“River to the Sea”: Marc Lamont Hill’s Anti-Jewish Manifest Destiny

“And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.”
– Katharine Lee Bates

“We will sweep them into the sea!”
– Azzam Pasha

In a recent speech before the United Nations, Marc Lamont Hill called for the elimination of Israel and endorsed Palestinian violence.

After the speech, and particularly after CNN ended its relationship with the Temple professor, who had served as a political contributor for the network before his words provoked public outcry, Hill and his supporters did their best to deny and distort the plain meaning of his words.

The cover-up might not be worse than the crime. But the response by Hill’s defenders — the feigning of innocence, the insistence that inflammatory slogans don’t mean what they’ve always meant, and the suggestions that those offended by calls to disenfranchise the Jews from the community of self-determining peoples are themselves the problem — amounts to a contemptible act of gaslighting against Jews and their supporters.

To better understand the controversy, let’s look at Hill’s actual words, the criticism of those words, and the counter-attack against Hill’s critics.

Non-Nonviolence

Two particularly inflammatory segments stand out from the anti-Israel invective that filled Hill’s Nov. 28 lecture. The first is his call for Palestinian violence.

“The words offered today by everyone in this room are a necessary component of our resistance efforts,” Hill told his audience. But not the only component. “We must also offer more than just words,” he continued.

Hill was explicit about what he had in mind. He set the stage for his call-to-action by recalling the historical experience of black Americans — though not to embrace the legacy of civil rights luminaries like Rosa Parks and Baynard Rustin, who saw their history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination as a validation of Zionism, and understood their values as a reason to admire Israel; nor to follow the example of Martin Luther King, who championed non-violence. Rather, it was to advocate violent attacks. 

About anti-Israel “resistance,” Parks and other civil rights luminaries declared, “Regardless of what the Arab world calls it, in the horrified shock of the people it is indiscriminate murder of innocents.”

“As black Americans resisted slavery, as well as Jim Crow laws that transformed us from a slave state to an apartheid state, we did so through multiple tactics and strategies,” Hill said. “It is this array of tactics that I appeal to as I advocate for concrete action from all of us in this room.”

After a call for anti-Israel sanctions and boycotts, Hill’s history lesson resumed. “Contrary to Western mythology, black resistance to American apartheid did not come purely through Gandhi and non-violence,” he said. Equally important were “slave revolts and self-defense and tactics otherwise divergent from Dr. King or Mahatma Gandhi.”

Hill made clear this was a contemporary call to arms, or at least a call to support armed violence against Israeli Jews: “We must allow the Palestinian people the same range of opportunity and political possibility. If we are standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people we must recognize the right of an occupied people to defend itself.”

It is a point Hill dwelled on at length. He gave a pro forma nod to the importance of “peace” before quickly countering that “we must not romanticize or fetishize it.” He name-dropped non-violence then immediately reemphasized that “we cannot endorse a narrow politics of respectability that shames Palestinians for resisting, for refusing to do nothing in the face of state violence and ethnic cleansing.”

“Resistance.” “Revolts.” Defense.” It would be an overstatement to call this a dog whistle in support of Palestinian terror attacks. Even those casually familiar with the conflict know what Palestinian organizations view as legitimate “resistance” attacks, what types of violence were central to the anti-Israel “revolt” that began in September 2000, and what passes for “defense” in the eyes of those who see Israel’s very existence as an offense.

Consider Hamas, a group best known for its suicide bombings on Israelis riding buses and sitting in cafes, and whose name is an Arabic acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement. Consider the words of Hamas spokesman Husam Badran after a member of his group bombed a crowded Jerusalem municipal bus. “This attack,” Badran said, “affirms to everyone one that our people will not abandon the resistance path.” And consider the Popular Resistance Committee, another Palestinian terror group that counts among its attacks the murder of Tali Hatuel, a pregnant mother of four. The “resistance fighter” then shot and killed each of Tali’s four daughters, aged between 2 and 11 years old.

