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On the evening of Friday, Nov. 10, police tackled and arrested several Brandeis students as they attempted to hold a peaceful pro-Palestine rally on campus. A subsequent email from Andrea Dine, Carol Fierke and Stew Uretsky attributed this violent escalation to protesters’ use of “threatening language that has been explicitly described as hate speech,” referencing another email sent out to students earlier that morning which designated the popular slogan, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as “language that evokes violence, death, or annihilation.” The same email equated the phrase with much more explicitly violent rhetoric such as “taunting that Gazan villages will be burned to the ground.” I believe that this premise warrants interrogation, especially given “from the river to the sea’s” rich and complex history as part of the broader Palestinian struggle for liberation. The Brandeis administration’s blanket characterization of the 60-year-old slogan as “hate speech” not only undermines this storied history—echoing decades of Western political repression of Palestinian self-expression—but is plainly hypocritical in light of the university’s failure to address the pervasive linguistic dehumanization of Palestinians by Israel and its allies.
To begin with some background, the line “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” was popularized in the 1960s by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO–later to become the Palestinian Authority) 25 years prior to the foundation of Hamas. It was originally a call to reestablish the borders set by the British Mandate of Palestine, a territory that, prior to the expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1948, was inhabited by both Jews and Arabs. The slogan’s popularity persisted even as the PLO entered peace negotiations with the Israeli government and formally recognized Israel’s “right to exist”, and as Israeli settlements proliferated in the occupied West Bank, displacing many more Palestinians from their homes. Since then, the phrase has taken on two meanings for many Palestinians: the first, a call for an independent Palestinian state that incorporates both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; the second, an expression of connection to the land, and advocacy for the right of Palestinians to return to the villages from which they were expelled in 1948. Recently, it was also adopted by Hamas, the militant group governing the Gaza Strip, as a rallying cry for the dissolution of the Israeli state. As noted by columnist and SUNY professor Peter Beinart in an interview with the New York Times earlier this month, the phrase conspicuously lacks any reference whatsoever to Israelis, or to the Jewish people, so its meaning “depends on the context”; given the myriad different interpretations among Palestinians alone, it strikes me as rather audacious that Brandeis would so definitively come down on the side of its “constituting a genuine threat or harassment.”
This bold stance becomes all the more troubling when one considers the West’s historic censorship of pro-Palestinian language and symbols. From Israel’s criminalization of the Palestinian flag in the 1960s to schools in Berlin banning students from wearing the keffiyeh this past month, there is undeniable precedent for policing Palestinian expressions of identity. Given the prominence of “from the river to the sea” in Palestinian activism, then, it is understandable how many Palestinians might interpret the phrase’s malignment as a continuation of these silencing tactics, all of which implicitly conflate Palestinian identity with terrorism.
And indeed, Western media’s narrative treatment of Palestinians as intrinsically violent—even subhuman—is nothing new. The slogan of the Zionist political movement in the 1940s was quite literally, “a land without a people for a people without a land,” a simultaneous erasure of both Palestinian existence and Palestinian humanity. A now-deleted post from the Prime Minister of Israel’s official “X” account describes the conflict in Gaza as “a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle,” and members of the Israeli government—including former Deputy Defense Minister Ben Dahan, current Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, and Benjamin Netanyahu himself, among others—have publicly and explicitly compared Palestinians to animals. Many commentators have pointed out the more subtle disparities between Western media coverage of Israelis and Palestinians as well, such as Israelis being “killed” while Palestinians “die.” Taken in context, an insistence on assuming violent intent whenever “from the river to the sea” is uttered contributes to this trend of essentializing the Palestinian cause as an inherently violent one.
The ramifications of this dehumanization could not be more dire. As of writing, over 15,000 Palestinian people have been killed by the IDF’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip; at least 7,208 of them were children. This past Saturday, three Palestinian college students in Vermont were shot and wounded while wearing keffiyehs and speaking Arabic for what is, per President Ron Liebowitz’s latest email to students, “being investigated as a hate crime” (note the careful reservation of judgment as to whether this instance truly constitutes “hate”). As we have conversations about hypothetical violence invoked by a slogan, real, material violence is being perpetrated against Palestinians around the world. That “from the river to the sea” has been condemned by the Brandeis administration as “threatening,” while the mass slaughter of Palestinians—and the language that fuels it—has not, sends a troubling message about whose safety the university cares to protect.