Saturday, December 01, 2018

"From the River to the Sea": A Guide to the Perplexed

So we're all talking about the phrase "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" -- which, after Temple Professor Marc Lamont Hill said it at a UN conference, reportedly caused his termination from CNN.

I don't want to talk about Hill directly though. Quickly: He should face absolutely zero professional consequences at Temple -- that's a straightforward academic freedom issue. There is no academic freedom analogue to a sinecure at CNN, but I probably wouldn't have fired him either -- then again, I have a pretty high bar for firing people in cases like these. Certainly, the network that employs Rick Santorum doesn't have much of a leg to stand on in this respect.

What I do want to do is give some context -- hopefully helpful -- to the slogan "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." I do not wish to directly challenge anyone's substantive political commitments on the score. Much the opposite: my assumption is that there are a great many people for whom the phrase "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" sounds wholly innocuous if not laudatory -- who doesn't want freedom for all people living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? -- and are a bit baffled that such a statement could trigger such an intense backlash.

In particular, my target audience is someone I imagine thinking along roughly the following lines:
  1. They support freedom for all people who happen to reside between the Jordan and Mediterranean;
  2. They read "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" as a pithy way of expressing the above commitment;
  3. They've noted, with some confusion, that many Jews seemed to react extremely poorly to the use of this phrase; and
  4. They assume that there's at least a decent chance that the reason for this negative reaction is not that the Jews in question are opposed to all or some people between the Jordan and the Mediterranean being free, and accordingly wonder what the actual reason is.
That fourth proviso is important. I say that while fully recognizing the sad truth that there are plenty of people -- Jewish and not -- who really don't desire or care about the freedom of all people in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.

Still, I stress this element because I think that thinking along these lines is a good habit to get into: when a marginalized group reacts with strong negativity towards a statement or program which seems, on a facial semantic level, wholly unobjectionable or laudable, it's good practice to hold open the possibility that they have reasons for their rejection that are not purely venal, selfish, or stupid. 

This is habit shouldn't just extend to Jews, of course. In the recent controversies over Louis Farrakhan's antisemitism, for example, some Black (including some Black Jewish) authors expressed concern over the way discourse on antisemitism honed in on Farrakhan. Many White people, for whom Farrakhan's antisemitism, homophobia, and all-around awfulness seemed obvious and uncontroversial, were perplexed by this response, and some resolved that confusion by saying "wow, Black people just can't condemn even obvious bigots like Louis Farrakhan!" But this was a bad response. Certainly, some people had that problem (just as some people really do simply object to the notion of a free Palestinian people). But a cursory reading of many of the authors in question would demonstrate that their issues had nothing to do with failing to recognize Farrakhan's bigotry. The better move was to instead figure that the hesitation regarding how the Farrakhan/antisemitism discourse was proceeding stemmed from something more complicated than the naked inability to see obvious antisemitism for what it is.

So, to swing it back to the case at hand: when Jews respond poorly to a statement that you read as simply an uncontroversial call for freedom, you can either think (1) "wow, Jews sure do hate freedom!" or (2) "wow, there's probably something more complicated going on here -- I should investigate!" This post is dedicated to those who take door #2.

Enough throat-clearing. What is the "more complicated" that drives many Jews' sharp antipathy to the phrase "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free"?

First, some history. This phrase does indeed predate Hamas. But its historical pedigree has tended to be tied to more maximalist elements of Palestinian politics -- the branch which really doesn't see a place for Jews (or at least an equal place) anywhere in Israel or Palestine, and who have at times quite explicitly endorsed the project of pushing Jews into the sea.

At the most basic level, then, the triggering aspects of "from the river to the sea" stem from its association with a brand of violent anti-Zionist maximalism which, particularly around the War of Independence in 1948, spoke of throwing Jews into the sea (the internet is replete with debates over whether this or that Arab leader really said this or that precise quotation, but there doesn't seem to be much controversy that the general rhetoric of "pushing them into the sea" was present at that time and was perceived as a genocidal threat).

The traumatic associations here cannot be overstated -- just a few years after a third of the world's Jewish population was massacred, a goodly chunk of the survivors living in the nascent Israeli state were threatened with a renewed genocide that promised the Jews living west of the river that they would soon find their final resting place in the sea. Insofar as "from the river to the sea" reverberates with that history, it should not surprise that it is viewed as a threat.

The above account explains why, for some Jews, the "river to the sea" rhetoric is perceived as outright genocidal, and for many, that's enough. But another line is that the "river to the sea" language is a call for the "destruction of Israel." In broad strokes, this claim is that the slogan seeks the elimination of the state "Israel" and its replacement with something else -- namely "Palestine" (think the "Make Israel Palestine Again" slogan). This interpretation presents a more complex case.

