Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Sunday, November 12, 2023
Is "From the River to the Sea" Offensive?
Is "From the River to the Sea" Offensive?
Just an "aspirational call?" As Henry Ford would say, "Bunk!"
The answer is yes, for Jews. And that's all that should matter.
This slogan calls for the establishment of a State of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, erasing the State of Israel and its people. It's intended to galvanize supporters and intimidate opponents. Throwing the Jews into the sea has long been a call to arms of Arab leaders.
Just this weekend, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi told a summit of Arab and Muslim leaders that the only solution to the current conflict is a Palestinian state from the “river to the sea.” It is about as unambiguous as it can be. We’d best believe him.
But an article found in the Boston Globe makes the “what-about-ist” but accurate claim that the Likud party's antecedent, the Irgun, used similar terminology and symbolism, and in fact went well beyond the river, though they stopped including all of Transjordan in their maps decades ago.
But neither the government nor the vast majority of the Israeli population would support mass rallies predicated on the destruction of the Palestinian people, which is precisely what the slogan “From the River to the Sea” presages for Israel.
Meanwhile in its recent article on the topic, the New York Times focuses on the nostalgia ostensibly evoked by the catchphrase, for a return to Palestinian ancestral homes. But unless those homes were beachfront property or 6 Rms Riv Vu, there is no need to specify either body of water in yearning for the old homestead. Sometimes, even without geopolitical dogwhistles like that one, tributes to ancient abodes can stir controversy (see “My Old Kentucky Home”). But the call is talking about rivers and seas, not homes. In the Bible, only Noah had a home on the sea. And it didn’t work so well for Jonah.
When Jews began yearning for Zion back in the 580s - BCE - which predates the 1940s by a lot, we also invoked water - the rivers of Babylon - where the refugees sat and mourned for their lost temple and capital. Psalm 137 was a dirge, not a call to arms, and indications are that it did not offend a single Babylonian. Instead, it inspired persecuted people over the ensuing generations, Jews, enslaved Americans, even Rastefarians. When Jews pick a rallying cry, we actually cry.
The American Jewish Committee recently put out a video explaining the concern about “River-Sea.”
The Forward recently published an explainer arguing for a more nuanced approach. It’s a stretch to see the cry as metaphorical or, as Rashida Tlaib explained when she used it, as an "aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate." I don't agree with her sentiments (one wonders if she really believes it herself) or much of the Forward article, but this point resonates:
Rather than just lecture Palestinians and their supporters about how certain phrases make them feel, supporters of Israel should get more curious about what Palestinians themselves want. There isn’t a single answer (there never is), but assuming you already know is no way to work towards a just and lasting peace.
We all do need to listen better, and maybe there are different ways people can understand this catchphrase. But even if there are, it is hard for me to believe that the pro-Hamas protesters right now mean anything less than the elimination of Israel, because Hamas has clearly and openly put that on the top of their agendaand because, well, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi came right out and said it too. I don’t think he was speaking of peaceful coexistence. I don’t think Raisi is a metaphor kind of guy. Just sayin’.
Whatever the context and history of the expression, in light of the current climate, believing Tlaib’s excuse that "river-to-sea" is just an “aspirational call” that is not aimed at the elimination of the Jewish, democratic state would be like believing these walk-backs:
"No, I didn't mean Jewish space lasers... I meant face TASERS! Jews should face tasers, because they all belong to Antifa." - Marjorie Taylor Greene
"No, when I said 'Today, Germany; tomorrow, the world!' I was talking about how the whole world will come to love wiener schnitzel as much as we do!" - A. Hitler
"When I said, 'Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,' I was talking about Liberty Mutual, and their extremely dumb commercials!" - Barry Goldwater
"When I said, 'History is bunk,' I was talking about how much history I learned while a camper at Camp Knock-a-Jew in the Adirondacks. Bunk 23 to be precise." - Henry Ford
“Very fine people on both sides? Yeah, I meant it. Every word." - D. Trump
I'll tell you what, Hamas supporter here in America. If you stop repeating this offensive and antisemitic refrain, I'll stop forcing you to listen to my Hava Nagila records, and you won’t have to read Barbra Streisand’s new thousand-page book. Deal?
But if you continue to say it, it will just mean that, sadly, it will be clear for all to see that you don't give a whit about peaceful coexistence.