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21 JUL 2024

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  • Uri Pilichowski

Do You Know What "From The River to The Sea, Palestine Shall Be Free" Really Means?


From the River to the Sea Protest Sign


The chant often heard at pro-Palestine demonstrations these days is “From the River to the Sea, Palestine shall be free.” But what does it really mean?


  • “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free” is a common slogan associated with the Israel-Hamas war but it has a long, complex, and highly controversial history with strong implications of antisemitism that border on genocide


  • The slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free” has historical connections to terrorism.


  • There seems to be mass confusion by those who employ it about what the term truly means and what it actually implies

 

The meaning of “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free” has been a source of debate for decades. In fact, polls show that scores of activists who repeat the chant aren’t fully aware of its real meaning. Indeed, there are even politicians who claim they don’t fully comprehend its import.

Below, we’ll explore the different explanations from various perspectives. 



From the River to the Sea and Modern Controversy Regarding Its Usage


In early November, Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the first American-Palestinian elected to Congress, posted a video on X in the wake of the October 7 outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza criticizing U.S. President Biden for supporting the Jewish state. The video would likely have escaped most people’s attention had it not included a clip of Michigan pro-Palestinian protestors chanting “From the River to the Sea!” That one line sparked a controversy that ended with Congresswoman Tlaib being censured by her colleagues on the House floor. 


Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz slammed Tlaib’s usage of “From the River to the Sea.” Wasserman Schultz tweeted, “This phrase means eradicating Israel and Jews. Period. Dressing it up in a new PR ploy won’t change that. Only a return of hostages, eliminating Hamas and liberating Gaza from oppressive terror will save civilian lives and secure the peace, justice and dignity you seek.”


Tlaib defended her remarks and explained, “From the River to the Sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate. My work and advocacy is always centered in justice and dignity for all people no matter faith or ethnicity.”


Notwithstanding, House lawmakers censured Representative Tlaib over her remarks and actions in response to the Israel-Hamas war. The censure resolution, authored by Republican Representative Rich McCormick, passed 234 to 188, with 22 Democrats voting for it and four Republicans opposing the measure. The resolution censured Tlaib for “promoting false narratives regarding the October 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel and for calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.”



Why Is “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Shall Be Free” so Controversial? 


From what River to what Sea? 


For nearly 2,000 years, the Middle Eastern region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River has been marked by war and conflict. Greeks, Romans, Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Ottomans, the British, and Israelis are only some of the many nations to have at one time or another inhabited this mostly barren desert area. Devoid of natural resources, the land’s value comes mostly from its central location between Asia, Africa, and Europe and its religious significance to three of the world’s major religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 


Multiple nations have claimed the land–since the time of the ancient Greeks and later the Romans, called Palaistina–belonged to them over those 2,000 years. Wars have been waged over this land, and over the course of two millennia, millions of people have been killed trying to conquer or defend it. 


In 1948, the United Nations voted to partition the land, which had been called Palestine at that point, between the Jewish people and the local Arabs who lived in the region. Though the partition plan was accepted by the Jews, it was rejected by the Arab population. 

On May 14, 1948, the Jewish people declared their independence and the founding of the State of Israel on a designated portion of Palestine. The local Arabs, along with five neighboring Arab armies, declared war on the nascent state. Israel pushed back the offensive and took control of 78% of the original British mandate of Palestine


In the 1960s, Arabs in Israel and others who considered themselves as having descended from those who lived in Ottoman or British-mandated Palestine began identifying as “Palestinians” and formed the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which called for “the recovery of the usurped homeland in its entirety.” This referred to the former British mandate Palestine that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. Consequently, at some point in the mid-1960s the chant, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” was born. 


Of note, at the time of the founding of the Palestinian liberation movement and the start of the chant, it was Egypt that controlled the Gaza Strip and Jordan that occupied the West Bank. The chant, however, wasn’t aimed at Egypt or Jordan, nor was it about liberating the lands set aside for Arabs under the United Nations’s partition plan. 