The question of when a state is "destroyed" is peculiarly metaphysical -- it evokes the Ship of Theseus -- but the slogan's defenders seem to have an apt rejoinder: they are not calling for the destruction of Israel, but its reformation. All they want, in Hill's articulation, is a secular, equal state -- not a "Jewish" state or a "Palestinian" state, but a state for all its citizens where all those permanently residing between the river and the sea enjoy the same, full, free rights. Just as America didn't stop being America when it passed the Fourteenth Amendment or the Civil Rights Act, neither would Israel cease to be Israel if it changed its laws to provide for that vision of secular liberal equality. It would simply be an Israel with better laws and institutions than Israel does now. And just as urging civil rights for American Blacks did not entail desiring the subjugation of American Whites, neither is calling for freedom for Palestinians a demand for the oppression of Israeli Jews.

One interesting feature of this rejoinder, however, is that it suggests that the slogan need not actually be "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free." It could just as easily run "from the river to the sea, Israel will be free." Indeed, on a purely semantic level, that would seem to be the more accurate expression. The state that currently exists, and where objectionable unfreeness currently obtains, is Israel. The state which would be passing the equivalent of the Civil Rights Act would be Israel, not Palestine. If the political program on the table is really a set of statutory reforms designed to provide secular equality, the name of the state need not change.

Nonetheless, I suspect that most of those who chant "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" would reject the substitution. This suggests that there is a replacement going on: Israel-with-better-laws is not viewed as the same thing as a free Palestine. That, in turn, indicates that the political ambitions are not reducible to simply establishing political rules in the river-to-sea territory that replace "Israeli" or "Palestinian" or "Jew" or "Arab" with just "citizens".

The trick is that the slogan does not refer to freeing Palestinians. It speaks of freeing Palestine -- a territory, not a people. When we speak of freeing a people, we usually are referring to individuals who lack certain legal rights and prerogatives. When we speak of freeing a territory, we usually are speaking of a land that is under foreign dominion. The former is the language of, e.g., segregation -- people lacking full citizenship rights. The latter is the language of the occupation: Palestine, the land, is ruled by outsiders -- i.e., Israel. This status would not itself be cured by the extension of citizenship rights (any more than, say, France giving Algeria equality in the French state would have "freed" Algeria, though it arguably would have freed the Algerians). And this also explains why a slogan saying "Israel will be free" rings so odd: free from who? Israel already controls the territory in question; there's no foreign domination to speak of. It is Palestine that currently is occupied by an external power, and so it is Palestine, not Israel, that needs to be freed.

Put another way: the grammar of the slogan gives a hint as to what is meant by the word "free". It isn't the freedom of individual liberties implied by a call for a secular, equal state; it is the freedom of liberating an occupied territory from foreign domination. That's not wrong, it's just different. If I wrote "from California to Texas, Mexico will be free", any normal reader would take that to be saying that this entire stretch of territory should be under the rule of Mexico -- that these Mexican territories are under the foreign domination of the United States, but one day they will be freed (restored to Mexico). You can endorse that revanchist claim or not, but it'd be very weird for me to insist that this slogan actually was just urging that the Chicano/a community be treated fairly by whatever country happened to rule from California to Texas.

So let me stress: on its own, the claim that there is a territory "Palestine" that is currently under alien rule by Israel is not objectionable. Indeed, it is the locus insight of a two-state solution: there is a Palestine -- the West Bank and Gaza -- which Israel occupies or has occupied, that territory is not Israel's (i.e., Israel is a foreign or alien power to it), and that territory should revert to Palestinian control. Likewise there are territories which are properly Israeli (they are not foreign or alien, these lands are its "homelands"), and so those territories are rightfully under Israeli control. Put aside the usual half-million complications, and this is roughly my position: Israel should control Israel, and Palestine should control Palestine. Two states for two peoples.

But the formulation of viewing Israel as the alien outsider occupying the land of Palestine is not the same thing as a call for equal rights. More to the point,, this formulation takes an ugly turn when it is conjoined with "from the river to the sea". Whereas in the two-state model there is an equality between Israeli and Palestinian entitlements -- both are "home" in at least some of the territory, neither are wholly alienated or excluded -- if Palestine as a political entity extends from the river-to-the-sea, then none of the territory is "Israel's", Israel is foreign to all of it, and the demand that it be reverted to Palestinian control really is a demand that Israel disappear in a very tangible way. In a different way, this would be the (or a) problem with "Greater Israel" -- it implies that Palestine is nowhere, that there is no Palestine to be freed (which, of course, is a claim right-wing Israelis make all the time -- "there's no such thing as Palestine" -- and suggesting that Palestinians are foreign interlopers on Jewish land).

