“From the River to the Sea” Is a Call for Democracy and Equality

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is not a hateful slogan or a call for violence — it’s a call for democracy and equal rights for all.

A pro-Palestine activist holds up a sign reading “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free” during a protest inside Charing Cross railway station to call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza on November 4, 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Mark Kerrison / In Pictures via Getty Images)

The House of Representatives just passed a resolution censuring Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat. The resolution is full of outrageous lies: it accuses her of justifying Hamas’s atrocities on October 7 but, tellingly, doesn’t quote a single complete sentence from her statement on those attacks — which in fact condemned both Hamas and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for targeting civilians.

The resolution also condemns Tlaib for blaming the October 17 hospital bombing on Israel, when the United States and Israel instead claimed the hospital was hit by a failed rocket launched by Palestinian Islamic Jihad — never mind that the facts are still very much in dispute. (It’s also undeniable that the IDF has bombed hospitals and ambulances since then.)

The most interesting part of the resolution, though, is the condemnation of her defense of the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”:

[O]n November 3, 2023, Representative Tlaib published on social media a video containing the phrase ‘‘from the river to the sea’’, which is widely recognized as a genocidal call to violence to destroy the state of Israel and its people to replace it with a Palestinian state extending from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea . . . [and she] doubled down on this call to violence by falsely describing ‘‘from the river to the sea’’ as ‘‘an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence’’ despite it clearly entailing Israel’s destruction and denial of its fundamental right to exist.

Representative Tlaib couldn’t be any clearer that she wants to end what she called the “cycle of violence” in Israel/Palestine in her statement on the October 7 attacks, or that she condemns all attacks on civilians. The claims about “violence” and “genocide” are just cheap smears — and particularly obscene ones, at a time when a real-life ethnic cleansing is going on in Gaza, and she’s one of a tiny handful of politicians speaking out against it. Israel has cut off water, medicine, and fuel to millions of people, ordered well over a million people (half the population of Gaza) to leave their homes, and has been engaged in an indiscriminate bombing campaign that has left thousands of children dead.

But when we look past these smears, what’s left is simply that Representative Tlaib supports a one-state solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In other words, she’s being accused of wrongthink — of having an opinion about a political question that differs from the opinions of her colleagues. Censuring a congresswoman for that sets a precedent even those who hate Tlaib’s politics might want to think twice about.

“From the River to the Sea”

It’s true that Hamas uses “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and similar slogans. But the phrase predates Hamas and is also widely used by advocates of a single democratic state with equal rights for Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims and Christians, Thai and Indian guest workers, and everyone else who lives there.

Tlaib has made it very clear that she belongs to this camp. You can argue it’s tactically unwise to use a slogan that can be misinterpreted — but you can’t (honestly) deny that this is what she means by it. So what possible basis could there be for seeing support for a single state throughout the whole territory rather than the partition of Israel into two states as a censure-worthy offense in a body defined by constant political disagreements?

The resolution claims that the slogan entails “Israel’s destruction and denial of its fundamental right to exist,” but it’s never been clear to me what it means to say that a state has a right to exist. Did Czechoslovakia have a right to exist? The Confederacy? The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies? Particular national configurations rising or falling as existing states break up or fuse with other states is a common event throughout history and doesn’t always entail any sort of injustice.

In this case, we aren’t even talking about Israel breaking up or fusing with some other state. The one-state solution embodied in the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” doesn’t involve changing current borders in any way. The contemplated transformation would be more like South Africa ceasing to be a “white state” in the 1990s.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a call for Israel to extend citizenship and legal and political equality to every single human being residing within its current borders. The reason that a two-state solution — i.e., a partition of the country into a rump Israeli state and a brand-new Palestinian state, which would necessitate forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers from the West Bank — is considered the “reasonable” and moderate alternative to a one-state solution is that if Israel gave everyone living within its current borders equal citizenship, it would no longer “exist as a Jewish state” in the sense of having a clear majority of its citizens be Jewish. Instead, there would be roughly equal numbers of Palestinian and Jewish citizens.