The massacre of the Hatuel family was one of many similar slaughters that together made up the Palestinian “revolt,” or intifada, that claimed hundreds of innocent lives in the early 2000s.

“River to the Sea”

The part of the lecture that got the most attention, though, wasn’t Hill’s appeal to violence, but his closing sentence in which he demanded “a free Palestine from the river to the sea.”

Marc Lamont Hill at U.N.

Marc Lamont Hill berates Israel at a speech before the United Nations.

Again, it wasn’t much of a coded message. One doesn’t need a cipher to understand that the passage refers to the elimination of Israel, but a simple map. The river is the Jordan. The sea is the Mediterranean. And the land between the river and the sea currently includes three territorial units: Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The latter two territories are sometimes collectively (though sloppily) referred to as Palestine, a term that is meant to describe land presupposed as belonging to the Palestinians. Extending Palestine to the territory between the river and the sea, as called for by the well-worn anti-Israel mantra, means there is no Israel in that swath of land, and thus no Israel anywhere. 

As Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh put it at a rally in the Gaza Strip this summer, “Palestine is from the sea to the river! And we will never, never, never recognize Israel!” Haniyeh, of course, recognized that his was a redundant couplet. So surely does Hill. “Marc Lamont Hill claims to be an expert in Middle East affairs,” political science professor Miriam Elman told the Washington Times. “Thus he should know that ‘Palestine from the River to the Sea’ has long been a call for the elimination of Israel.”

Indeed, there is nothing new in the phrase, or in the idea behind it. Hill borrowed the rallying cry from a long line of predecessors opposed to Israel’s existence, rejectionists deeply committed to wresting away from the Jews the state they established, in their ancestral homeland, only three years after the Holocaust had showed yet again the cost of Jewish statelessness. The slogan “river to the sea” was coined decades ago as shorthand for an end to Jewish self-determination and sovereignty in their state, and its meaning hasn’t changed since.

“Right of Return”

There was a second call for the end of Israel and its Jewish majority during Hill’s speech, though it didn’t get as much attention. This is perhaps because, unlike Hill’s homage to resistance or his demand that Israel be replaced by Palestine, both rather straightforward, his call for a “right of return” isn’t quite as self-explanatory.

Those demanding a “right of return” believe it is legitimate and desirable for millions of Palestinians, mostly the children and grandchildren of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war, to populate Israel and take its citizenship.

That war, notably, was launched by Arab armies with the declared aim of eradicating Israel so that Palestine would exist from the river to the sea. (Hill’s ambition, in other words, is the same one that helped give rise to the Arab-Israel conflict.)

Israel prevailed in that war, but the view that Israel shouldn’t exist was passed on as dogma from generation to generation. And today, without a realistic conventional military threat to Israel’s existence, those hoping to erase the country largely do so by advocating a Palestinian “return.” The math is simple. If Israel takes in the 5 million Palestinians registered as refugees, Jews will become a minority in the country. If the Palestinian-majority West Bank and Gaza Strip are considered Palestine, and Israel is demographically engineered to also have a majority of Palestinians, then in essence we’d end up with a Palestinian-majority state next to a Palestinian state — a Palestine from the river to the sea.

The implications of the right of return are not controversial. In the words of Barak Obama, “The right of return as they’ve understood it historically would extinguish Israel as a Jewish state, and that’s not an option.”

Defending the Speech, Distorting the Criticism

The misinformed or dishonest defenses of the speech began immediately. On Twitter, Hill repeatedly attacked as “absurd” those who pointed out his speech’s call to eliminate Israel. In one post, for example, Hill challenged a claim he called for an end to Israel by insisting he merely called for freedom and equal rights for all.

When his interlocutor on Twitter noted that Hill ignored his own reference to a Palestine “from the river to the sea,” the Temple professor avoided addressing the point, and instead simply repeated that he did “not at all” call for the elimination of Israel.