The "Make Israel Palestine Again" slogan crystallizes the view that -- beyond the particular legal regime that might be enacted -- there is something more fundamentally wrong about there being an "Israel" of any sort, that it represents a sort of alien intrusion whose existence in itself thwarts the existence of a free Palestine. Palestine is not fully free so long as there is an Israel, because any territory that Israel might occupy is occupied. When Hill said that he "just got off of a flight from Palestine", referring to a flight that almost assuredly departed from (pre-67) Israel, he's not making a statement about the existence or not of legal rights. He's making a statement about the true lawful ownership of land that has been usurped. The land -- all the land -- is Palestine. Israel -- all of Israel -- is a foreign occupation. And while I don't think it is fair to Hill to suggest he supports genocide against Israeli Jews, I do think it is fair to say he believes that the great bulk of Israeli Jews are fundamentally foreign interlopers anywhere the reside from the river to the sea -- which is why he can characterize the entire conflict is being "about land theft, expulsion and ethnic cleansing by foreign settlers to indigenous land."

If the entire presence of Israel anywhere from the river to the sea is an alien imposition on Palestine, then the net result is that Jews are deemed foreigners everywhere from the river to the sea. In addition to echoing some specific antisemitic tropes (the Jew as the eternal outsider/foreigner/wanderer), this sort of otherization very often comes attached to decidedly inegalitarian projects and attitudes towards Jews, and accordingly it tends to cause skepticism about the feasibility, durability, and sometimes sincerity of professed commitments to full equality in a secular state. At the very least, it isn't really compatible with the professed neutrality of this state -- one group is in its home, the other is at most a tolerated outsider. At the extreme, triggers those more terrifying "into the sea" worries (even if here the Jews might be given the courtesy of boats, that they might "go back where they came from").

This connection is far from speculative. When Helen Thomas snapped that Jews in Israel should "get the hell out" and "go back to Poland", Mondoweiss suggested that this was a salutary gesture -- it would certainly inject some new vigor into Polish Jewish life (as one Jewish wag replied, "I'm deeply touched by this gesture of philanthropic ethnic cleansing."). More recently, I recall reading a thread by a (Jewish) anti-Zionist who acknowledged that, if and when Palestine was freed "from the river to the sea", it was very likely that many Jews in Israel would leave. This, he assured us, was not a bad thing or a problematic thing -- it was a normal fact of decolonization, no different from the pied-noirs returning to France upon Algeria's independence. The incongruity of where "returning" would refer to in the Jewish case -- what, exactly, was our France in this scenario? -- was overlooked, as was the sheer historical audacity of just assuming that a sudden mass migration of Jews would be absorbed by the other nations of the world without any friction whatsoever. Such troublesome thoughts are easy to avoid thinking, when one sees Jews in Israel as settlers, colonizers, foreigners, and outsiders -- of course they can go back to "where they came from".

So in addition to the historical pedigree, another reason why "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" might provoke a strong reaction is that it is taken to imply that Jews are foreign to all of the land from the river-to-the-sea, that we are outsiders and interlopers in its entirety, that the goal isn't the creation of a Palestinian state but the elimination of a Jewish homeland, that Palestine will be freed only when Israel is gone, and that while our departure from the land may or may not be explicitly desired, it will not be viewed as any more tragic than any other colonizer uprooted from lands he had occupied.

So those are some associations or implications of the "river to the sea" slogan that help explain why many Jews react so strongly against it. There is a particular historical overlay between this rhetoric and the more explicitly violent, even genocidal, rhetoric that has been directed at Israel since its foundation; there is also the implied demand that "Israel" be struck down and replaced by "Palestine" -- suggesting that more than just a demand for equal citizenship and a neutral state is at issue -- and the corresponding portrayal of Jews as utterly and completely foreign presences in all the river-to-the-sea land.

Perhaps you find these rationales compelling, perhaps not. But -- as odd as this is to say -- my goal wasn't exactly to persuade.

Recall what I said my ambition was and who I said my desired audience was. My audience was those persons who found the slogan innocuous and who were confused why so many Jews reacted so sharply against it; my ambition was to explain those reactions in ways that don't reduce to "Jews hate the idea of Palestinians being free."

What had concerned me most about much of what I had been reading wasn't that many people thought this slogan was a straightforward and praiseworthy call for freedom. It was the jump from "this slogan seems to be about freedom" to "if Jews object to this slogan, it must be because they hate freedom." The jump should have been to "if Jews object to this slogan, there's probably something more at work -- and while I don't know if learning what it is will change my mind, I should at least by willing to hear it out".

I do not think that, if you had never heard "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free", the case for why this slogan raises Jewish hackles is self-evident. I just dumped a lot of history and analysis on you; I fully get why someone who isn't versed in that history or analysis would hear those words and not have it raise any alarm bells whatsoever. Indeed, I get why some might be perplexed at how it even could raise alarm bells for someone else. I also get why someone who wasn't versed in the relevant history and was dropped from a mountain hut wouldn't immediately get why "all lives matter" is objectionable. Context is something acquired, it isn't innate. We can't ask for people to be born with the necessary context. We can ask that they be aware that there might be context left to acquire.

