'From the river to the sea': What to know about the pro-Palestinian slogan that's roiling American politics

  • Rep. Rashida Tlaib is facing condemnation for endorsing the phrase "from the river to the sea."

  • The phrase's anti-Israel origins and ongoing use by Israel's enemies make it offensive to many Jews.

  • But it's widely used among Palestinians to call for equality in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.

"From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."

At pro-Palestinian protests and in activist spaces, it's a rather common refrain, referring to the entirety of the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea — land that includes Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Gaza.

But the phrase is inflammatory to many Israelis and Jewish people, given its origins as a call for the end of the Israeli state, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib's defense of the term is generating significant controversy for the Michigan Democrat within her own party.

Here's what you should know about the controversy over the slogan as well as its origins and contemporary use.

'An aspirational call for freedom'

On Friday, Tlaib posted a video on X urging an Israeli cease-fire, accusing President Joe Biden of supporting what the video referred to as a genocide against Palestinians. Toward the end of the video, crowds of pro-Palestinian protesters in Michigan can be heard chanting the slogan.

"From the river to the sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate," Tlaib, the only Palestinian American serving in Congress, wrote in a follow-up post.

But Tlaib's use of the term has spurred other Democrats — particularly Jewish Democrats — to criticize their colleague in strong terms.

"This is so hurtful to so many," Michigan's attorney general, Dana Nessel, wrote on X. "Please retract this cruel and hateful remark."

Rep. Brad Schneider of Illinois, a Jewish Democrat, is said to be circulating a letter condemning Tlaib's remarks, and Punchbowl News reported that Republicans might try (again) to censure her because of them.

How Jewish people view the phrase

Some Jewish people believe that the slogan is antisemitic and even genocidal, arguing that it implies the dismantling of the state of Israel as a Jewish ethnostate.

They point to the fact that anti-Israel groups such as Hamas have employed the phrase to mean just that.

"It is fundamentally a call for a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, territory that includes the State of Israel, which would mean the dismantling of the Jewish state," says the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil-rights organization with a strong pro-Israel bent. "It is an antisemitic charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland."

Similarly, the American Jewish Committee argues that there is "nothing antisemitic about advocating for Palestinians to have their own state" but that "calling for the elimination of the Jewish state," as it says the slogan does, is antisemitic.

The origins of the slogan

As the Palestinian American scholar Maha Nassar wrote in the Jewish publication Forward in 2018, the slogan gained traction among Palestinians in the 1960s as they sought a single secular, democratic state extending across the entirety of the land historically known as Palestine, which includes both Israel and the Palestinian territories.

That was the line taken by the Palestine Liberation Organization upon its founding by Yasser Arafat in 1964.

In other words, the slogan did originate as a call for the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state.

As Nassar notes, plenty of Palestinians did believe at the time that a realization of that vision would most likely entail thousands of Jewish people voluntarily leaving, given that they would no longer live in an explicitly Jewish state.

Palestinians viewed Israelis within the context of settler colonialism, believing Israel to be yet another European colony akin to Algeria.

Is it used by Hamas? Yes

As leading Palestinian groups like the Palestine Liberation Organization abandoned the idea of a one-state solution in favor of a two-state solution in the 1980s and 1990s, that mantle was opportunistically taken up by Hamas, an Islamist militant organization founded in the late 1980s that garnered support based on the perception that secular leaders in the PLO had given up too much.

Hamas, a political and militant group that has governed Gaza since 2007 and is widely designated as a terrorist organization by Western countries, uses the phrase in its 2017 charter.

"Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea," article 20 of the charter says.

Yet even as it employed this phrase, the group signaled that it would accept a Palestinian state that did not include Israeli territory:

"Without compromising its rejection of the Zionist entity and without relinquishing any Palestinian rights, Hamas considers the establishment of a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th of June 1967, with the return of the refugees and the displaced to their homes from which they were expelled, to be a formula of national consensus."

A broader contemporary meaning

Despite the slogan's origins, its meaning for many Palestinians has grown broader over time into something less about the eradication of Israel than the rights of Palestinians.

The Palestinian American scholar and activist Yousef Munayyer wrote in Jewish Currents in 2021 that the phrase — particularly when invoked by activists — alludes to Palestinians' shared political struggles across Israel and the Palestinian territories, including discrimination in Israel proper, military occupation in the West Bank, and conditions in Gaza that have been likened to an "open-air prison."

"The phrase 'from the river to the sea' captures this future as no other can, because it encompasses the entire space in which Palestinian rights are denied," Munayyer wrote. "It is in this space that Palestinians seek to live freely."

Munayyer argues that when Palestinians use the phrase, they are pushing for a "state in which Palestinians can live in their homeland as free and equal citizens, neither dominated by others nor dominating them."

The slogan has also gained steam as the prospect of a two-state solution has grown ever slimmer, particularly as Israelis continue to construct settlements deep within the West Bank and as international human-rights organizations increasingly describe Israel as an apartheid state.

It's also worth noting that Palestinians aren't the only ones who have used a version of the phrase — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's political party, Likud, used the phrase in its original party platform.

"Between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty," reads the document, which also argued that a Palestinian state "endangers the existence of the State of Israel."

And as recently as 2015, a deputy foreign minister argued that the international community must recognize that "this entire land is ours. All of it, from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River, and we are not here to apologize for this."

Correction: November 7, 2023 — An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Michigan's attorney general. It's Dana Nessel, not Dana Nassel.

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