In an ocean of bad reporting about the war in Gaza and the correlating rise in antisemitism in the US, the Orange County Register has managed to distinguish itself – and not in a good way. In one of the most egregious examples of bothsides-ism and false moral equivalency to date, the California-based local outlet ran the headline, “Why chants like ‘Free Palestine,’ ‘Am Israel Chai’ and ‘From the river to the sea’ are divisive.” (November 15, 2023.)
Reporter Allyson Vergara, who is also the Demographics and Equity team editor for the Southern California News Group, tells readers:
Phrases like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “Am Yisrael Chai” – Hebrew for “the people of Israel live” – are often heard echoing at rallies and protests on all sides, where people are gathered together with those who have common ground, expressing the desire for freedom.
But such roiling chants can be seen as controversial, even divisive – depending on who is saying or hearing them.
Vergara then quotes Ella Ben-Hagai, an associate professor at Cal State Fullerton, who says, “These phrases replicate some of the very polarizing language that we’re seeing on social media,” apparently in reference to both phrases.
The Orange County Register may be a small, local news outlet, but absurdity of the claim is outsized.
“Am Israel Chai” literally means the nation of Israel lives. That’s it. We say it because so many throughout history, from the ancient Romans to the Nazis to Hamas, have tried to kill us, but we survive. The meaning told to Vergara by Peter Levi, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Orange County/Long Beach, that “the message of ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ is clear: ‘Despite the murder and terrorism, the Jewish people still live,’” is the only meaning of the phrase. It can be “divisive” or “polarizing” only to those who actually want to see the Jews exterminated. Presumably, the Orange County Register reporter and editors don’t count themselves among such people, therefore, they should retract this egregious headline and the article as well.
The article also repeats a dishonest claim that has been gaining traction since about 2018: that the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is something other than a call for the destruction of Israel.
The byline of the OC Register article notes that “the Associated Press contributed to this report,” and in fact the AP has also published an article that helps legitimize this pernicious claim. (“‘From the river to the sea’: Why these 6 words spark fury and passion over the Israel-Hamas war,” November 10, 2023, by Laurie Kellman.) (The absolutely ludicrous interpretation of “Am Israel chai,” however, appears to have originated exclusively with the OC Register.)
“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” refers to the territory between the 200-plus-mile-long Jordan River, on the eastern part of Israel and the occupied West Bank, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. The phrase has been used for decades in pro-Palestine liberation movements, and many activists say it’s a call for independence, a “free Palestine” after over seven decades of Israeli statehood.
The Associated Press used similar language (“Many Palestinian activists say it’s a call for peace and equality after 75 years of Israeli statehood and decades-long, open-ended Israeli military rule over millions of Palestinians”). Both the OC Register and the AP quoted Representative Rashida Tlaib’s claim that “From the river to the sea is an aspirational call for freedom, human rights, and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction, or hate.”
But this claim by Representative Tlaib and other anti-Israel activists is demonstrably false. For if they truly were seeking peaceful coexistence and an end to Israeli military rule over the Palestinians, they would direct their complaints towards Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has himself rejected two opportunities – one in 2014 and one in 2008 – for Palestinian independence. The fact that they target Israel, which offered the Palestinians independence not only on those occasions but also in 2000 and in 1948, with their ire shows that it is in fact an end to Israel, and not justice for Palestinians, that they seek.
One only has to consult a basic map to see that it’s a call to replace the world’s only Jewish-majority state with the world’s 22nd Arab-majority state and 57th Muslim-majority state. Even in the best possible scenario, that means a loss of Jewish self-determination and a loss of the Jews’ only guaranteed safe-haven from persecution, rendering Jews the world-over more vulnerable.
Such claims are also based on a denial of history: for most of the time that Jews lived as minorities in Arab lands, across centuries, they were subjected to second-class or “dhimmi” status; a kind of Middle Eastern Jim Crow. As dhimmis, Jews, among other restrictions, “were excluded from public office and armed service … were forbidden to bear arms. … not allowed to ride horses or camels, to build synagogues or churches taller than mosques, to construct houses higher than those of Muslims or to drink wine in public. … not allowed to pray or mourn in loud voices-as that might offend the Muslims. The dhimmi had to show public deference toward Muslims-always yielding them the center of the road.” Jews living as dhimmis in Arab lands were periodically subjected to violence with no recourse. Finally, in the 1940s and 50s, Jews living in Arab lands were expelled (most of them went to Israel). This is far from the “peaceful coexistence” that Tlaib claims to promote and that some writers claim the phrase is a call for.
Both the OC Register and the AP have legitimized this gaslighting.