Despite the denial, Hill is still talking here about the elimination of Israel (where, by the way, a one-person-one-vote system already exists, and where the proportion of Arab parliamentarians is roughly equal with the proportion of Arab citizens). If you look closely, you’ll see that he isn’t demanding democracy in a Palestinian state that would exist alongside the Jewish state, but rather democracy contingent on Palestinians being the dominant group, the anticipated end result of a “single state” and a “right of return.” It is one person, one vote — but only if Jewish people and their Jewish votes are in the minority.

With all the smoke blown into conversations about the Arab-Israeli conflict, a parallel with another part of the world might be clarifying. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was carved out of British-ruled India to give the Muslims of that territory their own homeland, and the opportunity to make policy decisions that aren’t effectively dependent on the approval of the Hindus who would otherwise outnumber them. If a critic of Pakistan were to insist today that from the Nihing River to the Chindwin River, India must be free — a demand that, strangely enough, one never hears — the Muslims of Pakistan and Bangladesh would quickly recognize that this leaves no room for their countries, and immediately understand that India’s billion-plus Hindus would, according to this design, have all the power to decide who gets to rule the new country. This is the same idea that motivates those demanding a Palestine from the river to the sea.

And what of Hill’s reference to “rights” and “freedom,” and the insinuation that this necessarily means he isn’t calling for an end to Israel? Perhaps the best rebuttal to this came from Gamal Nasser, who as president of Egypt in November 1965 described his country’s war preparations at the time as follows, “Our aim is the full restoration of the rights of the Palestinian people. In other words, we aim at the destruction of the State of Israel.” Before “Palestinian rights” became a dog whistle for opponents of Israel’s existence who looked to gloss over words like “destruction,” it was openly acknowledged that their version of the former concept, “rights,” meant the latter one, “destruction.”

The same goes for “return.” Several years earlier, the same Nasser acknowledged that “If the Arabs return to Israel, Israel will cease to exist.”

Others have been equally honest, if impolitic, about the implications of their politics. Omar Barghouti, a leader of the anti-Israel BDS movement that Hill plugged during his speech, has admitted that the end goal of his one-state, right-of-return fantasy is a “unitary state, where, by definition, Jews will be a minority.”

Hill knows better than to volunteer the bit about Jews being by definition a minority in his one state. He avoids the word “destruction.” But everyone’s in on the secret. The farce was too much even for Norman Finkelstein, another virulent critic of Israel, who admitted in scathing comments about the BDS movement that framing of the type used by Hill is disingenuous:

We have to be honest, and I loathe the disingenuousness. They don’t want Israel. They think they’re being very clever because their three , you know, three tier. “We want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel.” And they think they’re very clever because, they know the result of implementing all three is — what? What’s the result? You know and I know what’s the result. There’s no Israel. …

[Israel says], “No, they’re not really talking about rights. They’re talking about they want to destroy Israel.” And in fact, I think they’re right. I think that’s true.

Finkelstein is talking about the numbers game played by Hill and other “right of return” proponents. Again: If five million Palestinians converge on Israel from neighboring lands and exercise the right to vote, what had been called Israel — the name is a reference to a Jewish forefather — would become, both demographically and politically, yet another Arab state among so many others.

A few days after Hill’s speech, on Dec. 1, the former CNN contributor wrote a column in the Philadelphia Inquirer and a letter to the Temple University community addressing the controversy. Whether because he changed his mind or merely his pitch, Hill’s approach in these pieces differed from on Twitter, where he had charged his critics with orchestrating a dishonest “smear campaign.”

In these latter articles, he insisted that he “take[s] seriously the voices of so many Jewish brothers and sisters” and apologized, albeit mainly for using language that, he said, lead to misinterpretation, confusion, bad feelings on the part of his critics. But even with this gentler tone, the gaslighting continued.

To his Inquirer audience, Hill wrote,

Many have focused specifically on my final remark, which said that justice required a “free Palestine, from the river to the sea.” Critics of this phrase have suggested that I was calling for violence against Jewish people. In all honesty, I was stunned, and saddened, that this was the response.