Rather, the chant reflected the Palestinian objective of putting an end to the State of Israel and replacing it with a Palestinian State. Palestinian Islamic Jihad explained, “From the river to the sea – Palestine is an Arab Islamic land that is legally forbidden from abandoning any inch of, and the Israeli presence in Palestine is a null existence, which is forbidden by law to recognize.”



The History of The Term “From The River to The Sea”


Another layer of meaning to the chant, “From the River to the Sea,” was added by some Israeli Zionists, who co-opted the same phrase, but for a much different connotation. In 1977, Israel’s right-of-center Likud party noted in its political campaign, “Judea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” In 2014, Uri Ariel, the Israeli Housing Minister, said, “From the Jordan to the Sea there will only be one State, and it will be the Jewish State.”

It bears mentioning that the extremist idea of setting up a Jewish state from the River to the Sea, squarely contradicts the UN’s mandate of a Jewish State and has never been taken seriously by elected Israeli leaders. 


In contrast, when Palestinians and supporters advocate for a state that runs “From the River to the Sea,” their intent includes the death or destruction of the Jews in Israel. Hamas’s 2017 charter “rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” In 2012, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said, “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on any inch of the land.”



Well-Meaning People Don’t Understand The Phrase’s Implication to Jews


Many recent Palestinian activists claim the term “From the River to the Sea” is more benign, part of a “larger call to see a secular democratic state established in all of historic Palestine. Palestinians hoped their state would be free from oppression of all sorts, from Israeli as well as from Arab regimes.”


However, the Anti-Defamation League counters: “From the River to the Sea” has “long been used by anti-Israel voices, including supporters of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], which seek Israel’s destruction through violent means. It is fundamentally a call for a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, territory that includes the State of Israel, which would mean the dismantling of the Jewish state. It is an antisemitic charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland.” 


The American Jewish Committee notes, “‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free’ is a rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers, from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) to Hamas, which called for Israel’s destruction in its original governing charter in 1988 and was responsible for the October 7, 2023 terror attack on Israeli civilians, murdering over 1,200 people in the single deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. It is also a common call-to-arms for pro-Palestinian activists, especially student activists on college campuses. 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. Another phrase ‘Globalize the Intifada,’ which uses the Arabic word for ‘uprising’ or ‘shaking off,’ also calls for widespread violence against both Israelis and Jews across the globe.” 


College Students Aren't Familiar With The Intent of ‘From The River to The Sea’


In a December 2023 Wall Street Journal opinion column, Professor Ron Hassner of the University of California, Berkeley describes how he hired a survey firm to poll 250 students -- from a variety of backgrounds across the U.S. -- regarding the meaning of “From the River to the Sea.” It emerged that most of the students polled said they supported the chant, many enthusiastically (32.8%), with others to a lesser extent (53.2%). 


But less than 50% of the students who said they embraced the slogan (just 47%) were able to correctly name the actual river and sea in question. Among the inaccurate responses were the Nile and the Euphrates, the Dead Sea (which is actually a lake), the Atlantic, and even the Caribbean, which is in the Americas. 


Perhaps “From the River to the Sea” would be far less popular if those surveyed were more familiar with the geographical, antisemitic, and genocidal implications of the chant. 

 

Sources


Rashida Tlaib, @RashidaTlaib, “POTUS, the majority of Americans are not with you” November 3, 2023




Lumen Learning, “The Partitioning of Palestine


Jewish Virtual Library, the Israel War of Independence


Journal of Palestine Studies, “From the River to the Sea to Every Mountaintop,” Summer 2019

Al-Jazeera, “Islamic Jihad Movement” October 21, 2023


Laquer, Walter; Rubin, Barry The Israel-Arab Reader: a Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict. (2001). 






American Jewish Committee, “From the River to the Sea” 


Wall Street Journal, “From Which River to Which Sea?” December 5, 2023

 
Uri Pilichowski

Uri Pilichowski


Uri Pilichowski is an author, speaker, and senior educator at institutions around the world. 

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