‘From the river to the sea’: Why a Palestinian rallying cry ignites dispute

World News

Some people have interpreted the phrase as a call to eradicate Israel and critics, including some Jewish American organizations, who say that it constitutes antisemitic hate speech.

People, including one holding up a sign that reads: "From the River to the Sea", chant slogans under Palestinian flags during a "Freedom for Palestine" protest.
People, including one holding up a sign that reads: “From the River to the Sea”, chant slogans under Palestinian flags during a “Freedom for Palestine” protest that drew thousands of participants on November 04, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A decades-old rallying cry for Palestinian nationalist aspirations has reached a new, broad audience among opponents of Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip.

At protests and on social media, activists and pro-Palestinian demonstrators have used the phrase “from the river to the sea” to express support for the cause of Gaza and Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The slogan refers to the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea – which includes the state of Israel – and is often followed by a second clause: “Palestine will be free.”

Some people have interpreted the phrase as a call to eradicate Israel and critics, including some Jewish American organizations, who say that it constitutes antisemitic hate speech. A rise in antisemitic attacks in the United States and Europe since the start of the war has contributed to the unease.

Pro-Palestinian activists say the controversy over the phrase, which is encompassing enough to express a range of visions, serves to silence dissent over Israel’s assault on Hamas in Gaza, launched in response to the Hamas attack on Israeli communities last month.

Last week, the House of Representatives censured Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the only Palestinian American member of Congress, for her remarks about the conflict and a video she posted on social media of protesters chanting the slogan.

Here’s what to know about the origins of the phrase, its connotations and the controversy it has caused.

It gained traction as a call for a ‘secular, democratic, free Palestine.’

It’s not clear when the slogan emerged, but scholars say it started gaining traction in the 1960s among Palestinian activists and intellectuals who were made refugees by the 1948 war.

During that conflict, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes by Israeli forces, after which the state of Israel was established. Many of them settled in the West Bank, which was later annexed by Jordan, and in Gaza, which was administered by Egypt. (Israel captured both territories in the 1967 war with neighboring Arab states).

Palestinian refugees began developing the idea of a “free Palestine” – a “secular, democratic, free” state, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, said Maha Nassar, an associate professor of Middle East history and Islamic Studies at the University of Arizona.

Later, the phrase was taken up by supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, the coalition founded in 1964 that remains the official representative of the Palestinian people at the United Nations. In the rounds of conflicts and uprisings in the decades that followed, it became popular among different Palestinian factions.

More recently, supporters of Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, have adopted the slogan. The group’s charter, in which the phrase does not appear, calls for a movement that “hits deep into the earth and spreads to hug the sky.”

“Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north,” Khaled Mashaal, the group’s former leader, said in a 2012 speech in Gaza celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of Hamas, the Associated Press reported.

Samidoun Deutschland, the German chapter of the international Palestinian-rights activists group Samidoun on Facebook.
This screenshot shows the still active Facebook page of Samidoun Deutschland, the German chapter of the international Palestinian-rights activists group Samidoun, including the slogan: “Free Palestine From The River To The Sea”, which negates Israel’s right to exist, on November 03, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. – Sean Gallup/Getty Images

To some, it’s a call for peace.

To many Palestinians and their supporters, “min an-nahr ila al-bahr,” “from the river to the sea,” is still a call for a peaceful land – though not always with the aim of a single, secular state. The slogan does not conjure “a specific political platform,” Nassar said. Instead, it is a call for an “imagined future of peace and freedom.”

It’s “a call to end the occupation” by Israel, she said, and a “call for an ability to return” to areas from which Palestinians fled or were expelled. The internationally recognized “right of return” to land and home, held by refugees including many Palestinians, has long been a key point of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Tlaib, in a post on X, formerly Twitter, defended the phrase as “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.”

The slogan is “a demand for democratic coexistence between Jews and Arabs,” the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee said in a statement also defending Tlaib.

To others, it’s antisemitic.

Many Jews, Jewish organizations and advocates for Israel, among others, view the slogan as antisemitic.

“The vast majority of Jews in many contexts, hearing that slogan, hear something that feels deeply threatening and offensive and many, many Jews would characterize it as antisemitic,” said Ethan Katz, an associate professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

At best, Katz said, the slogan comes across to many Jews as a call for the end of the state of Israel. At its worst, he said, it’s a call for “the annihilation of Jews living between the river and the sea.” The attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 has amplified negative interpretations of the phrase, he said.

The Anti-Defamation League, an advocacy group devoted to identifying and fighting antisemitism, in a statement last month, described the slogan as “an antisemitic charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland.”

Such fears touch on memories of genocide and displacement instilled in Jewish communities by Nazi Germany’s eradication of some 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.

Amid warnings by Jewish student groups about antisemitic incidents on campuses, university presidents have waded into the fray. “Our community must understand that phrases such as ‘from the river to the sea’ bear specific historical meanings that to a great many people imply the eradication of Jews from Israel and engender both pain and existential fears,” Harvard President Claudine Gay wrote in an email, the Harvard Crimson reported.

Many pro-Palestinian advocates say that “from the river to the sea” does not call for the expulsion of Jews, and that extreme interpretations of the slogan are misguided. “The attempts to redefine this chant by those who are not Palestinian is an overreach and mischaracterization,” the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee said.

Other defenders of the phrase contend that even maximally interpreted, it conveys an inverse of the stated ambitions of leaders of the Israeli settler movement, which has ties to the current Israeli government.

It’s “important to center those who are actually using the phrase and what it means to them” in discussions about the slogan’s meaning, Nassar said. Attacks on those who use the phrase, however well intentioned, serve to disarm Palestinians and their supporters of a powerful rhetorical tool, she said.

Intent aside, Katz said, people using the phrase should “think carefully about how the slogan is heard in this moment.”

The slogan has come under international criticism

Authorities in the Austrian capital, Vienna, last month banned a pro-Palestinian protest explicitly because of organizers’ use of the slogan. The words, in the context of recent events, amounted to a “clear call to violence,” said the city’s police chief, Gerhard Puerstl, Reuters reported.

Other governments in Europe, some of which ban forms of speech deemed antisemitic, have acted similarly. Berlin’s government has criminalized the slogan, alongside “Death to the Jews,” Israel’s i24 News reported.

British Home Secretary Suella Braverman said in a letter to police officials that they should consider whether the slogan “should be understood as an expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world, and whether its use in certain contexts may amount to a racially aggravated section 5 public order offence,” the Guardian reported. Braverman was replaced following uproar over her comments, which included an accusation that British police were too sympathetic toward pro-Palestinian supporters.

Last month, a Dutch court ruled that “from the river to the sea” was protected speech, after an activist had been reported to the police for inciting violence against Jews after he uttered the slogan at a protest this summer, before the current war. The judge ruled that the phrase related to the state of Israel and not Jewish people more broadly, according to the European Legal Support Center, which assisted the defendant.

Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.