“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” has been a popular refrain in pro-Palestinian protests and online discussion across North America in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.
It has also been the subject of criticism and, in some cases, institutional backlash.
Hamilton MPP Sarah Jama was kicked out of the NDP caucus after using the slogan at an Ontario protest and calling for a ceasefire. In the U.S., Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib — the only Palestinian member of Congress — was censured for using the phrase in a video on social media, while in the U.K., senior Labour MP Andy McDonald was suspended from the party after echoing a version of the slogan at a rally.
Israel advocacy groups in Canada and the U.S., such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and B’nai Brith, say the slogan is an antisemitic call for the ethnic cleansing of Jewish people.
Meanwhile, Palestinians and some Jewish academics say the slogan is not inherently threatening or hateful.
Yousef Munayyer, head of the Palestine-Israel program at the Arab Center Washington D.C., has written extensively about the meaning of the slogan before and since Hamas’s attacks on Oct. 7, which led to Israel’s current bombardment of the Gaza Strip.
Munayyer says today, the phrase is used to reference the lack of freedoms Palestinians have in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which includes the state of Israel as well as the Gaza Strip and the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“That’s what has to change. That doesn’t mean that there should be any violence against Israelis,” Munayyer said.
For Yair Szlak, president and CEO of Montreal-based Federation CJA, it is hate speech when Palestinians and their supporters say the slogan, “because it is into the sea that they seek to send the Jews.”
Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault, which killed an estimated 1,200 people in Israel, according to Israeli authorities, and included the kidnapping of an additional 240 people, has been followed by a month-long Israeli siege and ground offensive that has killed more than 12,000 Palestinians, according to health officials in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas.
A call for Palestinian freedom
Dov Waxman, a professor and director of the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, does not perceive the slogan to be “inherently threatening” and believes that is not what many Palestinians and their supporters mean when repeating it.
“It’s an expression of Palestinian nationalism and it’s an expression of a demand for Palestinian freedom or self-determination,” said Waxman. “I think Palestinian self-determination need not come at the expense of Jewish self-determination. Nor do I think Palestinian freedom has to be considered a threat to Jewish rights.”
According to Waxman, many Jewish people hear the chant as a call for “the violent destruction of Israel,” which is how Hamas and its supporters use the phrase.
Waxman said that “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” originated in the 1960s as an expression of Palestinian nationalism and has been co-opted by various groups over time, including Hamas when the group formed in 1987.
He noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party believe that “Jews had the rightful claim to this entire territory.”
“They still would like to have Jewish sovereignty, essentially, from the river to the sea,” Waxman said.
Some Palestinians say the slogan refers to a single state within which Palestinians and Israelis could live together. Some Jewish groups and Palestinian extremists see the slogan as a call to remove Israelis from the region in order to form a single Palestinian state.
Waxman says the idea of a state in which Palestinians and Israelis live harmoniously is “unrealistic” but not “inherently problematic.”
The alternative is a two-state solution, which would create separate states of Israel and Palestine, an idea that originated in 1947. U.S. President Joe Biden has been touting it in recent weeks, and in a statement on Monday evening, so did Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly.
“Canada continues to recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination and remains committed to the goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the region, of a two-state solution, including the creation of an independent, viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel,” reads the statement from Joly’s office.
75 years of occupation
Rama Al Malah, an organizer with the Palestinian Youth Movement in Canada, said the chant has been repeated over the past six weeks as a call for Palestinian “liberation from 75 years of occupation.”
“My great-grandmother on my mom’s side was kicked out of Haifa in 1948,” Al Malah said, referring to the Nakba, or catastrophe, in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes or fled during the war over the creation of Israel.
Al Malah says the chant also calls for “the return of refugees who have been kicked out of their homes from 1948 till now.”
WATCH | What ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ means to different people:
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, there are currently 5.9 million Palestinian refugees, a third of whom live in refugee camps across Gaza, West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Various human rights groups and the United Nations have documented that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank “continue to be deprived of their freedom, dignity and rights by Israel.”
Al Malah said the slogan is a response to this situation and doesn’t call “for the killing of Jewish people at all. It’s basically a way for us to say that we want freedom,” she said.
The lack of freedoms for Palestinians is well documented by human rights groups, said Sheryl Nestel, a retired University of Toronto professor and member of advocacy group Independent Jewish Voices Canada.
“Palestinians both under occupation and living inside Israel face enormous discrimination, enormous differences in the rights that they enjoy, and the infrastructure that they live under,” said Nestel, who lived in Israel for 15 years, where she said she advocated against illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
For Nestel, criticism of the slogan is tantamount to anti-Palestinian racism.
“One of the problems with the criticism of the slogan is that it imputes genocidal intent to Palestinians, and there’s no evidence that the majority of Palestinians want to eliminate Jews from historical Palestine,” Nestel said.
Different characterizations of the slogan
For Munayyer, the backlash against the use of the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is comparable to those who objected to the slogan “Black lives matter” during the protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.
“People were saying Black Lives Matter, not because they didn’t think white lives mattered, but because they were objecting to a set of policies and practices that [meant] for many Black people that their lives didn’t matter as much,” he said. “There were some people who thought that it was racist against white people to say that Black lives matter.”
Waxman said that “From the river to the sea…” has different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.
“If it’s invoked by supporters of Hamas, for example, [the chant] has a very different meaning, and I would understand that as much more threatening than if it was advocated by, say, Rashida Tlaib,” Waxman said.
Waxman says the vision of a single state in which Israeli and Palestinian people live with equal rights is “utopian,” but “I don’t think we should necessarily see [the slogan] as a call for ethnic cleansing or genocide, which is how many Jews do hear it.”
According to Waxman, the backlash against the slogan is a result of an “effort to essentially insist that any form of anti-Zionism, any opposition to Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state, is inherently antisemitic, so even when that statement is now [said] by a college student who might favour just granting of equal rights [to] Palestinians in the West Bank, in Gaza, there are those who want to insist that that is inherently antisemitic.”
For Munayyer, Islamophobia is also a factor.
“There is a deep history of racism and Islamophobia in the West towards Palestinians and Arabs and Muslims more broadly, which always throws upon them the worst of intentions and interpretations of their words,” Munayyer said.
“The way that they are increasingly responding to protests against this is by trying to criminalize [the slogan] and shut it down.”
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