I hold the simple idea, as a communist, that centralized, authoritarian states are not a very good way to organize society and so I hope it will be uncontroversial if I say that Israel should be ended. Not as a people, because Israel is not a people. I am able to distinguish between the Jewish people, no small number of whom are in my family, and Israel, the settler-colonial project. The great majority of people are able to make this quite simple distinction. Some are not, and they are idiots. Some pretend not to be able to, and they are Zionists. My holiday wish for you is freedom from both, and also that Israel be ended. Not to worry, since I hope the same about Sweden and for that matter the United States.
Here in the United States one of our national tunes contains the phrase “from sea to shining sea,” referring to the completion of westward colonization from Atlantic to Pacific. See also: Pilgrims, patriots, alabaster cities. Canada uses much the same phrase in Latin, “A Mari Usque Ad Mare,”also a nation-building slogan associated with western expansion. In both cases we are talking about a systematic effort to subordinate indigenous populations, killing or driving them into open-air prisons as needed, to both extend and secure a colonial project. So while the astonishing version by Ray Charles makes it somewhat easier to gloss over this moment, when you hear the phrase “from sea to shining sea,” you would be forgiven for shivering at the destruction it signifies. It comes with shivers because it arises from actual historical experience. It is a lyrical phrase that also means massive, brutal dispossession because that’s how it went down; without that dispossession, no sea to sea, shining or otherwise. That’s just history, don’t @ me.
I mention this because CNN fired Marc Lamont Hill last week for using the phrase “from the river to the sea.” The bodies of water are different but the comparison is telling. The slogan has been around for decades, used equally by the PLO, singers, poets, Hamas, chanting pacifists, and many others. Here is what he actually said. Speaking at the United Nations, he asked people 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.”
Zionists immediately set to doing what they do, which is pretending that calls for freedom from the catastrophic violence of an eliminationist nationalism are actually somehow threats on a people. So we should ask the same question we ask of “sea to shining sea.” What is it that allows “from the river to the sea” to work as a kind of code, able to signify beyond its six words, to elicit a historical shiver? Has the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea ever seen the dispossession of the Israelis, killing or driving them into open-air prisons as needed? No it has not. Has it ever seen the dispossession of Palestinians, killing or driving them into open-air prisons as needed? For 70 years it has seen nothing but. Hill was speaking at a commemoration of the nakba, literally “the catastrophe,” which refers to the formal commencement of that very process of murderous colonization that would assure the unfreedom of Palestinians from the river to the sea.
Whether Hill keeps his job at CNN is a minor matter, as I suspect he would agree, compared to understanding the grotesque abuse on which Zionism depends. The pretense that Hill’s use of “from the river to the sea” refers to something that didn’t happen rather than something that did debases all of us. So does Israel’s increasingly panicky effort to disallow discussions about the actuality of history.
You will no doubt recognize the overarching rhetorical strategy: that those who have been dispossessed and immiserated are dispossessors and misery-bringers, that refusing to accept violent oppression is the real oppression. This is the entirety of the New Right’s rhetorical game plan in the US, after all, from the cesspits to the White House. Best not to forget that Trump’s hardon for lethal force against anyone said to have thrown a rock, which is by the way a war crime, is simply a tribute to longstanding Israeli policy. Every cop hollers self-defense each time they shoot a kid. As long as this is the case, we must always be on the side of rock-throwers both imagined and real. Not so as to forge a new state where there was none, but, where the state is preserved by constant and absolute violence, to instead bring it to an end. This is the course of freedom and flourishing for Palestinians and Jews alike.