Slogans are never just statements etched in stone and “From the River to the Sea” is no exception. Its history, use, and the controversy it generates, reflects the liberatory aspirations, and backlash against, the movement for Palestinian freedom.
NATIONAL MARCH ON WASHINGTON: FREE PALESTINE, NOVEMBER 4, 2023. (PHOTO: LAURA ALBAST)
It is unclear when and where the slogan the slogan “from the river to the sea,” first emerged within Palestinian protest culture. There are many online sources that confidently claim that it emerged from within the post-67 Palestinian militant movements but provide no documentation for this. The Palestinian revolutionary media of the 60s and 70s is replete with rich and pithy political slogans—but in those sources, I have yet to encounter the phrase “min al-nahr ila al-bahr” or “min al-mayyeh li-mayyeh.” Similarly, the activists from this era that I have asked in recent weeks have no memory of it being used as a slogan in literature or demonstrations from this period. The phrase appears nowhere in the Palestinian National Charters of 1964 or 1968, nor in the Hamas Charter of 1988.
Activists from the First Intifada (1987-1993) have told me they remember hearing variations of the phrase in Arabic from the late 1980s onwards, including: “min al-mayyeh li-mayyeh, Filastin ‘arabiyyeh” (from the [river] water to the [sea] water / Palestine is Arab) and “Filastin Islamiyyeh / min al-nahr ila al-bahr” (Palestine is Islamic / from the river to the sea”). Scholars of Palestine document both these phrases being used in graffiti of the period.1
Friends and activists I have asked remember this phrase being used during the Oslo era, when it was adapted and developed as part of a critique of and complaint against a Palestinian leadership from Tunis that surrendered claims over historic Palestine. At some point, the phrase became the rhyming couplet that it is today: “Min al-nahr ila al-bahr / Filastin satatharrar” (“from the river to the sea / Palestine will be free”). It is this version—with its focus on freedom—that has circulated within English-language solidarity culture from at least the 1990s. More research needs to be done.
Before turning to the various senses that this slogan has had for people, and has at the present moment, I should say a few words about what I have learned while studying slogans and protest culture in the Arab world.
- It is a mistake to think that the full meaning of a slogan is to be found in the words alone. In Palestine, as in the rest of the Arab world, slogans tie poetry to politics by way of song. Not all Arabic-language slogans have rhyme and rhythm, but the most memorable ones have them—and this slogan certainly does. Their musicality helps crowds digest and remember new slogans quickly and supplies audial patterns that invite embodied movement. Singing, clapping, stomping, and dancing are not secondary to the message of the slogan, they are part of what gives slogans their meaning.2
- Slogans are never statements etched in stone, but rather fragments of an ongoing, contentious debate or conversation. Most slogans are occasion-specific responses to an immediate crisis or opportunity. To take a slogan out of such a context is to mistake it for a monologue rather than what it is: a snippet of dialogue.
- Slogans exist in knowable genres3: some articulate protest or grievance, others express aspiration and demand. Each genre commonly entails its own mood. Slogans of grievance, for example, typically invoke a tone of righteous anger, and are often accompanied by a strident rhythm in performance. Slogans of aspiration and desire, in contrast, often sound like mellifluous song, or even laughter. The difference in tone of voice is regularly underscored by physical gestures—raised fists, clapping hands, waving flags—that amplify and clarify the message.
- Conditions change, messaging goals change, as do moods and tones. Activists adapt rhetoric to suit new purposes and contexts, which means even the most successful slogans usually have a very short shelf-life. Still, old slogans are never discarded—they form a reservoir for social movements: activists commonly compose new slogans out of old ones, reworking oldies but goodies for new purposes.
In sum, slogans are never timeless phrases etched in stone. Rather, they have histories of change and adaptation. Whatever their initial message and connotations, their sense develops and changes over time; while slogans often have layers of meaning, not all layers are equally salient at all times. Context is everything: who is chanting the words—to whom, how, in what context, and for what purpose—matter as much as the words themselves.
