This is part of an ongoing blog series centered around the phrase "From The River To The Sea." To view the full series click here.
There was a time—and it was not that long ago—when “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” was simply the most common and memorable chant in the repertoire of pro-Palestine protestors. In 2022, the website of the Anti-Defamation League described the chant neutrally as “a slogan commonly featured in pro-Palestinian campaigns and chanted at demonstrations.” Fast forward one year and the situation has dramatically changed. Since October 2023, this same website now describes the chant as “an antisemitic slogan.”
What happened to bring about this shift? An eruption of genocidal rhetoric and a concerted campaign by the Israeli establishment to make Gaza “a place where no human being can exist,” the bombardment of hospitals, mosques, schools, and the destruction of the infrastructure and civilian population of Gaza.
As Abed Ayoub of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has said, “Rather than talking about Israel’s genocide, people are debating a chant...The distraction is part of the objective.” Toni Morrison understood this strategy well when she wrote that the “very serious function of racism is distraction.”
The controversy around the “river to the sea” chant is a distraction, much like another tool in the pro-Israeli playbook for silencing criticism of Israel: the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Following an extraordinarily effective publicity campaign, the IHRA definition has persuaded many states and public and private institutions to conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism, as I document in my book. Seven of the eleven examples the definition provides of antisemitism relate to criticism of Israel, including the stipulation that “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is an example of antisemitism.
When Labour MP Andy McDonald gently adapted the phrase to specifically include Israelis at a pro-Palestine rally speech on 30 October 2023, he was immediately suspended from the Labour Party. His words, which were condemned by the government as “deeply offensive” were “We won't rest until we have justice, until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea can live in peaceful liberty.” It is difficult to imagine a more inclusive and egalitarian vision for a future Palestine and Israel than that expressed by McDonald, and yet the reinvention of the meaning of this chant in the public imagination by Israel advocacy groups provided the background for the bad faith interpretation that led to his suspension.
Similarly, in the US Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was censured by Congress for invoking the shared vision of collective liberation embedded in these words. The Congressional resolution censuring her described the phrase as “a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people.” In the short span of a year, discourse has shifted from understanding the phrase as “a slogan commonly featured in pro-Palestinian campaigns” to labelling it “a genocidal call to violence.”
As Elliot Colla has argued, “it’s bad hermeneutics to insist that a phrase that has changed meaning many times over 75 years can have only one unambiguous meaning.” Attacks and smears against those who proclaim “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” were always part of a strategy for erasing and undermining Palestinian self-determination. The strategy operates through distraction. Its aim is to make us forget about what is happening in Gaza and to embroil us in battle for our dignity and right to speak at home. To drown our outrage at the annihilation of Gaza in a cacophony of semantic disputes, just like they did with the IHRA definition.
The strategy of deflection and distraction is formidable, but in the long run it will not work. No effort to redefine what can and cannot be said about Israel and Palestine will be able to completely eradicate our common sense or dilute our sense of justice. We will go on marching. We will go on chanting these words, that have resonated powerfully for generations of Palestinians ever since the 1947 UN partition plan, until Palestine is free.