Friday, 24 November 2023 11:01

The controversial phrase “from the river to sea,” explained

Demonstrators are seen through a Palestinian flag as they take part in a rally in support of Palestinians in the US earlier this month.

On US college campuses, on social media, and even in the halls of Congress, the 10-word slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is either a joyous call for Palestinian dignity and future statehood — or a threat to many Jewish people in Israel and around the world.

The slogan rhymes both in English and in Arabic — one modern Arabic version can be transliterated as “min al-nahr ila al-bahr / Filastin satatharrar” — and the river and sea in question are the Jordan in the east and the Mediterranean in the west. The phrase has been around in various iterations for a few decades. It’s only in the past five years or so, as US public support for Palestinians among younger demographics has steadily increased, that the phrase has become a flashpoint in the political debate about the future of Israel and Palestine.

Now, amid the Israel-Hamas war, the increased attention to the decades-long conflict over the land, and mass protests against Israel’s military operations in Gaza, those 10 words have suddenly become highly controversial.

Historians, experts, and activists who use and study it say iterations of the phrase have had many meanings over the course of the Palestinian national struggle. Some of those sources said that in the context most people at ceasefire rallies are using it today, it likely indicates a desire for Palestinian liberation and dignity — as well as a vision for the future in which Palestinians have equal rights in their homeland. But to many Jewish people, it’s a mortal threat to the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

Discourse around the phrase has become so extreme that Congress’s recent censure of its only Palestinian-American member, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), was driven in no small part by her use of it. The government of Berlin has criminalized the use of the slogan as well as other pro-Palestinian symbols and actions. And after yet another endorsement of anti-semitic conspiracy theories, Elon Musk seemingly redeemed himself in the eyes of the mainstream Jewish, pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League (ADL) by condemning this phrase on Twitter. Multiple prominent Jewish organizations, including the ADL and the American Jewish Committee, have defined the phrase as inherently antisemitic because, they say, it at best denies the Jewish right to self-determination and at worst calls for ethnic cleansing against Israeli Jews.

The question of whether “from the river to the sea” is offensive or a call for liberation is a “Rorschach test,” as the writer Robert Wright put it in a recent Substack post. The answer is dependent less on the phrase itself than on the speaker, the listener, and the context.

But it also invites questions about what the future of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories could be, which remains unresolved 75 years after Israel was founded and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes in 1948, during the Nakba, or catastrophe.

The international community and particularly the United States has called for a two-state configuration, both in previous decades and in the context of the current war. Although that seemed like a potential solution in the 1990s, that hope faded after Hamas took over Gaza in 2006 and Israel’s government moved ever further to the right. The other possibility would be a one-state solution. One version of that — in which Israel occupies Palestinian territories to varying degrees, controls people’s movement from those territories, surveils everyday activity, and controls access to basic goods — is arguably already the reality, as an April piece in Foreign Affairs argues. Another version of a singular state — the one envisioned by some activists Vox spoke to who use the “from the river to the sea” phrase — is a pluralistic, secular, democratic one in which Palestinians, Jewish Israelis, and all citizens would live in political equality.

But what the future looks like now seems more critical than ever to address, as the Israel Defense Forces have killed more than 14,000 Palestinians following the October 7 massacre, in which Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants killed around 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped about 240. If Palestinians and Israelis, and more specifically their allies on both sides, can’t agree on the meaning of 10 words, what are the chances they can agree on how to peacefully and fairly govern some of the most hotly contested 10,000 square miles in the world?

The history of the phrase and how it came to be so controversial

It’s not clear where the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” comes from, or even when it came about. Elliott Colla, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, says that the phrase as it’s currently known first came about around the time of the first intifada and the Oslo accords process in the 1990s. Other sources, though, place its origins much earlier, to the 1960s and the birth of the Palestinian nationalist movement.

Earlier iterations of the slogan in Arabic included explicitly Islamist and Arab nationalist sentiments; one early version translates to “‘From the river to the sea’ ... or ‘from the water to the water, Palestine [is] Islamic,’” Colla said. “Maybe a more common version is, ‘Palestine is Arab.’” But as different political movements like pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism have fallen out of power, and other actors and movements have taken use of the slogan, the second half of the phrase has increasingly become “will be free,” especially within English-speaking solidarity circles. That reflects, typically, a vision of liberation and peace throughout the territory of historical Palestine, and more explicitly, liberation for Palestinian people living in the occupied territories.

