"From the River to the Sea": A reply to SAZF

Hassen Lorgat says oppressed have right to resist by whatever means possible, including armed resistance

The South African president Cyril Ramaphosa stands accused of electioneering and deeply destructive and calling for the destruction of the state of Israel, antisemitism and much more. This is after his chanting of the slogan From the River to the Sea, at the ANCs final Siyanqoba rally before the elections.

As a result of this the South African Zionist Federation has threatened Ramaphosa with legal action arguing that they were ¨ considering potential legal avenues in response to this hate speech”.  I believe the SAZF are being disingenuous as this slogan is popular with their leader, Netanyahu’s party Likud but it has become popularised in the streets in the social justice movements around the world calling for justice for Palestinians and affirming their right to national self-determination. 

The state of Israel and stands accused as a Zionist body for condoning the killings of babies, children, women and men who are not combatants. According to Al Jazeera ¨at least 36,050 Palestinians have been killed and 81,026 wounded in Israel's war on Gaza since October 7. The revised death toll in Israel from Hamas's attack on that date stands at 1,139, with dozens still held captive.¨ 

But the SAZF is not a passive bystander as its website puts it plainly: “The SAZF looks after matters relating to Israel and its image in South Africa. As advocates for Israel in this country, our mission is to build strong support and love for the Land and State of Israel.” The chants and the slogans are a call for peace and the end to slaughter and for a people driven democracy in all of the occupied lands.

This simple chant From the River to the Sea Palestine will be Free has united millions all over the world. But first let me detour to tell you about the movements and how they have organised to bring about the unity of all people in what is now Palestine and Israel (occupied Palestine). In addition to the English version, I have heard this chant in Arabic: من النهر إلى البحر, romanized: min an-nahr ʾilā l-baḥr. In Catalan: des del riu fins al mar. And in Spanish: desde el río hasta el mar

Most activists agree that our solidarity struggles have been to contest power on the ground by taking to the streets to support Palestine. We start by recognising the rights of the oppressed to resist by whatever means possible, including armed resistance, to eradicate themselves from the yolk of racism and occupation. 

Our solidarity campaigns are multifold, involving boycotts, sanction, and disinvestments. These are at different levels of effectiveness. Clearly disinvestment campaigns for South African campaigners have been our toughest challenge.

Pro-Palestinian solidarity groups have used direct action and the law as a tool to obtain justice for Palestinians living under occupation - in particular in Gaza, where we believe genocide is being perpetrated. Our actions build friendships and movements and, in a few instances, new organisations or groups have emerged to strengthen direct people-to-people contact with those in Palestine and oppressed communities on our continent from the DRC to Sudan and further. Those standing for Palestine have worked with other movements of women, unions, civics - all over the world contributing to  movement building is critical to build solidarity with the wretched of the earth.

It follows that this is an all encompassing human rights movement that employs diverse strategies that aims to unite without the politics of bigotry and hate. These include a legal strategy or a boycott strategy, as activists invariably use the various tools and skills available to nurture creative moments of solidarity that we hope will result in victories. 

Challenging and changing the narrative

All in all, all parts of the movement are and must remain integrally about changing the beliefs, statements, ideology… - in today’s language, we are contesting the narrative. And we are winning. Let me explain who we are briefly. We refer to the global movement and it grows by the struggles and lessons of others internationally. 

With the massification and diversification of communication, solidarity groups have used mass action as awareness raising and defiance against the national elites. The introduction of social media in particular has amplified these messages as many activists now also play the role of citizen journalists and storytellers. These tools and the organising have helped the movement to challenge the lies and misinformation of the hasbara of the Israeli state and their pro-Israeli allies, mostly in the powerful western countries. It is undeniable that these chants in action in the streets irked the elites of the world. The call is not only to end the genocide in Gaza and for a ceasefire, but it represents a hope for a united state for all the peoples in the occupied lands.

Let me return to the short poetic chant From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free. Whilst it has united many,  it has also been subject to great scrutiny. Activists using this slogan are vilified and sanctioned in the Great Western Liberal Countries - from Germany to the UK, and not forgetting the USA.  