Why would that be a catastrophe to anyone who sees both Jews and Palestinians as human beings innately deserving the same rights?

It’s one thing to argue that a one-state solution is unrealistic — that it’s harder to imagine it happening any time soon than a partition into two states. Honestly, right now, it’s also hard to imagine how a two-state solution would come about. But if political conditions changed to make the emergence of an independent Palestinian state possible, and the majority of Palestinians supported that outcome, I’d celebrate it as an imperfect but real step toward justice. It would at least make the population of West Bank and Gaza Palestinians, who’ve spent the last fifty-six years as subjects but not citizens of Israel, citizens of something. But given even the most rudimentary liberal democratic principles, shouldn’t we see a partition between two ethnostates as a distinctly second-best outcome to the creation of a meaningfully pluralistic multiethnic democracy?

Polls show that around 10 percent of Israelis agree with the call for a “single democratic state.” Are they calling for their own “destruction,” or simply prioritizing the goal of equal rights for everyone over the goal of having the “right” ethnic demographics for their state?

A much higher percentage, unfortunately, endorses the idea of a “single state without equal rights to Palestinians” — which has been the status quo in the country since 1967. The whole point of calling for Palestinians to be “free” throughout this territory is precisely that, right now, they lack freedom and equal rights.

States’ Rights?

Israeli settlers in the West Bank are considered for every legal purpose to “live in Israel.” They vote in Israeli elections; if they commit crimes, they’re tried in Israeli civilian courts. But Palestinians living miles away are denied all these rights.

The most disingenuous apologists for Israel will sometimes say Israel “withdrew” from Gaza in 2005. But Palestinians in Gaza have never been allowed to form an independent state that, e.g., patrols its own borders, has its own army and navy, and sends a delegation to the United Nations.

As numerous observers have pointed out, that overcrowded, twenty-five-mile-long, six-mile-wide strip of land — mostly inhabited by refugees whose families were driven out of other parts of Israel — more closely resembles an open-air prison camp than an independent state. Its airspace and land and sea borders are tightly controlled by Israel. Palestinians who get too close to “their own” border are shot dead even if they’re unarmed.

It’s true that Palestinians whose families ended up on the Israeli side of the initial line after the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing committed against the Palestinians in 1948, were eventually given Israeli citizenship. Aside from the absurdity of saying that it’s not an apartheid state because some Palestinians are allowed citizenship, even those Palestinian citizens are blatantly discriminated against in numerous ways.

As Human Rights Watch explains:

[T]he two tiered-citizenship structure and bifurcation of nationality and citizenship result in Palestinian citizens having a status inferior to Jewish citizens by law. While Palestinians in Israel, unlike those in the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories], have the right to vote and stand for Israeli elections, these rights do not empower them to overcome the institutional discrimination they face from the same Israeli government, including widespread restrictions on accessing land confiscated from them, home demolitions, and effective prohibitions on family reunification.

Nor is this just a matter of de facto discrimination coexisting with a legal pretense of full equality — a common enough situation for minorities in many states. There’s not even a pretense. A “nation-state law” pushed through a few years ago explicitly says that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people” and not, say, the 20 percent of Israeli citizens who are ethnically Palestinian.

Imagine a law stating officially that the United States was “exclusively” the state “of” its white population, or of its Christian population. What would that tell you about the status of minorities?

The censure resolution speaks about Israel’s “fundamental right to exist.” Given that we’re talking not about a call for some foreign power to invade, however, but rather a call to change Israel’s political system to allow equal rights for everyone who lives within Israel’s borders, that can only mean a fundamental right to eternally maintain its current ethnic and religious majority.

But does any nonfascist truly believe that’s a “fundamental right” of current majorities? Would the United States becoming “majority minority” violate some “fundamental right” held by white Christians —or do nation-states equally belong to everyone who lives in them, regardless of their ethnicity or religion?

Rashida Tlaib has made her answer clear: she’s on the side of democracy. And the bastards censured her for it.