On Nov. 28th, at an event marking the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Professor Marc Lamont Hill gave a speech at the United Nations. In it, he criticized the Israeli state’s apartheid politics and military occupation and called for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. During this speech, he called for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea.” As a result, he was fired from his position as political commentator for CNN.
Professor Hill is only the latest casualty in the longstanding, ongoing Zionist suppression of speech that is in any way critical of Israel. What is noteworthy, however, is the way in which he has come under particular criticism and scrutiny for his use of the phrase, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
That Professor Hill, a committed social justice scholar, felt pressured to apologize for having used this phrase is evidence of both the goodness of his intentions and the overwhelming power of the Zionist lobby. Not only do they spread lies and misinformation about Israel’s actions–much less the meaning and origins of this particular slogan–but they also exploit the good intentions of otherwise righteous people and force them, on pain of termination or tarring with the brush of anti-Semitism, to second-guess or repudiate their actions.
The Zionist lobby has seized upon this expression as emblematic of the ostensible genocidal intent of BDS advocates and have made extraordinary headway in getting mainstream Americans to view this phrase as having been concocted by Hamas. Neither of these things is true, of course. But Israel advocates know they will lose any actual argument about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, which is irrefutably oppressive and unjust. Therefore, they have turned to rhetorical gamesmanship and accusations of anti-Semitism in an attempt to silence Israel’s critics rather than refute them.
As many have pointed out, the call for justice throughout historic Palestine is hardly limited to or identified with only one Palestinian political trend. As Sami (@siinjiim) observed on Twitter,
“From the river to the sea” is a *Palestinian* slogan. It expresses the fundamental truth that we aren’t just from the West Bank, Jerusalem, or Gaza. We’re also from Jaffa, from Acre, from Haifa, from Majdal, from Ramleh, from Lydda, from every part of Palestine.”
As Palestinian historian Maha Nassar wrote recently in the Forward,
[T]he call for a free Palestine “from the river to the sea” gained traction in the 1960s. It was 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.
In other words, “from the river to the sea” expresses not simply the fact that Palestinians originate from everywhere in Palestine, but also that they are oppressed by the Israeli state everywhere in Palestine and in exile and diaspora.
- Palestinians in the West Bank face brutal military occupation and administration via “emergency” law. They are subject to strict control over movement (e.g., a snaking 25-foot high concrete Annexation Wall and vast network of checkpoints, apartheid roads that they are banned from using, military closures/curfews/other restrictions, identity documentation requirements, work permits) as well as all of the abuses that attend military rule (searches, arrests, beatings, indefinite detentions, imprisonment, home raids and demolitions, etc.).
- In the Gaza Strip, despite the withdrawal of Israeli settlements in 2005, Israel has maintained control over all space and movement, regulating the land, sea, and air space and prohibiting most people and goods from either entering or exiting. Since 2006, Israel has visited three genocidal wars upon the Strip and simultaneously imposed a blockade, the impact of which is akin to the US sanctions regime against Iraq in the 1990s.
- In East Jerusalem, Palestinians are subject to a unique regime of identity documentation, movement restriction, and home demolition akin to but distinct from that faced by Palestinians in the West Bank.
- Meanwhile, inside Palestine ‘48 (often referred to as Israel “proper”), Palestinian citizens face discriminatory laws, treatment, and opportunities in housing, education, health care, and legal rights.
- Palestinians throughout Palestine face vicious, anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia.
- Palestinians in the refugee camps and in diaspora throughout the world are denied their internationally recognized right to return to the homes from which they were displaced in the 1947-9 war and ethnic cleansing that created Israel to begin with.
To declare that, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is to declare that, in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, no Palestinian should be subject to any of these forms of oppression.
Zionists, the Zionist lobby, and otherwise well-meaning people influenced by Zionist interpretations of the reality of Palestinian life between the river and the sea are adamant that this phrase entails the destruction of the state of Israel, indicates the speaker’s desire for the destruction of Israel, or is an open declaration of genocidal longing against Jews.
Maintaining this view, however, is possible only by ignoring the facts on the ground, which have little to nothing to do with Jewish people. It is apparently impossible to say this too often: criticizing Israel is not equivalent to Jew-hatred, and objecting to Zionism is not objecting to Judaism. Israel is a state; Jewish people are followers of a specific faith tradition. Zionism is an ethnonationalist settler colonial movement; Judaism is one of the world’s major religions. Just as one can critique a state and its policies without despising its citizens, so too can one object to racism, empire, apartheid, and settler colonialism without having any opinion whatsoever about religion. It is, in fact, Zionists who seek to conflate Judaism with both Israel and Zionism, because it allows them to instrumentalize the accusation of anti-Semitism to immunize Israel from critique.
Moreover, if it would destroy Israel to stop oppressing Palestinians, then this is a clear admission that such oppression is Israel’s essence. If, however, as so many Israel advocates insist, that country is a beacon of democracy and equal treatment, then they as much as anyone else should support freedom for Palestinians from the river to the sea.
What does freedom for Palestinians “from the river to the sea” mean?
- Ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Annexation Wall;
- Upholding equality and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel; and
- Recognizing and upholding Palestinians’ internationally recognized right of return to the homes and properties from which they have been displaced.
Unsurprisingly, these are the three demands of the BDS movement. They are Prof. Hill’s demands, they are USACBI’s demands, and they are the demands of all people of conscience who seek the end of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and truly aspire to freedom and justice for all.
In that spirit, then, USACBI declares its unequivocal support for Professor Marc Lamont Hill. He has nothing to apologize for. We stand beside him in the ever-growing global movement for justice for Palestinians. We therefore staunchly proclaim, without fear or shame, in solidarity with our comrades in the US and Palestine and throughout the world,
FROM THE RIVER TO THE SEA, PALESTINE WILL BE FREE!
Photo: Marc Lamont Hill Facebook Page