There is something profoundly disturbing and morally challenging in the way many view the Israel-Palestine conflict. The chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, once buried because of its unadulterated implication that Israel should be eliminated, is currently in vogue, doing the rounds of social media.
In a recent Facebook post by the Australian Palestine Advocacy Network, the question is asked of the public “what does this (ditty) mean to me”, and numerous videos have been posted answering this loaded question. The post itself has been shared many times.
Having not trawled through all the video answers, I am still willing to bet that not one response challenges the eliminationist premise of the chant. It is greatly troubling that a formula for coexisting self-determination between Israel and Palestine cannot be found.
But that is not what the ditty sings to its Australian audience about. It croons to an extremist at the 2021 ALP State Conference in Queensland who says, with apparent pride from those who were there, that Hamas, a designated terrorist organisation, was “justified” in the indiscriminate firing of 4000 rockets into Israeli civilian cities and towns. The coda of this particular stanza is, of course, that the death of Israeli civilians is more than acceptable, it is warranted.
This new warrant for genocide is not new. When this 10-word ode was first spelt out in the Egyptian media in the months leading up to the 1967 Six Day War, it was meant as a catch-phrase to further then Egyptian president Nasser’s aim to “throw the Jews into the sea”.
Even though the meaning has not changed in all these years, this elegy has now become a virtue signal in its own right; that the vocalist stands for a free Palestine unshackled to Israel and which territorially has no room for a self-determined state for the Jewish people.
What is it about this form of Palestinian national redemption that can only come into existence with the elimination of the Jewish State? What is it about Israel that Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and the Australian Palestine Advocacy Network find so appalling about Israel that allowing Israel to be is simply wrong, and that it must be eliminated? What is it about Israel that generates such loathing? And why does this entrap ordinary Australians to be caught up in this new racism, apparently ignorant of the turpitude signalling it reveals?
The answers to these troubling questions are profoundly difficult and disturbing.
At a social and political level, Israel is a moral marvel compared to its neighbours. A democracy not a theocracy. Liberal freedoms, not Islamist Authoritarianism. Protecting the rights of LGBQ+ citizens versus punishment by death sentence. Women’s rights versus Islamist misogyny. Free unions versus no unions. Civilian authority over the military versus military dictatorships in name or kind. Equal votes for all citizens irrespective of background versus no votes. The list of differences is long.
Supporters of Israel recognise the immense challenges in maintaining these freedoms and structures after 75 years of incessant war and terror; frankly it is a modern version of miraculous. This is not to say Israel is without blemish. And that 2.5 million Palestinians do not want Israel to rule over them. This is a given by the vast majority of Israelis who want to separate from the Palestinians.
But elimination of the state? That Israel’s own flaws justify 4000 rockets indiscriminately fired on its civilians, and the majority of media opinion postulate that Israel is at fault for its own self-defence? And where, during the recent conflict, British gangs drove around the Jewish suburbs of London flying Palestinian flags and chanting “rape their daughters”. In what disturbed reality is this considered normal?
We live in a world where facts are not as valid as beliefs. Where it is believed that Jewish self-determination is viewed as a colonial enterprise built on a non-existent apartheid. Where the belief that the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral home after 2000 years of exile, and immense contribution to civilisation, is not greeted with awe but derision. Where the belief that the Oslo Accords – a pathway to mutual acceptance and co-existence –is “normalisation with the enemy”.
It is the refusal to co-exist that is at the heart of this river-to-sea rhyme of hate as it calls for Palestinian self-determination to be redeemed at the cost of eliminating Jewish self-determination. In the end, denial of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their ancient homeland in any shape or form is a belief that can be characterised in one word: antisemitism.
Adam Slonim is co-convenor of the Australia Israel Labor Dialogue, a member of the executive of the John Curtin Research Centre and an adjunct fellow at the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University.