli children sound no different to me,” she said yesterday. “What I don’t understand is why the cries of Palestinians sound different to you all.” She often delivers these speeches through tears. This time, she choked up after saying the words, “Palestinian people are not disposable,” prompting Rep. Ilhan Omar to stand at her side, placing a hand on her shoulder.

One of the key reasons members of congress gave for censuring Tlaib was her embrace of the popular protest chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which the censure resolution called a “genocidal call for violence.” However, as the Palestinian American writer and scholar Yousef Munayyer wrote in a 2021 article we are including below, this ascription of genocidal intent to the chant does not reflect the historical record. “There has never been an ‘official Palestinian position calling for the forced removal of Jews from Palestine,’” Munayyer wrote, citing the historian Maha Nasser. Instead, Munayyer argued,“‘from the river to the sea’ is a rejoinder to the fragmentation of Palestinian land and people by Israeli occupation and discrimination.” Observers have pointed out that the phrase “from the river to sea” is present in the founding charter for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, where it is used to refer to the breadth of all the land where Israel currently wields total control. To therefore call for freedom for all Palestinians on that land using the same words seems totally natural.

Still, those in power continue to insist that “from the river to the sea” is a genocidal chant, which—as Munayyer notes—testifies more to the racism and Islamophobia of the listeners than to any unified or vested interpretation. Such racism was on plain view during this week’s censure process. Less than 24 hours after an anguished Tlaib told her colleagues that “the refusal of Congress and the administration to acknowledge Palestinian lives is chipping away at my soul,” her colleague, Jewish American Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (from my home district in South Florida), said that a representative who refuses to back a resolution supporting Israel’s war “doesn’t have a soul.”

The utter dehumanization inherent in a statement like this is astounding. Would a Palestinian American have to be soulless to not want to vote for the deaths of her family and friends, 30 days into a bombardment campaign that has taken the lives of 10,000 people, virtually all of them civilians and half of them children? Why is there no ability to put oneself, even for a moment, in her position? Such a failure betrays a deep racism abetted by a collective narcissism, which I wrote about earlier this year, when Rep. Tlaib’s colleagues tried to block her Nakba Day event from taking place at the Capitol. As I wrote then, the Palestinian narrative isn’t primarily about Jews. The Palestinian flag, for instance, which many Jews have been raised to regard as a threat to our safety, is quite simply an expression of Palestinians’ collective identity. What would happen if, as Munayyer invites us to do, we considered “from the river to the sea” in the same light—not as a coded attack on Jews, but as a literal expression of a commitment to Palestinian freedom?

Arielle Angel

What Does “From the River to the Sea” Really Mean?
The much-maligned slogan resists the fragmentation of Palestinian land and people by Israeli occupation and discrimination.
Yousef Munayyer

This piece was originally published in June 2021.

In recent weeks, as Palestinians rose up in their homeland, in the wider Middle East, and around the world, you probably heard the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” In cities across the globe, protesters responded to the pending expulsions of Palestinian residents from their homes in Jerusalem, Israeli attacks on holy sites, and the bombardment of Gaza. If you watched or attended any of these protests, you likely saw the slogan printed on a sign, or heard it drifting over the crowd.

You may also have heard claims that this slogan is antisemitic or even genocidal. On May 19th, for example, the New Yorker Union was widely attacked for tweeting, “Solidarity with Palestinians from the river to the sea who went on a 24-hour strike yesterday for dignity and liberation.” Whether in earnest ignorance or in bad faith, critics of the river-to-the-sea formulation argued that the union, and others who used the slogan last month, were implicitly calling for not only dismantling the State of Israel, but cleansing the entire region—from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, an area encompassing the West Bank, Gaza, and all of Israel within its internationally recognized pre-1967 borders—of its Jewish population. (Unfortunately, the union backed down in the face of these smears.)

Like many Palestinians, I’ve long used this phrase. About a decade ago, Peter Beinart started a blog at The Daily Beast called “Open Zion” aimed at bringing together a range of perspectives on Israel/Palestine. He invited me to participate regularly, and at first I was hesitant, given the name. Would a project called “Open Zion” really be open to arguments that challenged the tenets of Zionism? I agreed to participate on the condition that I could write what I wanted and that my column could be called “From the River to the Sea.” As I explained to Peter, I wasn’t concerned with Israel’s identity crisis over whether it could be both Jewish and democratic; I was concerned that Palestinians were being denied basic rights throughout their homeland. My column, “From the River to the Sea,” would be focused on the unity of the Palestinian experience and how all Palestinians faced a shared struggle with Zionism regardless of where they lived.