With these understandings, we can appreciate some of the senses of the slogan as it has adapted over time. For instance, some variants promote an Arab nationalist frame (“Palestine is Arab”), and others propose an Islamist frame (“Palestine is Islamic”). In contrast, the current version (“Palestine will be free”) expresses an open-ended but emphatic aspiration for liberation—this has allowed it to resonate with other freedom struggles.
The first half of the slogan works as a response to and protest against the history of partition in Palestine. The context of the 1947 UN Partition plan is relevant here in that it sought to divide historic Palestine—the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—into two states, one Jewish and another Arab. The 1948 Nakba is also relevant since it made that plan a reality. Similarly germane is the Israeli occupation, following the 1967 war, of the remaining Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza. Also significant to this context are the Oslo Accords, in which the West Bank was fragmented into an archipelago of Bantustans surrounded by Israeli settlements, bases, and checkpoints. Same too Israel’s separation wall, first erected in the wake of the Second Intifada, which has sliced the West Bank in all sorts of ways.
This history of partition and fragmentation, along with Israeli appropriation and annexation of Palestinian lands, forms the broader context that gives meaning to the phrase “from the river to the sea.” We could expect that this phrase would be taken up in protest responses to specific moments of land theft and separation and new threats of further partition. This suggests that the target of this protest slogan might often as not be Palestinian leadership—especially the Palestine Authority—who collaborated with Israel in this process of disintegration. At the same time, it also has a more aspirational sense, the utopian desire for the return of a single, undivided Palestine.
The English version of this slogan is relatively new to Palestine solidarity protests in North America, dating back to the early 2000s or perhaps earlier. Here, it circulates in a different way, given the different goals and conditions of local protest culture. In the North American case, it’s not delivered as an expression of protest or grievance but rather of liberation aspiration. This resonates strongly with other themes of struggle and overcoming, particularly among African American and Native movements. In addition, this slogan has an educative aspect in that it functions to raise American consciousness about the centrality of partition in Palestinian history. Certainly, more Americans are speaking about the history of Palestine than ever, and with each attack on this slogan is another opportunity for more discussion on the history of partition.
It is the first phrase of the slogan—“from the river to the sea”—that has caused so much fury. Dominant Jewish communal institutions, most prominently the ADL and AJC, have insisted that this phrase is antisemitic. Throughout recent years, they have composed new definitions of antisemitism that render many common expressions of Palestine solidarity as ipso facto instances of anti-Jewish hate speech.4 Despite widespread criticism from scholars and experts, the new definitions have been adopted across a range of institutions, from the State Department to DEI offices at many schools, colleges, and universities. In this literature, the slogan “from the river to the sea” figures prominently in their accusations of antisemitic doublespeak.
This preparation meant that when the current crisis erupted in early October, thousands of bureaucrats and administrators who know nothing about the Israel-Palestine conflict (not to mention Palestine solidarity culture) all held the same script. These definitions have been the grounds for punishing countless students and employees, just as they were the basis for the unprecedented censure of Rep. Rashida Tlaib.
The anti-antisemitic objection to this slogan is essentially this: calls for a free Palestine in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea necessarily entail an end to the Israeli state; this entails the elimination of Jews from Palestine; thus, to call for killing Jews or expelling them from Israel is to call for genocide; it is therefore an instance of anti-Jewish hate speech.
It is true that a state of Palestine would entail the end of Israel as a Jewish ethnic-national state. But as many Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals (and others) have noted: replacing Israel with a Palestinian state need not result in genocide or the ethnic cleansing of Jews. Proponents of the one-state solution, for instance, have thought a lot about such a future and have developed various scenarios for securing a vibrant Jewish presence alongside a vibrant Palestinian one in various versions of a future Palestine, from a bi-national, secular polity to a federation.
These debates over the one-state solution are clearly at the heart of the contemporary furor over the slogan.
