JTA — In a video posted to social media on Sunday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib leveled a litany of harsh accusations at US President Joe Biden — from saying he betrayed his voters to blaming him for endorsing “genocide” by allowing Israel to continue dismantling the Hamas terror organization which rules the Gaza Strip.
But one six-word phrase in the video caught the ire of a growing chorus of critics and led to formal consequences in Congress: “From the river to the sea.”
The slogan generally appears as the first half of the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — referring to the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which encompasses Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. It’s a phrase that Jewish watchdogs call antisemitic, that has caused at least one pro-Palestinian commentator to lose a job — and that Tlaib has walked back in the past.
On Monday night, the House of Representatives voted to censure Tlaib, in part because of the phrase. A group of Tlaib’s fellow Democratic Congress members said it’s a “rallying cry for the destruction of the State of Israel and genocide of the Jewish people.”
In response to the backlash, Tlaib posted that the slogan is “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.” Tlaib supports the establishment of a single, binational Palestinian-Jewish state in place of what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Here’s a rundown of the controversy over “From the river to the sea,” why Jewish groups say it’s antisemitic and how it’s being used surrounding the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, which began with a highly-coordinated terror onslaught emanating from the Gaza Strip that saw 1,400 Israelis murdered, most of them civilians, and over 240 kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza.
The brutality of the massacres has gained worldwide attention, as bone-chilling scenes of entire families murdered, tortured, dismembered and desecrated — many of them burned alive — have come to light. Hamas gunmen occupied numerous Israeli villages bordering the Gaza Strip and went door to door murdering residents, not discriminating between men and women or young and old. Many of the victims were babies, young children, and the elderly, and many survivors have alleged widespread sexual assault.
The phrase is a mainstay of Palestinian protests — and appears in Hamas documents
The Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea form the eastern and western boundaries, respectively, of what was the British Mandate of Palestine before 1948. It is also the heart of the biblical Land of Israel (though the ancient Jewish kingdom there extended further).
In 1947, the United Nations partitioned the land into separate Jewish and Arab states, a decision Jewish leaders accepted and Palestinian and broader Arab leadership rejected, claiming the entire territory. Right-wing Israeli political movements have likewise claimed the entirety of the territory for Israel.
Israel held control over the entire territory from the 1967 Six-Day War until its withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 — though it never annexed the West Bank and, before 2014, held successive rounds of negotiations with Palestinian leaders over a potential withdrawal.
Since the 1960s, “From the river to the sea” has been used by Palestinian nationalist movements such as the Palestine Liberation Organization and, later, Hamas.
Hamas’s 2017 charter states that in principle, it “rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” In a 2012 speech, 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.”
Israel and Jewish groups view it as a call for Israel’s destruction
Because the whole slogan calls for a Palestine that is “free” across all of the territory that now encompasses Israel, Israelis and their supporters in Congress and beyond view it as a call for Israel’s destruction. In an entry calling the phrase antisemitic, the Anti-Defamation League says the phrase “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 likewise says the phrase denotes “erasing the State of Israel and its people. It is also a rallying cry for terrorist groups and their sympathizers.”
Ahead of Monday’s censure vote, Democratic Reps. Brad Schneider, Ritchie Torres and Norma Torres circulated a statement signed by 70 Democratic lawmakers stating, “We reject the use of the phrase from the river to the Sea, a phrase used by many, including Hamas, as a rallying cry for the destruction of the state of Israel and genocide of the Jewish people.”
Monday’s censure resolution, which was Republican-led but garnered 23 Democratic votes, said the phrase is “a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people.”
The phrase has drawn censure abroad, as well. Late last month, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said the chanting of “From the river to the sea” would become a criminal offense in that country. Lawmakers in Britain and the Netherlands also said they believed using the phrase in protests should be illegal.
Israeli politicians have occasionally used the phrase as well
Israeli politicians have also used the phrase to describe the entire area, although more rarely. In 2020, right-wing lawmaker Gideon Saar, an ally-turned-rival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said, “Between the Jordan River and the sea there won’t be another independent state,” meaning a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Religious Zionist politician Uri Ariel said in 2014, “Between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea there will be only one state, which is Israel.”
Netanyahu, who also opposes Palestinian statehood, has favored the phrase “west of the Jordan,” which refers to the same territory.
Pro-Palestinian activists who have used the phrase have faced consequences
Tlaib is defending her use of the phrase now, but in the past, she appears to have recognized that it is problematic. In 2020, she shared a post on Twitter using the phrase but deleted it following backlash.
And in 2018, Marc Lamont Hill, a pro-Palestinian political commentator and professor at Temple University, was fired from a role at CNN after he used the “From the river” phrase in a speech at the United Nations. Hill subsequently apologized for using the phrase.
More recently, he has questioned the idea that the phrase calls for Israel’s destruction, pointing to its usage by some Israelis.
“You say ‘River to the Sea’ is ‘universally’ understood to mean the destruction of the Jewish State? On what basis do you make this claim? Did it signify destruction when it was the slogan of the Likud Party? Or when currently used by the Israeli Right? Or even liberal Zionists?” he wrote on X in September.
Rashida Tlaib is defending the phrase despite backlash
In a reply to her initial post on Sunday, Tlaib wrote, “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.”
And as she faced censure on Monday, Tlaib noted that she is the only Palestinian-American in Congress.
“[M]y perspective is needed here now more than ever,” she wrote on X. “I will not be silenced and I will not let anyone distort my words.”
In a speech to Congress on Monday, Tlaib did not use the phrase “From the river to the sea” and said her criticism focused on the Israeli government.
“My criticism has always been of the Israeli government and Netanyahu’s actions,” she said. “The idea that criticizing the government of Israel is antisemitic sets a very dangerous precedent.”
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