“Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.” It is a refrain familiar to most Americans by now. It can be heard on college campuses, at Black Lives Matters protests, and all across social media. Ten words that that describe a liberated nation and a territory with clearly delineated boundaries. Yet the meaning of these words is fraught with ambiguity and controversy.
Does it mean that a free Palestine throughout what is now Israel and the Occupied Territories will be a democratic state with a robust civil society, where every individual lives in security, and is equal before the law? Or does it imply the creation of a state called “Palestine,” a Palestine that is Judenrein, where Jews will literally be chased into the river and the sea? The slogan, in and of itself, can certainly be interpreted to mean either, along with various shades in between.
In his recent Jewish Currents essay, “What Does ‘From the River to the Sea’ Really Mean?”, Yousef Munayyer, Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, argues for the “democratic” interpretation. For Munayyer, those who claim the phrase is antisemitic or genocidal are promoting anti-Palestinian Zionist propaganda to perpetuate Jewish hegemony and colonialism against the region’s Arab population. Although I doubt Munayyer himself wants to see millions of Israelis swimming for their lives in the Mediterranean, his op-ed is replete with historical inaccuracies and deflections.
Although I doubt Munayyer himself wants to see millions of Israelis swimming for their lives in the Mediterranean, his op-ed is replete with historical inaccuracies and deflections.
Unpacking his misleading take on the slogan’s use helps explain why it resonates so powerfully among those who want to see Israel’s independence terminated and why it evokes such fear among Jews, even those who are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians.
Munayyer’s rejection of the genocidal overtones of “river to the sea” hinges on its alleged history. Although he readily admits that Hamas, the PFLP and even the PLO in its pre-Oslo incarnation have deployed this slogan to accompany their terrorism, Munayyer alleges there exists a far larger Palestinian civic movement that uses this phrase as part of a call to see a “secular democratic state established in all of historic Palestine,” and their usage of “river to the sea” predates Hamas and the PLO.
But it is Hamas who is launching rockets at Israel and it was Leila Khaled, PFLP member and convicted airplane hijacker who was invited to speak at San Francisco State University in 2020. This so-called civic movement of Palestinians condemns neither Hamas rockets nor the professors who platform terrorists. Nor have they condemned Hamas’s appropriation of this much touted “river to the sea” mantra.
You would think they would. I would be upset if a genocidal Islamic terrorist outfit stole my peaceful slogan.
Munayyer further maintains there has never been an “official Palestinian position” calling for the forced ejection of Jews from Palestine. He blames the Jewish state for this misconception, claiming there was an intense Israeli media campaign following the Six-Day War to promote a specious Palestinian program to “throw Jews into the sea.” Hence the erroneous popular belief that freeing the land between the river and the sea involves forcing Jewish Israelis to swim or die.
Munayyer never explains what constitutes an “official Palestinian position.” For the past century, at least until the international community recognized Yasser Arafat as the de facto leader of the Palestinian people, there could not have existed an “official Palestinian position.” It is unclear whether one can even speak of an “official Palestinian position” today. Since the 1920s, numerous Arab organizations and polities have claimed to represent the Palestinian people. Many of them have called for the violent elimination of Jews from our ancestral homeland with the waters of the Mediterranean as a final destination.
In 1948, Sheikh Hassan el-Bana, head of the Moslem Brotherhood, stated that “If the Jewish state becomes a fact, and this is realized by the Arab peoples, they will drive the Jews who live in their midst into the sea.” In 1966, Syrian leader Hafez Al-Assad, insisted in no uncertain terms that, “We shall only accept war and the restoration of the usurped land … to oust you, aggressors, and throw you into the sea for good.” If there was in fact an Israeli media conspiracy to instill this catchphrase in popular consciousness then we must credit prominent Arab leaders with having invented it. Given this genealogy, it is perfectly logical for Jews to react with consternation when they hear ambiguous “river to the sea” sloganeering.
Unfortunately Munayyer is not interested in these pesky facts and instead relies on the common practice of branding anyone who fears Arab violence a racist Islamophobe: “this logic seeks to caricature us as irrational savages hell-bent on killing Jews,” he writes. Munayyer fails to mention the 750,000 Jews who were violently expropriated and ultimately forced out of the majority of Arab states—including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt—after 1948 because they may have had Zionist sympathies.
Munayyer fails to mention the 750,000 Jews who were violently expropriated and ultimately forced out of the majority of Arab states—including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt—after 1948 because they may have had Zionist sympathies.