Especially for older generations of Jews, the slogan conjures up the deeply problematic language of the Palestinian National Charters of 1964 and 1968, which stipulated that Jews would have to renounce their collective right to self-determination if they wished to remain in a future state of Palestine.5 Thus, many mainstream Jews hear these words as nothing but an echo of old eliminationist PLO language, which sought to strip Jews of their rights and perhaps place in a future Palestine.
But for many other Jews, especially younger ones, the slogan voices a much more capacious vision of a shared political project and aligns with their involvement with other struggles for freedom and justice. This vision is shared by many Jewish groups, most prominently Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now. These groups are surging with brilliant energy, but they have yet to topple the old guard. The struggle continues. In the meantime, until there is a consensus concerning the one-state solution, the meaning of the slogan will remain contested among Jewish American communities. Activists should note this reality. If one of our goals is to move Jewish American audiences, we need to recognize that the Israeli state and its allies have found it easy to weaponize this particular slogan in order to incite fear among Jews.
To conclude, I would like to describe a recent personal experience with this slogan, not as words ripped from contexts but as it exists in the world. At the November 4 protest in Washington, DC, hundreds of thousands of us gathered to demand a ceasefire in the war against Gaza. Over the course of many hours, the crowds chanted many various slogans against war, violence, and the continued suppression of Palestinian rights and aspirations. We shouted, “Ceasefire now!” “End the Occupation Now!” and “Free, free Palestine!” We grieved for the victims of Israel’s war crimes. We thundered against the liberal establishment’s embrace of Israeli genocide. And we sang the slogan “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.”
Most of us, including myself, were not aware of the earlier moments of this slogan’s history or its various shades of meaning in different contexts. And that doesn’t really matter. More important than this history was the buoyant mood of the motley crowds as we sang.
I cannot tell you what was in each person’s heart as we sang those words, but I can speak in detail about the context: we were singing about peace, love, and justice, and this song was most rousing and inspiring. At times we clapped. At times we raised fists or waved flags. We smiled and laughed, despite the sadness and anger, because we were so happy to see so many of our friends and family standing there with us. There were no songs of hatred that day (nor at any of the dozens of such protests I have participated in) nor a word blaming Jews for the crimes of the so-called Jewish state.
From where I was at Pennsylvania and 12th, I could see hundreds of young Jewish activists, and they seemed to be singing “From the river to the sea” as loud and enthusiastically as the thousands of Arabs who’d traveled in from New Jersey and Detroit. Given the upbeat tone of the day, it is mindboggling that anyone would imagine that this slogan—or our joyful singing of it—had anything to do with eliminationist desires. True, we were angry—we had come to condemn genocide in Gaza and American complicity in this crime—but singing about freedom allowed us to transcend the gravity and grief of the moment. We demanded an end to U.S. support for Israeli apartheid, and for a moment, we dreamed with Palestinians of freedom because we know that none of us will be free until Palestine is free. There was joy in the air as people sang—dreaming of freedom seems to do that to people.
1. See Saleh Abd Al-Jawad, “Faṣā’il al-ḥaraka al-waṭaniyya al-Filasṭīniyya fi-l-arāḍī al-muḥtalla wa-shu‘ārāt al-judrān,” Majallat al-dirāsāt al-Filasṭīniyya 2:7 (Summer 1991); and Julie Peteet, “The Writing on the Walls: The Graffiti of the Intifada,” Cultural Anthropology 11:2 (May 1996), 139-159.
2. See my article: “Egyptian Movement Poetry,” Journal of Arabic Literature 51:1 (Spring 2020), 53-82.
3. See Kamal Mughith, Hitafat al-thawra al-Misriyya wa-nususha al-kamila (Cairo: Al-Majlis al-A‘la li-l-Thiqafa, 2014).
4. See, for example, AJC’s 2019 campaign, “Translating Hate.”
5. It must be stressed that already in the 1970s, the PLO had moved away from these early formulations. See Muhammad Muslih, Toward Coexistence: An Analysis of the Resolutions of the Palestine National Council (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1990).