Throughout all its iterations, one of its core themes has been around the unity of the Palestinian experience of displacement and division. Palestinian Arabs living in what is now Israel, backed by other Arab nations, rejected a 1947 UN partition plan which divided the land into separate Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem internationalized. The Jewish population understood that resolution to be their mandate to create the state of Israel, and, with British backing, fought and defeated Palestinian and Arab forces, culminating in the founding of Israel as a specifically Jewish state in 1948.

Over the decades, and particularly after the 1967 war in which Israel captured the Golan Heights (originally part of Syria), Gaza (previously part of Egypt) and the West Bank (previously belonging to Jordan), as well as East Jerusalem, Israel has claimed, encroached on, or occupied the land in which Palestinians live. It has also become more difficult for Palestinians to assert a unified national identity due to political fracture within Palestinian leadership and because Palestinians living in the territories and in Israel are geographically separated and often restricted from reaching each other, thus unable to effectively organize.

“The first thing to know is that it does have something to do with the history of partition. So it is articulating an image of historic Palestine undivided and unpartitioned” within the Palestinian community, Colla said. “That could be aspirational — this is a dream, all of Palestine” that is not always tied to a specific political outcome.

Seen here in 2020, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas holds up a placard showing maps of (L to R) historical Palestine, the 1937 Peel Commission partition plan, the 1947 United Nations partition plan on Palestine, the 1948-1967 borders between the Palestinian territories and Israel, and a map of representing a proposed Palestinian state under a plan proposed by then-US President Donald Trump.

It’s critical to consider that the slogan is used in different ways in different contexts, whether that’s in the US and other Western countries or in the Palestinian territories themselves, though the spirit may be similar.

People in the West Bank have also apparently used the Arabic translation of the phrase “to protest the Palestinian Authority, or the PA, when it compromises with Israel and when it collaborates with Israel to fragment the West Bank and Gaza,” Colla said. “It’s a protest against not just Israel and the United States but also those Palestinian leaders who have collaborated in the partition.”

PA President Mahmoud Abbas is deeply unpopular within the Palestinian community and particularly in the West Bank, where he has nominally been in charge since 2005. Abbas’s leadership has brought the West Bank not increased autonomy and hope for a Palestinian state but intensive surveillance and increased Jewish Israeli settler communities.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, also adopted a version of the phrase in its 2017 charter. The militant group previously called in its founding charter for the destruction of the Israeli state and killing Jewish people; though the more recent document allows for the possibility of a two-state solution according to the borders in effect prior to the 1967 war, Hamas has continued to attack Israel, most violently in the October 7 massacre.

But it is this question — whether the slogan allows room for a two-state solution or is calling for a one-state solution, and if the latter, which sort of singular state — that is at the root of the debate over the phrase.

It’s a slogan with multiple meanings to different groups of people

In the US, pro-Israel organizations such as the American Jewish Council and the Anti-Defamation League have called the phrase antisemitic because “it calls for the establishment of a State of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, erasing the State of Israel and its people,” according to the American Jewish Committee’s definition. The AJC also calls it “a rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers, from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to Hamas.”

It took on new meaning after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s US director for combating antisemitism, told Vox. “Antisemitism isn’t static, it’s dynamic.” (Though she insisted that “from the river to the sea” has always been antisemitic.) “We saw what ‘From the river to the sea’ looked like on October 7.”

Groups including Hamas and the PLO have called for the destruction of the state of Israel in the past — meaning the end of Israel as a political entity and the expulsion of Jewish people from what is now Israeli territory. Some groups and individuals may still use the phrase this way, but it’s worth noting that that outcome just isn’t plausible in the current context, in which Israel has strong support from powerful Western countries and has military and economic strength that far outmatches anything on the Palestinian side.

Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shia militia based in southern Lebanon, has also used the slogan in calling for the return of Palestine to the Palestinian people, as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah did in a 2020 speech. “Palestine from the river to the sea is the property of the Palestinian people and they shall return to it,” Nasrallah said in the speech, adding that Jewish Israelis should leave. “Anything that has been stolen cannot become the legal property of a thief, even if the entire world recognizes its ownership.”

These uses can’t be dismissed and are the basis for understandable Israeli security fears. But in the US and other countries where there have been pro-Palestinian protests and calls for ceasefire, the phrase might mean something entirely different from what it means in the West Bank or in a speech by Nasrallah.