The Arab world is largely Judenrein today, and these ancient Jewish communities would have been chased into the sea, had Israel not given them refuge. Even the allegedly moderate president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has declared that not “a single Israeli” can remain in an independent Palestine should a two-state solution come into being; they would ostensibly be forced to resettle within Israel’s 1948 borders. Fearing violent expulsion does not make one a racist Islamophobe. It means one is aware of history and keeps up with current events.
Munayyer’s belief in the Zionist manipulation of the media for supremacist ends—a variation on a well-worn antisemitic trope—underpins virtually every aspect of his screed. He points out how in 2015 Benjamin Netanyahu claimed it was Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and de facto Palestinian leader, not Hitler, who came up with the idea of the Holocaust. This of course is absurd. It was a transparent attempt by Bibi to malign Arabs as genocidal and frighten Israelis rightward on the eve of an election.
But the Grand Mufti was no tangential figure. He was Hitler’s esteemed guest during the war. He endorsed the Final Solution and offered his services to extend it to the Middle East and exterminate Palestinian Jewry; plans for an “Einsatzgruppe Egypt” were even prepared. Had the Wehrmacht’s advance not been stopped in North Africa, the Middle East’s Jewish communities would have suffered the fate of European Jewry, thereby cleansing Palestine from the river to the sea.
According to Munayyer, the Zionist media’s obfuscation of the peaceful river to sea mantra for pernicious ends extends to America. He cites the case of Temple University Professor Marc Lamont Hill, who lost his position as CNN commentator for “calling for Palestinian freedom ‘from the River to the Sea.’” But Munayyer leaves out one crucial detail: before proclaiming that justice requires … a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” Hill openly endorsed its attainment through violence:
“Contrary to Western mythology, Black resistance to American apartheid did not come purely through Gandhi and nonviolence. … We must allow—if we are to operate in true solidarity with Palestinian people, we must allow the Palestinian people the same range of opportunity and political possibility. … We must prioritize peace. But we must not romanticize or fetishize it.”
In this context, “range of opportunity” implies Hamas and its self-declared genocidal objectives. And in this context, there is but one way to interpret “a free Palestine from the river to the sea.”
I do not think Hill is explicitly promoting genocide. But he is capitalizing on the phrase’s ambiguity because it simultaneously gives anti-Zionists a mandate for violence while offering plausible deniability of this intent. Deliberate ambiguity allows them to have it both ways. Munayyer and Hill are likely among those whose preferred outcome is a peaceful polity between the river of the sea, where ethnicity and religion play no role in bestowing rights and citizenship. But even so, it is open to doubt whether such an envisioned free Palestine would signify genuine equality for its Jewish inhabitants.
The sloganeers are calling for a state named “Palestine,” not a state with a hybrid name that suggests both peoples, Jews and Palestinians, have an equal claim to this land as their ancestral patrimony. Nomenclature matters. When a state bears the name of one ethno-national community, the state is for all intents and purposes the homeland of that particular community, even if equality is granted to every citizen. Nobody questions whether Germany is the historic homeland of the German people. Poland was reconstituted as a state after World War I as “Poland” because the Polish people had lost their “inalienable” right to a national homeland.
There are few if any nation-states today where the titular ethnic group does not enjoy ascendancy, whether it is symbolic, or in more violent parts of the world, in practice as well. There is little reason to think Jews would fare as well as Palestinians in a state called “Palestine,” whose very name will erase Jewish history and suppress Jewish identity.
So why adopt the slogan “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea”? Why not call for “Israel-Palestine: two peoples one land”? The answer is simple.
The social justice advocates fighting for “Palestinian freedom” do not view these two peoples as equal. They consider Jews in Palestine to be unwelcome settlers, who, perhaps, will be allowed to remain in a liberated Palestine so long as they accept their position of inferiority.
The social justice advocates fighting for “Palestinian freedom” do not view these two peoples as equal. They consider Jews in Palestine to be unwelcome settlers, who, perhaps, will be allowed to remain in a liberated Palestine so long as they accept their position of inferiority. Rather than viewing the current conflict as a struggle between two nations with legitimate ancestral claims to one land, they view Israel as a (European) colonial project that must be dismantled, much like Europe’s former colonies in Africa and Asia were undone. Leaving the name “Israel” in place would legitimize ascribed Jewish imperialism.
There will be no happy ending for the remaining Jewish people in a liberated Palestine, from the river to the sea, because unlike the Palestinians, they will not belong there.
Jarrod Tanny is an associate professor and Charles and Hannah Block Distinguished Scholar in Jewish History at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. He is the author of “City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia’s Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa” (Indiana University Press).