The Dutch court of appeal has given legal protection to the Palestinian liberation chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, on free speech grounds.
On 15 August, the appeal court – whose rulings are final and cannot be appealed – acquitted Thomas Hofland, a pro-Palestine activist who used the popular chant in a speech he delivered at a Nakba day rally in Amsterdam in May 2021.
The ruling upholds an earlier decision by a lower Dutch court not to prosecute Hofland. That court concluded that the pro-Palestinian slogans Hofland had used in his speech “are subject to various interpretations” and “relate to the state of Israel and possibly to people with Israeli citizenship, but do not relate to Jews because of their race or religion”.
The ruling makes the Netherlands an outlier among western states, many of which have moved to outlaw the slogan on the grounds of antisemitism.
Free Palestine ≠ destroy Israel.
“From the river to the sea” is one of the most popular and longstanding pro-Palestine slogans. It’s also one of the most controversial.
In a recent Twitter thread, home secretary Suella Braverman claimed that the slogan was “widely understood as a demand for the destruction of Israel” and “remains a staple of antisemitic discourse”.
This interpretation of the chant has become definitive among Jewish communal organisations and the rightwing media – and has been forcefully rejected by Palestinians and their supporters. They point to the slogan’s origins in the 1960s as part of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s attempt to push for a secular, democratic state in all of historic Palestine.
Today, the phrase is often used to acknowledge the fact that nowhere between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea – not in Gaza, nor the West Bank, nor Israel proper – do Palestinians enjoy full and equal rights with Jewish Israelis.
As to the claim that the slogan expresses a desire for Israel’s “destruction”, the historian of Palestine Maha Nassar has suggested that this eliminationist interpretation may derive from a post-six-day-war Israeli propaganda campaign that asserted that Palestinians wished to “throw Jews into the sea”.
Yet as criticism of Israel has intensified in line with the state’s increasing repression of Palestinians, Israel’s defenders have cracked down ever on pro-Palestinian speech, in particular this chant.
Criminalising a chant.
One of the most repressive global regimes when it comes to Palestine solidarity is Germany, which sees itself as having a “special responsibility” to support Israel in light of the Holocaust.
After banning pro-Palestine marches entirely last year following Israel’s killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, Berlin police disbanded this year’s Nakba day rally after protesters chanted “From the river to the sea”.
The police had previously warned organisers the rally would be cancelled if the chant was recited on the grounds that it “denies Israel’s right to exist” and is therefore “not allowed in this country”.
It isn’t just Germany, however. On 11 October, Vienna police banned a Palestine demonstration on the grounds that the organisers had included the slogan in their invitations. They claimed “From the river to the sea” violates article 2 of the European convention on human rights, the right to life. Austria’s ruling rightwing Freedom party has one of the most hardline pro-Israel stances in the EU: the country was one of the swiftest in the bloc to suspend aid to Palestine following Hamas’ 7 October attack.
The UK is now making moves to follow suit. On 10 October, Suella Braverman wrote to the chief constables of England and Wales regarding recent events in Israel and Palestine.
“I would encourage police to consider whether chants such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” should be understood as an expression of a violent desire to see Israel erased from the world,” she wrote, “and whether its use in certain contexts may amount to a racially aggravated section 5 public order offence.”
In the US, the crackdown on the chant has been undertaken mostly by employers rather than lawmakers. In 2018, CNN fired the African-American political commentator Marc Lamont Hill after he used the phrase during a UN event for the international day of solidarity with the Palestinian people.
Lamont Hill’s speech drew criticism from rightwing Zionist American-Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, whose senior vice president Sharon Nazarian called the slogan “code for the destruction of Israel”.
A crystal clear victory.
The Dutch ruling is the first major blow to that position. In a statement to the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network, an international organisation of which Hofland is a member (and which Germany is currently seeking to ban), Hofland’s lawyer Willem Jebbink said that the court had been “crystal clear: the phrase ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free’ is not anti-semitic.”
“People who speak out against Israel’s continued human rights violations are often labelled anti-semitic on frivolous grounds. A transparent trick of reasoning that only serves to divert attention from the content of the debate, from what is happening in the occupied territories.
“It is elementary that we in our society can sharply criticize Israel’s policies without the risk of criminalization.”
The European Legal Support Centre provides legal assistance to Palestinians and their supporters across the continent, including Hofland. In a statement to Novara Media, a spokesperson for the organisation said: “In the light of the growing criminalisation in Europe towards expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for liberation, including this slogan … it [is] crucial to recall the legitimacy and legality of such a slogan, and explain what it means for Palestinians.
“This Dutch court decision is a good reminder.”