In 2018, media professor at Temple Marc Lamont Hill was fired and stopped from hosting his show on the liberal CNN after he called for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea” during an event held at the United Nations for the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. He said then: “We have an opportunity to not just offer solidarity in words but to commit to political action, grassroots action, local action and international action that will give us what justice requires and that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea.”

In the UK, the Labour MP Andy Mcdonald was suspended for using the phrase, whilst the Football FA has demanded that footballers not use the slogan on their private media spaces.

The first Palestinian-American to serve in US Congress Rashida Tlaib was also to suffer the indignity of repression. Against basic laws of decency, let alone human rights, Tlaib was censured by the House in November 2023. Why? She dared to speak of freedom for her people in the wake of the October 7 Hamas attacks in Israel and she used the words: “from the river to the sea.” Like many of us, Tlaib is clear that the slogan is “an aspirational call for freedom, human rights and peaceful coexistence, not death, destruction or hate.”

In the land of the free, the United States House of Representatives recently passed a resolution condemning the chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as antisemitic. The motion was passed by 377 members with only 44 dissenting voices. The Democrats and the Republicans are united on this as only 34 Democrats and one Republican opposed it. Special mention must go to some of the die hard progressives such as Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Cori Bush who have been with the movement for justice in Palestine for years. The libertarian republican Rep Thomas Massie made democracy proud by voting against the motion.

This slogan is deeply rooted in the desire of Palestinians for freedom and is accredited to the PLO in the 1960s without the same sense of vigour and movement that it enjoys today. The chant / slogan  speaks of the Palestinians desire to be free from tyranny and arbitrary rule of racists, and for all those in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea (which includes the the lands taken from Palestinians in 1948, the state of Israel as well as the Gaza Strip and the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem). Zionists believe that this chant means an end to Israel, but progressives argue that it is a call for an end to Jewish supremacy and for equality and justice for all people living in those lands.

In fact, the Zionist movement in the early 1920s used this slogan. It was captured in a song entitled  Two Banks to the Jordan) is a song written by Ze'ev Jabontinsky. It includes the words "Two Banks has the Jordan – This is ours and, that is as well."[1]More recently, it is accredited to Benjamin Netanyahu’s neofascist Likud party who, in their 1977 election manifesto, wrote "Between the sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty."  

Needless to say, many songs flow along the river for a united Palestine. If you love ballads, you must listen to A Day Will Come (Palestine Will Be Free) by Desirée Dawson and Mona Haydar. I think many already know the song by Muad and Zayaan, who resiliently vocalise the sentiments of many. It is called from the river.  But people make it up as they go along where the chant is put to a beat. We can also dip into this mix-up Free Palestine using the music of Lowkey and Eminen, which opens with the chant.

So, given that Zionism may still try to lay claim to this inspirational slogan, I ask: does it mean it is or never was theirs? If it is theirs, I cannot help to wonder: Why are they trembling in their boots when we sing and chant from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free?  

Why would the state of Israel’s image protectors in South Africa want to litigate against the president for the chant?

The recent announcements before the ICJ for Israel to stop its assault on Rafa as well as the ICC’s decision to put Netanyahu in the dock (as well as three Hamas leaders) shows that the Global South are the true custodians of international human rights law, multilateralism and the politics of solidarity. Solidarity must always come from the below, those who suffered oppression, colonialism and violence.

The spectre of fear has gripped those in capitals of elite power because they realise that we the people are winning the war of ideas and that we have begun to out-organise them. We cannot stop. This is not the time to celebrate but it is OK to have that spring in our step as well as to have a smile… as we go on organising. We have a world to transform and this is only the beginning. But every step helps to bring people together in one united land from the river to the sea.

Hassen Lorgat has worked in trade union movement, civic associations, and anti-apartheid sports movement led by the South African Council on Sports (SACOS) as well as NGOs for the past while. He is active with the SA BDS Coalition. He works for justice with mining impacted communities