In these cases, “the text is not [just] the words, the text is the performance” of the phrase, Colla said — people singing, dancing, embracing, and raising their fists in the context of a protest are all part of that performance, and its invocation of joy and solidarity. Those protesters — members of the Palestinian diaspora and their allies — are likely embracing the possibility of Palestinian liberation and calling for the dignity and full civil rights of Palestinians in their homeland.

If a two-state solution cannot be negotiated, the only plausible alternative that doesn’t perpetuate the unsustainable and unjust status quo is a democratic, secular state comprising Jewish Israelis and Palestinians and granting equal rights and political participation to all. That would, ultimately, mean the end of the state of Israel as a Jewish nation — both because the Palestinian population would be roughly equivalent to the Jewish population and in terms of national identity. Many pro-Israel activists and Jewish people consider this possibility to be painful at least and genocidal at most.

But some, like Alon-Lee Green, a Jewish Israeli and one of the leaders along with Palestinian Israeli activist Sally Abed of the peace movement Standing Together, insist that this is the only way forward. As Abed put it, the Jewish state has failed both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.

“The question is, how do we create a system that provides equality and freedom for all, without the necessity of controlling millions of people militarily, without giving them rights,” Abed said.

A slogan can’t encompass a political platform or political change

Like Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own right-wing Likud party used a version of the slogan “from the river to the sea” in its platform, as the Associated Press reported. That platform, issued in 1977 during the height of the Palestinian armed resistance movement, denied any possibility of a two-state solution and called for only Israeli sovereignty “between the Sea and the Jordan.” In decades since, it has “traditionally supported the idea of the whole Land of Israel, even if it has not always defined the state’s borders precisely,” according to the Israel Democracy Institute. Likud under Netanyahu has opposed a two-state solution and instituted a basic law in 2018 declaring that the right of national self-determination in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” That further entrenched the inequality between the country’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens, who make up about 21 percent of the population in Israel.

Netanyahu’s rhetoric and that of the early Likud party echo the aims of extremist Jewish Israeli settler activists like Daniella Weiss, whom New Yorker writer Isaac Chotiner interviewed for a November story. To Weiss, the borders of “the homeland of the Jews are the Euphrates in the east and the Nile in the southwest,” which, as Chotiner notes, includes territory currently in many Middle Eastern nations, including Egypt and Iraq.

In Weiss and other extremist settlers’ view, Palestinians who live in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem should accept that “We the Jews are the sovereigns in the state of Israel and in the Land of Israel,” she told Chotiner, and should not have the right to vote in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. Though Weiss’s views are extreme, she is a leader of a large and growing Israeli settler movement that has significant power in the government via allies like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir.

In response to Israel’s increasingly right-wing government — and its war in Gaza — the slogan has become increasingly prominent in pro-Palestinian circles, and the discourse around it is increasingly fraught.

“Activist groups compose and adapt and revise slogans — oftentimes they recycle old things and kind of spruce them up or change them to serve whatever the specific context is that they’re protesting,” Colla said. “So in that context, slogans are highly occasion-specific, just as protests are.”

Tlaib, for example, was censured by her colleagues in Congress for her response to the war in Gaza, particularly the attack on Gaza’s al-Ahli hospital, using the phrase in a video posted to the social network X on November 3.

As Vox’s Li Zhou wrote, the censure resolution accused Tlaib of ”calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.”

One of the flashpoints was a slogan used in a video she shared on social media — calling for freedom “from the river to the sea” — which critics say calls for the abolition of Israel as a Jewish state and which advocates say calls for Palestinian freedom.”

Tlaib explained in a following post what the slogan means to her, calling it an “aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.”

Ultimately, slogans are a distraction from the conversations that matter; slogans aren’t a substitute for a political vision that actually works for the people who live in Israel and the Palestinian territories and brings sustainable peace, Green told Vox.

“Slogans like ‘decolonization’ and ‘from the river to the sea,’ when they don’t say clearly, ‘Israeli-Palestinian peace, Jews and Palestinians living together,’ when they don’t take under consideration the very simple, undeniable fact that millions of Palestinians will remain on this land, and millions of Jewish people will remain on this land, and that’s the starting point for any solution,” Green said, “then you’re just working on something so theoretical, something so unconnected to our reality.”