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‘From the river to the sea’ and the trouble with political slogans

The controversy the chant generates suggests there is work to be done in better communicating with and understanding one another

Middle EastHuman RightsSocial Movements

March in downtown Columbus, Ohio in support of Palestine, October 2023. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

What does “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free” actually mean? And when it comes to political slogans, should impact matter more than intent?

When I asked my Facebook network to tell me what those who chant it mean, and what Jews who hear it understand it to mean, the results were predictably polarized. Chanters (which included a few Jews, it’s important to add) all said it means a call for freedom. Most Jewish listeners who responded argued that they hear ethnic cleansing or, worse, genocide (of course, it’s likely that if there are chanters who intend ethnic cleansing or genocide, they wouldn’t have shared that on my page).

One Palestinian respondent said that, “As a Palestinian when I say the phrase it means I imagine a free land with equal rights for all between the river and the sea. Freedom and democracy instead of living under the oppression of a Jewish ethnostate that rules Palestinians against their will in a military occupation and apartheid regime. Where we have rights in all of our ancestral land of Palestine. Insinuating that the phrase implies ‘genocide’ is grotesquely cynical and mendacious. It is a call for freedom.”

One Jewish respondent seemed to speak for many when she said, “I hear the annihilation of the state of Israel.” She continued: “Best case scenario? A Palestinian state in which Jews are a tolerated minority. Worst case scenario? Mass extermination of Jews and the establishment of a Judenrein [meaning free of Jews] Palestine on Israel’s ruins.”

Some Jewish respondents were less alarmed. “I hear support for some kind of one-state solution, though I realize it does not necessarily have to mean that,” said one.

Another Jewish friend said, simply, “A movement shouldn’t centre a phrase that is capable of so much variation in interpretation unless it is the confusion and the plausible deniability that is desired.”

This is not a scientific survey—it’s impressionistic and anecdotal, to be sure. But the fact that there is such a wide gulf in interpretation even in a non-random sample suggests that there is work to be done in better communicating with and understanding one another.

This isn’t the first time the chant has come to the public’s attention. In 2021, Yousef Munayyer penned a piece in Jewish Currents arguing 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.” Instead, he argues, the phrase “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.”

Three years earlier, in 2018, Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Temple University, lost his job as a CNN contributor for saying the phrase. At the time, commentators like Maha Nassar published analyses of the phrase, showing its historical context and arguing that the phrase “isn’t what you think it means.” Around the same time, I wrote a piece in Haaretz suggesting a modest amendment. A better choice of slogan, I argued, would be, “From the river to the sea, Palestinians, like Israelis, shall be free.” I felt good about it at the time, and indeed would love to snap my fingers and change the chant. But I also realize that that’s not how liberation chants work; it’s not up to others to tell an oppressed group how to call for their freedom.

Lately many Jews have been invoking the “impact is more important than intent” principle which the anti-racist discourse in recent years has been pushing for. Under this logic, it matters less what your intention is—if you are in a position of relative power—and more what the impact is on the person on the receiving end. So if a white woman asks a Black woman if she can “touch her hair,” the white person might claim that she was just being warm and friendly, but if the Black person experiences the request as a racist microaggression, that’s the interpretation that should stand.

When it comes to impact-verus-intent what matters is the direction of oppression. In anti-racist circles we have decided that people of colour get to decide what they experience as racist. The same logic could easily apply to Jews: we Jews, the argument would go, get to decide what we experience as antisemitic.

But there’s a dilemma here. To be sure, outside of Israel, Jews are in fact subject to antisemitism from the non-Jewish world and should be able to decide what is or isn’t hurtful. So, for example, a (non-Jewish) cashier who admits to “Jewing someone down” when miscounting the change should be told in no uncertain terms that that phrase is unacceptable. Swastikas on synagogues. Bomb threats at Jewish day schools. All beyond the pale.

The trouble is, in Israel-Palestine it’s Israeli Jews who hold the lion’s share of the power. Between the river and the sea, which is to say to varying degrees in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel within the Green Line, it’s Palestinians, not Jews (Jewish Israelis), who are structurally oppressed, mainly by Israel (I say mainly because Hamas’s and the PA’s authoritarian rule limits Palestinian freedoms to some extent). So the impact-versus-intent logic does not fit comfortably there when it comes to evaluating Palestinian political messaging.

Perhaps the last word on this should go to one Facebook friend, also Jewish, who offered, “I know it means different things to different people. That’s the trouble with all slogans. In a perfect world we would chant in paragraphs.”

Mira Sucharov is a professor of political science at Carleton University, where she specializes in Israeli-Palestinian relations and Jewish affairs.

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