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Since Hamas’ bloody terrorist attack on Oct. 7, the phrase “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” has become a rallying cry for pro-Palestine activists at Harvard and around the world.
While activists claim that this chant calls for freedom and human rights for Palestinians, critics — including several Jewish organizations, powerful Harvard donors like Bill A. Ackman ’88, and even former University President Claudine Gay — have condemned the phrase and argued that it’s often perceived as an antisemitic threat.
As a Jewish student and a liberal Zionist, I agree with many of these criticisms. I’m disturbed that my classmates have chanted this phrase despite Hamas adopting it as one of their slogans. For many, the chant implies ethnic cleansing — and, for some, genocide — of Jewish Israelis.
That said, Hamas isn’t the only group that uses “river to the sea” rhetoric. The Israeli right has routinely invoked similar language to describe their violent efforts to create a single Jewish state.
The original platform of the Likud party, for example, stated that “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”
More recently, in 2022, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party declared in his coalition’s agenda that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria.” (Many ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition refer to the West Bank territory by its Biblical name of “Judea and Samaria.”) And in a speech on July 19, Israeli Minister of Justice Yariv G. Levin said “the entire Land of Israel will be ours as it should be.”
Clearly, these coalition leaders use “river to the sea” rhetoric to advocate a broader annexationist agenda. In 2018, Netanyahu helped pass a law that declared “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel as “unique to the Jewish people.” And over the past several decades, Israel has been slowly and systematically expanding the settlement presence in the West Bank. Now, over half a million Israeli settlers live in the Palestinian territory.
Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, right-wing Israeli political leaders have gone so far as to advocate for tactics in Gaza that border on ethnic cleansing. Last month, 12 cabinet ministers and 15 Knesset members in Netanyahu’s coalition attended a conference calling for new Jewish settlements in Gaza after the war.
“We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” said Israeli Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, comparing Israel’s strategy in Gaza to the mass displacement of Palestinians in 1948. It’s hard to imagine a more explicit call to violently remove the Palestinian people from their land.
Although both the Israeli right and Hamas use “river to the sea” rhetoric, the two groups are far from morally equivalent. Hamas is a terrorist group intent on genocide, while Israel is a democratic nation.
Despite this distinction, the fact remains: Several powerful ministers in the Israeli government have a horrifically violent vision for the future of the Palestinian people. And both sides use “river to the sea” language — not just pro-Palestine activists.
Pro-Israel advocates have very vocally condemned pro-Palestine protesters at Harvard chanting “from the river to the sea.” Yet these same critics, at least in my experience, conspicuously ignore the strikingly similar rhetoric from Netanyahu’s coalition.
As a strong supporter of free speech, I don’t think the University should discipline students for chanting “from the river to the sea” — or for similarly offensive pro-Israel statements if they were to be voiced on campus.
But free speech doesn’t mean immunity from strong disagreement. In our public discourse at Harvard, we must speak out against violent “river to the sea” language and policies — from both sides, not just from pro-Palestine activists. We can’t be one-sided in condemning speech and policies that advocate for ethnic cleansing.
At Harvard, I haven’t witnessed students or faculty explicitly repeat Likud’s “river to the sea” rhetoric or even defend the Israeli right. But we still have an obligation to criticize powerful Israeli leaders who actively support ethnically cleansing of the Palestinian people.
If right-wing Israeli politicians speak at Harvard, we should ask them hard questions and hold them accountable for their rhetoric and policies, just as we criticize Palestinian protesters for using similar language. And we must also call on the Biden administration to increase pressure on Netanyahu around this issue. The stakes are too high to stay quiet.
Maya A. Bodnick is a Government concentrator in Mather House. Her column, “Forging Harvard’s Future,” appears bi-weekly on Tuesdays.
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