Today, I believe the conversation has increasingly shifted in this direction. This is due in part to a general intellectual and moral awakening—in media, in academia, in activist spaces, and even among certain elected officials—on the subject of Israel/Palestine, but also because of the increasingly horrific realities on the ground. More than ever before, people around the world are accepting that the problem goes well beyond the occupation of the West Bank, and that discrimination against Palestinians occurs on both sides of the Green Line.

The recent Palestinian uprising foreshadowed a future struggle in which the Green Line is unimportant if existent at all, because across the country, Palestinians mobilized collectively on a large scale under their national banner. The phrase “from the river to the sea” captures this future as no other can, because it encompasses the entire space in which Palestinian rights are denied. It is in this space that Palestinians seek to live freely. It is across this space—and across the political and geographic divisions that Israeli rule has imposed—that Palestinians must unite to create change. It is this space that Palestinians call home, regardless of what anyone else calls it.

“From the river to the sea” is a rejoinder to the fragmentation of Palestinian land and people by Israeli occupation and discrimination. Palestinians have been divided in a myriad of ways by Israeli policy. There are Palestinian refugees denied repatriation because of discriminatory Israeli laws. There are Palestinians denied equal rights living within Israel’s internationally recognized territory as second-class citizens. There are Palestinians living with no citizenship rights under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank. There are Palestinians in legal limbo in occupied Jerusalem and facing expulsion. There are Palestinians in Gaza living under an Israeli siege. All of them suffer from a range of policies in a singular system of discrimination and apartheid—a system that can only be challenged by their unified opposition. All of them have a right to live freely in the land from the river to the sea.

But it is precisely because Zionist settler colonialism has benefitted from and pursued Palestinian fragmentation that it seeks to mischaracterize and destroy inclusive and unifying rhetorical frameworks. For example, journalist Marc Lamont Hill was attacked and ultimately removed from his position at CNN for calling for Palestinian freedom “from the river to the sea.” After all, it is far easier to dominate a divided people fighting different battles on different fronts than it is to dominate one people united in a single battle for the same universal rights.

Since Zionists struggle to make a persuasive argument against freedom, justice, and equality for all people throughout the land, they seek instead to attack the message and messenger. When Palestinians proclaim “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” many Zionists argue that this is a Palestinian call for genocide. But as historian Maha Nassar has noted, there has never been an “official Palestinian position calling for the forced removal of Jews from Palestine.” The links between this phrase and eliminationism might be the product of “an Israeli media campaignfollowing the 1967 war that claimed Palestinians wished to ‘throw Jews into the sea.’ ” Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Committee also claim that the slogan is antisemitic because it has been taken up by militant groups such as the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Hamas. But as Nassar writes, the phrase predates these uses, and has its origins as “part of a larger call to see a secular democratic state established in all of historic Palestine.”

The claim that the phrase “from the river to the sea” carries a genocidal intent relies not on the historical record, but rather on racism and Islamophobia. These Palestinians, the logic goes, cannot be trusted—even if they are calling for equality, their real intention is extermination. In order to justify unending violence against Palestinians, this logic seeks to caricature us as irrational savages hell-bent on killing Jews. Nor does the attempt to link Palestinians to eliminationism stop at the deliberate mischaracterization of this slogan; rather, it is deployed in many other contexts. In 2015, for instance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engaged in Holocaust revisionism by stating that it was really a Palestinian, not Hitler, who inspired the final solution. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, actually had to remind the Israeli Prime Minister that it was the Germans who were responsible for the Holocaust. Raising the constant specter of eliminationism has political utility for Zionists; in such a threatening environment, perpetual abuses of Palestinians can be rationalized.

This twisted logic is not only reserved for Palestinians. Marginalized groups are often accused of not being trustworthy and of having deep-seated ulterior motives aimed at destroying society. Jews should know this trope well, as it has long been a central feature of antisemitism. In fact, the worst antisemitic attack in American history was carried out in recent years by a murderer who attacked a synagogue because he thought Jews were destroying white Christian-dominated society by bringing in brown immigrants under the guise of humanitarianism.

Fundamentally, such arguments disregard what Palestinians are calling for when they use the phrase in question: a state in which Palestinians can live in their homeland as free and equal citizens, neither dominated by others nor dominating them. When we call for a free Palestine from the river to the sea, it is precisely the existing system of domination that we seek to end.