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Tlaib censured over slogan: What does "from the river to the sea" mean to people in Michigan?

Demonstrations have been held at several Michigan sites in the wake of a Hamas on Israel in October, and Israel's ongoing retaliatory strikes on Gaza.
Rachel Ishikawa and Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio
Demonstrations have been held at several Michigan sites in the wake of a Hamas attack on Israel in October, and Israel's ongoing retaliatory strikes on Gaza.

Michigan Democratic Representative Rashida Tlaib — the only Palestinian-American member of Congress — was recently censured for her rhetoric over the Israel-Hamas war.

Republican Rep. Rich McCormick of Georgia, who introduced the resolution, accused Tlaib of antisemitism, citing her use of a slogan often heard at rallies in support of Palestine: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

But Tlaib has a very different understanding of the phrase.

So where does the slogan come from? And why do people have such different interpretations of it? 

The “river” in the slogan is the Jordan River.

The “sea” is the Mediterranean Sea.

The region in between those bodies of water has historically been called Palestine. And under British rule from 1920 to 1948, a territory called Palestine did stretch from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

But when Israel was established, Palestinian territory was divided. Now, the West Bank lies on the Jordan River, and the Gaza Strip is on the Mediterranean coast. Israel lies between them.

So to some people, the phrase “from the river to the sea” sounds like a call for the destruction of Israel. For others, it represents hope for Palestinian unity and autonomy.

"That depends on who's using the phrase,” said Bryan Roby, a Professor of Jewish and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan.

He said some anti-Israel militant groups, like Hamas, have used the slogan to counter Israeli claims to the land. In other cases, it’s not a call for violence or erasure, but for freedom and equality for people in territories that have been occupied by Israel.

The slogan is in the headlines now because it’s a common chant at rallies calling for a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Hamas, and because the resolution to censure Tlaib invoked her use and defense of the phrase.

Antisemitism watchdog groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee understand the phrase to call for the removal of Jews from Israel.

"From the river to the sea" is "an antisemitic charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland," the Anti-Defamation League says.

The slogan "calls for ... erasing the State of Israel and its people," says the American Jewish Committee.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin shares that interpretation.

He’s the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Bloomfield Hills. He hears the phrase as a call for the elimination of the Jewish state.

“And in that sense, it's a antisemitic statement because it's the only state that's being demonized in that way to be totally eliminated in the world. And so I find it offensive and hurtful," said Lopatin.

Dana Kornberg has a different understanding of the phrase. She's Jewish and grew up in a reform congregation in Detroit where she said she was taught to support the state of Israel no matter what. But she said her views have changed with time. Now, to her, the slogan speaks to the same values that underpin the creation of Israel.

“I think for a lot of a lot of folks who are standing up for Palestinian liberation or a lot of Jewish people that are standing up for Palestinian liberation ... we've been taught that Israel can only exist as a majority Jewish nation."

"We basically have been taught that the two things are necessarily opposed: It's either a Jewish state or it's a Palestinian state, and you can't have both together," said Kornberg.

But Kornberg said she now believes that's a false dichotomy. And she’s been working to decouple her Jewish faith from Zionism.

“And so when I hear 'from the river to the sea,' I feel the same kind of call for recognition of the ways that Palestinian lands were taken from them ... and that Palestinians are now living in conditions that are dictated by Israel,” she said. “It's really a cry for recognition. And it makes me sad.”

Kornberg has been organizing protests against Israel’s counterattack on Gaza.

Palestinians have been organizing too. Tariq Luthun is among them. He grew up in Dearborn and Detroit, he said, but his family is from Palestine, and most of them are still there.

Students rally against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in front of Rackham Auditorium, during climate change talk featuring Vice President Kamala Harris and other dignatories.
Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio
Students rally against Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in front of Rackham Auditorium, during climate change talk featuring Vice President Kamala Harris and other dignatories.

“When we say free Palestine, we mean a space that is free for all peoples," he said. To assume anything but that is actually a projection being foisted upon the phrase that I would argue never should be there in the first place."

"At the end of the day, the phrase is very much about liberation for all people, and it's wild to me that people can look at a phrase that is simply trying to advocate for a community's liberation and think that that must come at the expense of another community, when that isn't how liberation works," Luthun said.

Palestinian-American community organizer Lexis Zeidan said never, in her 20 years of work in Dearborn and Detroit, has she heard anyone use the phrase as a call to exile Jews.

“The actual statement of 'from the river to the sea' is that no matter where Palestinians reside ... across the landmarks of the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea ... they should not be dehumanized, that they should have full rights to self-determination and freedom, the same as any Israeli counterpart,” she said.

Representative Tlaib described her interpretation of the slogan in a statement after a previous attempt to censure her. From the river to the sea is “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate," she said.

Later, speaking in front of the U.S. House of Representatives before the majority of the House voted to censure her, Tlaib reaffirmed that sentiment.

“No government is beyond criticism. The idea that criticizing the government of Israel is antisemitic sets a very dangerous precedent. And it’s being used to silence diverse voices speaking up for human rights across our nation," she said.

Tlaib said regardless of her censure, she will continue to call for a ceasefire, and for humanitarian aid to be delivered to Gaza immediately.

Israel declared war on Hamas after a surprise attack by the group that Israeli authorities say killed 1,200 people last month and resulted in the kidnapping of more than 200 people. Since then, Israel’s counterattack has killed more than 11,000 people in Palestine, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.
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