So I tried to give context, and hopefully you found the context informative and maybe even persuasive. But I'll frame my ambitions even more modestly: all I hope to have accomplished is that, even if you didn't find my above analysis ultimately persuasive, you would nonetheless agree it presents an explanation for Jewish unease or unhappiness about this slogan that isn't flatly risible, as it would be if we simply detested Palestinian freedom. At the very least, there's a genuine issue here that goes beyond the superficially absurd. And if that seems like a rather small victory, think of how big of a step it is from "these people just hate the idea of Palestinian freedom."

This is the habit I seek to inculcate. Whether we're talking about Jews or any other outgroup, it is good practice to assume that if alarms are raised, they're probably not raising them based on the obviously stupid, venal, or self-interested reasons. There's a strong chance there's something more complicated going on.

So go ahead and assume we have the basic capacity for empathy, reasoning, and analysis that would take us beyond the obvious traps, and see where the path takes you. Maybe you conclude we're still wrong. Maybe you conclude that we're right. Maybe there's a more nuanced position in the middle you end up landing on. No matter what, you've done us the service of treating us as epistemic equals. And that's no small thing.

8 comments:

stettiner said...

Wow.... For an East European Jew, you Americans are really people from Mars...

MaxSpeak said...

I mostly agree, but a few points.

I would have mostly associated the slogan with the PLO, and in their case it was on one level at least purely tactical, wasn't it? In other words, if you won't recognize us, we won't recognize you. It was a spur to negotiations, which they proved willing to engage in.

If you buy that interpretation, why wouldn't it apply today as well? There is exit and voice, and the slogan is a type of exit. Its political effectiveness among Israel's Western allies is certainly ambiguous, but that's a separate issue.

There is also the contrast between the fears of Jews provoked by the slogan, and the routine, lethal assaults on Palestinians by the Jewish state.

On balance I would agree it's a bad slogan, meaning it plays no constructive role.

L'Americain said...

The thing is, a free and equal Israel would almost inevitably become Palestine.

A two-state solution is impossible now thanks to the West Bank settlements. There could be no viable Palestinian state without evicting the vast majority of settlers into Israel proper. Netanyahu would never do that, and if anything Israel is only moving more to the right with time. I don't see any plausible path to a two-state solution in the near future, and in the distant future, the Jewish population of the West Bank will no longer be recent settlers, but an established population that will who it will be much more morally and practically difficult to evict.

One could question whether or not Israel/Palestine is truly free so long as the millions of Palestinian refugees, and their homeless descendants, are barred from returning to their homeland. Even if we exclude people who are only partially descended from the original refugees, the remainder would certainly be enough to push Palestinian Arabs into an absolute majority of the population of Israel/Palestine, considering that Palestinian/Israeli Arabs are already at near-parity with Israel Jews within the borders of Israel/Palestine.

A two-state solution is impossible; all Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs within Israel/Palestine are going to have to share the same country. In a free and just Israel/Palestine, that will involve extending the right of return to displaced Palestinian Arabs and their descendants, unless they are offered and accept a home in their current countries (which looks unlikely). Even if only a small number of refugees return, Palestinian Arabs will be the absolute majority of Israel/Palestine. That is a likely outcome in the near future even without the return of any refugees. And why would a free and equal state where Palestinians form the absolute majority not be called Palestine? If Palestinians can't put that to a vote, then they aren't truly free or equal.

Mikhail Turkhan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mikhail Turkhan said...

"If Palestinians can't put that to a vote, then they aren't truly free or equal"

To be fair, there are plenty of questions in states generally considered democratic, that are constitutionally forbidden to politically pose (e.g. even if the USA is majority Christian, to officially proclaim it as the Christian Republic of America requires changing the Constitution first, which is a more difficult matter than just putting it to referendum).

Presumably, The Fluffybunny Secular State of Israel-Palestine would work similar to this, with a big supermajority required to change the state to a mononational one, whether or not it would actually "work" IRL.

Eliana said...

Would you mind citing your source(s) for the claim that the phrase's "historical pedigree has tended to be tied to more maximalist elements of Palestinian politics"? Who first coined the phrase? Was it pre-48 (or 47) or afterwards? My understanding was this it functioned as a call for unity between Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line.

Mikhail Turkhan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mikhail Turkhan said...


From cursory Internet browsing, there doesn't appear to be a definite "coiner" in the phrase as it stands, but it seems to be associated with the PLO shortly after it was founded, so definitely post-48. Regardless, as elaborated in the post, the political grammar of the slogan refers to national independence and territorial claims, not with general "unity between Palestinians", which would be uncontroversially bland even for most Zionists.