Note how Hill mixes and mismatches criticism of his speech in a way likely to confuse the casual reader. The “river to the sea” reference was generally criticized because it leaves room for only one country in that territory. As an Anti-Defamation League official put it, “Those calling for ‘from the river to the sea’ are calling for an end to the State of Israel.” The criticism that Hill urged violence focused, rather, on his call for “resistance,” which in this conflict has indeed meant violence against Jews.

But Hill doesn’t address his call for revolt and resistance in either of his articles. Nor does he engage with the actual substance of the criticism about what “return” and “one-state” means for the Jews. Moreover, the idea that anyone remotely familiar with the Arab-Israeli conflict would be “stunned” by criticism of those concepts is simply not credible.

Many of those rising to Hill’s defense likewise relied on deception. In Slate, a writer defended the speech by declaring, “‘From the river to the sea’ has also been used, neutrally, by Jewish journalists to describe the area again and again.” As evidence, the author pointed to headlines that use the phrase as shorthand for Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. But the issue, of course, is not that Hill “neutrally” mentioned these geographic boundaries, but rather prescribed that “Palestine” should fill up that entire area.

A writer on the Huffpost website pretended Hill’s critics were upset by the idea that Palestinians should have rights, as if the only path to equal rights is to draw boarders so that distinct national groups are lumped together in the same country. “The demand that Palestinians have equal rights from the river to the sea is not radical or racist or bigoted, insisted Yousef Munayyer. “Rather, anything short of that would be.” Munayyer went on to compare Hill’s comments to lyrics from America the Beautiful. “You see, Palestinians deserve to have their full human rights wherever they live. Just as we should expect nothing less than equal rights for African-Americans or any group ― from sea to shining sea….” (Native Americans might not be as impressed with the choice of lyrics, which evoke the Manifest Destiny that upended their lives, as Munayyer appears to be.) By Munayyer’s logic that widely encompassing borders is required for equal rights, we would also need to make one state out of Syria and Iran, reconstitute Yugoslavia, and bring Ireland into the United Kingdom in order to ensure the rights of those territories’ residents.

In the Nation, David Palumbo-Liu, a Stanford University professor who had once plugged a website run by a notorious anti-Semite, took aim at an endlessly battered strawman to defend Hill. “A number of pro-Israel groups have used the incident to once again make the argument that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism in action,” Palumbo-Liu insisted, as if calling for violence and the elimination of Israel is mere criticism. (Hill has been suspected of anti-Semitism, however, for his kind words about Louis Farrakhan, who compares Jews to termites, and for his allegation that Israel poisons Palestinian water, an echo of the blood libel that led to periodic slaughters of Jews in medieval Europe.)

On the Washington Post website, a headline similarly mischaracterized the controversy by claiming, “CNN fires Marc Lamont Hill in wake of remarks criticizing Israel and calling for a ‘free Palestine.’” Again, Hill did not merely criticize Israel, but rather called for its erasure. He did not merely call for a free Palestine, but called for a Palestine that would replace Israel.

And while the Post headline downplayed Hill’s remarks, the text of the article itself downplayed the extent of the criticism by casting the Jewish upset as a conservative thing. Hill’s comments “drew criticism from some conservatives and staunch Israel advocates,” asserted Eli Rosenberg, effectively dismissing and denying criticism from the broader range of thinkers.

Hill called for violent resistance. Hill called for a Palestine to exist instead of, and not alongside, Israel. Hill called for policies that would upend Israel’s demographic balance and disempower the Jews. This is the straightforward meaning of his United Nations speech. Why aren’t the defenses of that speech equally forthright? Were they arguing in good faith, Hill’s advocates would be trying to convince the public that erasing Israel and gerrymandering away Jewish representation on the world stage is a good thing. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that so many of them instead chose to manipulate the meaning of Hill’s words, and of his critics’ arguments.