As Palestinian protesters have taken to the streets around the world after the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, a decades-old refrain is being chanted and appearing on signs and banners in Chicago and elsewhere in recent weeks:
“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
For Palestinians, the phrase has been a rallying call for decades, signifying what they believe is their right to peacefully return to the land that is now Israel. About 700,000 Palestinians — approximately 85% of the Arab population — were expelled or forced to flee in 1948, when Israel declared independence after the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. In the 1967 war, Israel expanded the territory under its control and has since occupied the Gaza Strip and West Bank. It has blockaded Gaza since 2007, after Hamas took control of the strip.
But the phrase has been the subject of global controversy, with some seeing it as antisemitic or even dangerous, especially after it was adopted by Hamas. The Palestinian militant group attacked Israeli towns on Oct. 7, the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, sparking the current war with Israel that has taken more than 1,400 Israeli lives and more than 7,000 Palestinian lives.
Soon after, a planned pro-Palestinian protest in Vienna was banned after the slogan was mentioned in publicity material. British Home Secretary Suella Braverman recently called the slogan a “staple of antisemitic discourse.”
And in 2018, CNN fired a commentator after he said the phrase at an International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People at the United Nations. He later apologized.
The dispute over the phrase, said Wendy Pearlman, a professor of Middle East studies at Northwestern University, is a microcosm of the entire Israel-Palestinian dispute.
“It is a conflict of two peoples who both view this land as their historic homeland,” she said.
The phrase has been in use since the 1960s — originally, in Arabic, it was Min al-nahr ila al-bahr… filastin hurra — by the Palestine Liberation Organization, according to Jessica Winegar, a sociocultural anthropologist at Northwestern University who studies political protest and the Middle East.
It called for a restoration of the land where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lived, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, before they left or were forced to leave with the establishment of Israel in 1948, Winegar said. Over the years, Palestinians wanted to reverse the establishment of the state of Israel so they could return to their homes.
“So, for them, the idea of ‘from the river to the sea’ and doing away with the state of Israel was not really a radical idea even though it might seem that way to us,” Winegar said.
As Palestinian refugees sought homes elsewhere, the phrase took root overseas and became widely used in pro-Palestinian protests in the past three decades, she said.
Hatem Abudayyeh, chair of the Chicago-based United States Palestinian Community Network and the child of Palestinian immigrants, said the slogan points to how Palestinians are “a people in exile” and have a right to return to the land — something spelled out in United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194.
To Deanna Othman, who has taken part in some of the pro-Palestinian protests in downtown Chicago, the chant means “that Palestinians are seeking their freedom in their homeland.”
She is aware that others have interpreted the chant in a negative light, but she disagrees.
“It’s a call demanding for Palestinians to have equal rights,” said Othman, who lives in Oak Lawn. “It doesn’t mean anything more than that.”
While the phrase has been a source of solidarity for Palestinians for decades, it’s been seen by others as more divisive — particularly after its adoption by Hamas after the group was formed in the late 1980s, vowing to destroy Israel.
Jay Tcath, executive vice president of the Jewish United Fund, called the slogan not only antisemitic but “eliminationist,” saying it implicitly calls for the “end of any Jewish presence in our historic homeland.”
“All too many Palestinians, there and here, embrace the eliminationist interpretation of that phrase, which is: ‘From the river to the sea’ doesn’t mean one state for two people. It means a Palestine without any Jews left living there. And either it will be accomplished by expulsion or murder,” Tcath said.
Abudayyeh, who is also a spokesperson for Chicago Coalition for Justice in Palestine, which has organized pro-Palestinian marches in Chicago, rejected the notion that the slogan calls for violence towards Jews.
“If there are fringe elements — one in a thousand, you know, one in a million — who say that, they’re not significant in our community and in our society,” he said.
What Abudayyeh and many progressive Palestinians want, he said, is one secular, democratic state that “includes all the people that live from the river to the sea” — Palestinians and Jews alike — to replace Israel, which they and human rights groups say is guilty of apartheid.
Hamas, though, might have a different goal, said former U.S. diplomat Cécile Shea, who previously served as a political policy officer in Tel Aviv.
“When Hamas talks about a Palestinian state from the river to the sea, they’re talking about an Islamic state,” Shea said. “They’re not talking about a secular Palestinian state.”
Secular or Islamic, a one-state solution replacing Israel is “a big problem,” said Justin Finkelstein, an analyst with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. Israel was formed as a safe homeland for Jews escaping antisemitism in other countries, in the place where they had an ancestral connection for thousands of years, Finkelstein said: “It’s really important that there exists a state that can be a Jewish homeland somewhere within the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”
“We’ve learned what happens to Jews without a state,” Tcath said. “That is the Holocaust. And when you’re calling for the end of that one and only Jewish state, you’re calling for a return to Jewish powerlessness.”
Not all Jews are troubled by the slogan, according to Scout Bratt, Chicago chapter leader of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist organization.
“What is experienced as a threat by some folks might be about actually not what’s happening in real time but fear of what has happened in the past,” Bratt said.
For Bratt, the Palestinian slogan represents a call for the liberation of Palestinian people in a “space where Palestinian lives are devalued, where Palestinians are dehumanized, where there is the denial of rights and freedom of movement and basic human needs.”
Protesters have pleaded for American politicians and the public to oppose aid to Israel and to push for an end of the siege on Gaza. But their attempts to sway public opinion could be undercut by the continued use of the slogan, Winegar said.
“For a wider audience beyond the protest, it may contribute to a [perceived] lack of legitimacy of the protest itself and the political demands that it is geared towards,” she said.
Abudayyeh isn’t worried about driving potential supporters away.
“I believe the majority of the people who support the Palestinian cause have no problem with the slogan,” he said. “All it means is that you are against colonization and that you are in support of self-determination and freedom and independence and justice.”
Jane Zhang is a New York-based freelance writer.