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How interpretations of the phrase 'from the river to the sea' made it so divisive

A demonstrator holds a sign reading "From the river to the sea" at a Freedom for Palestine protest in Berlin on Nov. 4.
Sean Gallup
/
Getty Images
A demonstrator holds a sign reading "From the river to the sea" at a Freedom for Palestine protest in Berlin on Nov. 4.

In the days since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and Israel's military response, some Palestinian rights advocates have returned to a common refrain: "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."

It's a geographical nod to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and the protracted tensions between Palestinians and Israeli Jews who live there.

But what does it actually mean? To some, it's a rallying cry for the liberation of Palestinian people across the region, from Gaza to the West Bank and within Israel. To others, it is a violent call to erase Israel from existence invoked by militant groups such as Hamas.

The phrase has become especially politically charged in the days since the deadly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas that killed 1,400 people in Israel. Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress have condemned the slogan, with one congressman referring to it as a "thinly veiled call for the genocide of millions of Jews in Israel."

Outrage over the phrase culminated in the House of Representatives on Wednesday when it voted, 234-188, to censure Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan after she used the slogan, including in a post on social media.

Tlaib said on the House floor that she was calling for a cease-fire.

"My grandmother like all Palestinians just wants to live her life with freedom and human dignity we all deserve," she said.

Yousef Munayyer, head of the Palestine/Israel Program at Arab Center Washington DC, says supporters of Palestine who invoke the phrase are often misinterpreted as threatening violence.

"What they are responding to is the fact that, within this space, Palestinians live along with Israelis, but it's the Palestinians that don't have freedom," he said. "They don't have justice. They don't have equality. They don't have safety. They don't have security."

According to University of Arizona professor Maha Nassar, the phrase "from the river to the sea" gained momentum in the 1960s among a fractured Palestinian population hoping to break free from the rule not only of the Israeli government but also those of Jordan and Egypt.

Nassar said there was "no official Palestinian position calling for the forced removal of Jews from Palestine."

Later, anti-Israel militant groups such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine adopted the phrase, according to the American Jewish Committee.

Some Jews say that what may have been a simple plea for independence can't be separated from the catchphrase employed by fighters bent on the destruction of Israel.

"Probably it is true that most American college students, for example, who chant 'from the river to the sea' do not mean to evoke this idea of ethnic cleansing, do not mean to call for the erasure of Israel or the destruction of all Jews in that land," said Julie Rayman, managing director of policy and political affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

"But unfortunately they are echoing that exact trope," she added.

The Anti-Defamation League says the "hateful phrase" is a denial of Israel's right to exist and can leave Israelis and their supporters feeling "unsafe and ostracized." The ADL also added that, "It is an antisemitic charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland."

According to Rayman, it can make American Jews with ties to Israel believe they are unsafe in both countries.

"It is a feeling that the conflict has been exported and that Hamas is on the doorstep, that they are unsafe," she said.

Yet many people insist that "from the river to the sea" is a plea for peace — not violence. Tlaib herself said the phrase is "aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate."

Munayyer says it's critical to listen to what people who use the phrase say they mean and not let the slogan's meaning be dictated by the most "extreme elements" of society.

"It's wrong to put words in other people's mouths and to silence them when they're telling you, 'no, actually, that's not what this means,'" he said. "If somebody uses this phrase, that doesn't mean they get to define what it means for everybody else."

In fact, a lot depends on context. The Likud Party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in its original party platform in 1977 that "between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty."

Munayyer and others say Congress should direct less attention toward what its only Palestinian American member says and focus instead on how to deal with the ongoing military assault and humanitarian crisis inside Gaza.

The ADL statement said: "It is important to note that demanding justice for Palestinians, or calling for a Palestinian state, should not mean, as this hateful phrase posits, denying the right of the State of Israel to exist."

More than 10,000 Palestinians have died during the Israeli military's offensive in the area since early October, according to Gaza's Health Ministry. Fourteen hundred people died from the Hamas attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7, according to Israeli government figures. In addition, 240 people were kidnapped.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]

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