How to interpret a slogan

Chanted thousands of times, but highly controversial: pro-Palestinian slogan ‘From the river to the sea’ at a demonstration in London
Chanted thousands of times, but highly controversial: the pro-Palestinian slogan "From the river to the sea" (here at a demonstration in London) has been banned in Germany since November 2023 (image: Vuk Valcic/ZUMA Press Wire/dpa/picture alliance)

The notion that the slogan is sweepingly anti-Semitic falls short of the mark. But extremist interpretations need to be condemned – on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side

Commentary by Kristin Helberg

In November 2023, the phrase "From the river to the sea" was defined in Germany as an identifier of Hamas, and was banned. Anyone laying claim to the whole area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, so the reasoning went, was automatically questioning Israel’s right to exist, and their argument was therefore anti-Semitic. The sentence originated in the 1960s, and is therefore older than Hamas. But after demonstrators celebrated the atrocities of 7 October using the slogan "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free", it was deemed hate speech against Jews. 

This definition falls short, however. The vast majority of people use this slogan to call for a Palestine free from occupation and oppression, and are thereby expressing a legitimate concern. The crucial question, then, is who is calling out this sentence and in what context, and what ideas about Palestine are associated with it.

Alongside the Hamas variant glorifying violence, there are two other interpretations. Either it is about bringing an end to the occupation of the territories that have been occupied since 1967, and establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Or the aim is a one-state solution, which affords equal rights to all residents. In light of the seven million Jews and seven million non-Jews living in the territory, this could, in the medium term, turn Israel from a Jewish state into a state for all citizens. In neither case is anyone saying that Jews should be expelled or even murdered. 

The slogan is often heard at pro-Palestinian demonstrations (as here in Washington D.C.)
The slogan "From the river to the sea" is often heard at pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the USA, such as here in Washington D.C. (image: Elizabeth Frantz/REUTERS)

Different courts offer different assessments

To emphasise this, activists have altered the second half of the slogan. "Palestine will be free" has been replaced with "we demand equality", or "everyone must be free". Yet even these placards are being confiscated by police in Germany

German courts are now deciding whether calling for equality and freedom for all should be classed as anti-Semitic. The Hesse Administrative Court is "extremely doubtful" about the half-sentence constituting a punishable offence, and has ruled that the slogan "From the river to the sea – Palestine will be free! For a free Palestine for ALL people" cannot be prohibited at demonstrations. 

The Baden-Wurttemberg Administrative Court on the other hand backed the decision of the City of Freiburg, which banned the slogan in both written and spoken forms at a rally. 

Extremists on both sides

How the half-sentence is dealt with becomes problematic when it is only classed as a criminal offence for one side. The current Israeli government is laying claim to the entire area west of the Jordan River – from the river to the sea – for "Eretz Israel", or greater Israel. Individual ministers have denied Palestinians the right not only to self-determination and sovereignty, but to exist as a people.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been working quite overtly for decades to prevent a Palestinian state; as far back as 1977 – ten years before Hamas was founded – the manifesto of his Likud Party affirmed that only Israel would have sovereignty "between the sea and the Jordan". 

Extremists on both sides are therefore using this half-sentence to make claims that disregard the rights of the other nation – and yet the German government only sees radicals in the pro-Palestinian camp.

Punishing critical Jews in Germany for demanding freedom for all people between Jordan and the Mediterranean, while at the same time supporting a racist Israeli government with blatant plans for annexation – with words, money and weapons – is a mistake. 

And yet another example of Germany’s double standards in the Middle East conflict.

Kristin Helberg

© 2024

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin