In Congress and on Campuses, ‘From the River to the Sea’ Inflames Debate


When House Republicans and a solid bloc of Democrats banded together this week to censure Representative Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, for her statements about the Israel-Gaza war, they homed in on her embrace and defense of one pro-Palestinian slogan they called unacceptable: “from the river to the sea.”

The official congressional rebuke of Ms. Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, said the phrase was “widely recognized as a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel.” The top White House spokeswoman disavowed it from the West Wing, saying it was “divisive” and that many considered it hurtful and antisemitic.

The phrase, which Ms. Tlaib has defended as “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction or hate” has not only become a flashpoint for dispute in Washington; it has echoed across college campuses and in cities throughout the country in recent weeks as pro-Palestinian activists protest the heavy civilian toll of Israel’s war against Hamas. The slogan has prompted charges of antisemitism and fueled an increasingly bitter debate over the conflict, its root causes and how it should be waged — and what position the United States should be taking as it rages on.

The decades-old phrase has a complicated back story that has led to radically different interpretations by Israelis and Palestinians, and by Americans who support them.

“The reason why this term is so hotly disputed is because it means different things to different people,” said Dov Waxman, a professor of Israel studies at the University of California in Los Angeles, adding that “the conflicting interpretations have kind of grown over time.”

The phrase “from the river to the sea” — or in Arabic, “min al-nahr ila al-bahr” — dates to the dawn of the Palestinian nationalist movement in the early 1960s, about a quarter century before Hamas came into existence. It gained popularity within the Palestine Liberation Organization, or P.L.O., as a call for returning to the borders under British control of Palestine, where Jews and Arabs had both lived before the creation of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948.

The slogan reflects the geography of that original claim: Israel spans the narrow stretch of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But the phrase’s popularity persisted even as territorial claims shifted, after the P.L.O. entered peace negotiations in the 1990s, formally recognizing Israel’s right to exist and coming to governance through the creation of the Palestinian Authority.

For many Palestinians, the phrase now has a dual meaning, representing their desire for a right of return to the towns and villages from which their families were expelled in 1948, as well as their hope for an independent Palestinian state, incorporating the West Bank, which abuts the Jordan River, and the Gaza Strip, which hugs the coastline of the Mediterranean.

“When they’re using that phrase, it’s a very personal one for them,” said Maha Nassar, an associate professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Arizona. “They’re saying, ‘I identify with my ancestral home in Palestine, even if it’s not on a map today.’”

“Also, it’s an insistence on Palestinians and Palestine being unified,” she added.

But the phrase has also been adopted over the years by Hamas, which calls for the annihilation of Israel, taking on a darker meaning that has long shaped the way in which it is received.

That has only intensified in the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, in which the group killed more than 1,400 civilians and soldiers, the largest single-day slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, and took hundreds of others hostage. Gaza’s health ministry, which is run by Hamas, says that more than 10,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes since.

“It is an antisemitic charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

In a post on X this week, the A.D.L., a nonpartisan group that fights antisemitism, wrote: “‘From the River to the Sea’ is a Hamas call to annihilate Israel,” adding that “claiming it is a rally of coexistence gives cover to terror.”

Many members of Congress, including dozens of Democrats, endorsed a similar view this week as they condemned Ms. Tlaib for her comments.

The slogan does not appear in Hamas’s founding covenant from 1988, which pledges “to confront the Zionist invasion and defeat it,” not just in historic Palestinian territory, but worldwide. It is featured, however, in a section of the group’s revised platform from 2017. In the same paragraph, Hamas indicates it could accept a Palestinian state along the borders that were in place before the 1967 war — the same borders considered under the Oslo Accords.

Still, Hamas’s firm commitment not to recognize Israel under any conditions has solidified the impression to critics that whoever repeats the slogan is participating in a rallying cry for the destruction of Israel — and by extension, of the Jewish people as well.

“The phrase ‘Palestine will be free from the river to the sea’ suggests a vision of the future without a Jewish state, but it does not answer the question of what the role of Jews would be,” said Peter Beinart, a professor at the City University of New York. He added that the meaning of the phrase, however, “depends on the context.”

“If it’s coming from an armed Hamas member then yes, I would feel threatened,” said Mr. Beinart, who is Jewish. “If it is coming from someone who I know has a vision of equality and mutual liberation, then no, I would not feel threatened.”

Many Palestinians have been dismayed over the outrage about the slogan, which they regard as the result of an orchestrated effort by groups like the A.D.L. to impugn the motives of Palestinians as a means of undermining their cause of statehood and silencing them.

“It is perfectly possible for both people to be free between the river and the sea,” Ahmad Khalidi, a researcher at Oxford University who worked on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations during the 1990s, said of Palestinians and Jews. “Is ‘free’ necessarily in itself genocidal? I think any reasonable person would say no. Does it preclude the fact that the Jewish population in the area between the sea and the river cannot also be free? I think any reasonable person would also say no.”

Mr. Khalidi pointed out that Israel’s Likud party, which is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, embraced a similar slogan in its original 1977 platform, which stated that, “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” That phrase also could be seen “as having a malign intent,” he said.

Likud has since dropped the phrase, though the party has opposed a two-state solution in which Palestinians would have a recognized state alongside Israel. And in 2018, Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition pushed through a law that enshrined the right of national self-determination in Israel as “unique to the Jewish people.”


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