by Mitchell Plitnick
On Wednesday, Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of cultural studies at Temple University and commentator at CNN, addressed the United Nations as a representative of civil society on the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. On Thursday, he was no longer a CNN commentator.
CNN’s decision came after a sharp and coordinated series of attacks on Hill, accusing him of calling for violence against Israelis, the destruction of Israel, and even genocide against Jews. These attacks came from the usual quarters that characterize any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic and resonated with some more liberal supporters of Israel as well. However, other forces objected to CNN’s action, including more than a few pro-Israel advocates.
Hill has since published an article in which he clarified his meaning, unequivocally apologized for hurting people with his choice of words, and took full responsibility for what he said. The responses to that apology will be a strong measure of who was legitimately upset because they believed that Hill had crossed a line and who was disingenuously using his words to attack him for standing up for Palestinian rights.
[Full disclosure: Marc Lamont Hill is a friend of mine and a colleague. He and I have traveled to Israel-Palestine together and have discussed not only that issue but also the issue of anti-Semitism at considerable length.]
The direct criticism centered around two aspects of Hill’s speech. The first was, at the very end, his use of the phrase “a free Palestine from the river to the sea.” Critics said that this is a dog-whistle, used by terrorists, for the annihilation of Israel. The other is a portion where he points out, quite accurately, that the struggles of non-violent activists like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi are often portrayed in isolation, when fact that they occurred alongside less pacifistic movements that also contributed to their victories.
As Omar Baddar of the Arab-American Institute put it:
Since no honest person could derive anti-Semitism or genocide from a ‘free Palestine,’ I won’t dignify those accusations with a rebuttal. I would simply note that those smears are deliberate attempts to mislead people away from the reality of the injustice Palestinians live today, because this is a debate that opponents of Palestinian rights can no longer win on merits. But because an honest person could read an ‘anti-Israel’ position in Hill’s comment, given that modern Israel is within the “river to the sea” area he refers to, that much is worth addressing.
I approach both questions on this basis.
A Call for Palestinian Violence?
In his speech, Hill said,
Contrary to Western mythology, Black resistance to American apartheid did not come purely through Gandhi-an nonviolence. Rather, slave revolts and self-defense and tactics otherwise divergent from Dr. King or Mahatma Gandhi were equally important to preserving safety and attaining freedom. We must allow—if we are to operate in true solidarity with Palestinian people, we must allow the Palestinian people the same range of opportunity and political possibility. If we are standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people, we must recognize the right of an occupied people to defend itself. We must prioritize peace. But we must not romanticize or fetishize it. We must advocate and promote nonviolence at every opportunity, but we cannot endorse a narrow politics of respectability that shames Palestinians for resisting, for refusing to do nothing in the fact of state violence and ethnic cleansing.
This was described as a call for violence against Israelis. But what Hill actually called for is for the world to hold Palestinians to the same standards it holds other peoples who are struggling under the yoke of oppression. The language Marc used was unnecessarily ambiguous, and it is a fair critique to say that he should have been explicit about declaring that Palestinians, like Israelis, must be expected to avoid targeting or needlessly endangering civilians.
But these words do not hold a call to violence, much less a call to attacks civilians. Hill was saying that the Palestinians should not be judged by a different yardstick than Black civil rights protesters, Blacks in South Africa, or Indians trying to rid themselves of the British 70 years ago. His point was that in those cases, violence and non-violence were both employed, and the latter did not invalidate the cause. And yes, he was certainly saying Palestinians have the right to resist occupation and dispossession, as they do under international law as well as any legitimate moral code.
Hill didn’t say Palestinians should behave more violently. In fact, he explicitly said that every opportunity for non-violence must be exploited. He was simply saying that oppressed people have a right to fight back. International law is on his side. When Palestinians act outside of that law, that can be condemned but it does not invalidate their right to legitimate resistance, any more than it did when similar distinctions were drawn between those that supported the tactics of King and Gandhi and those that sided with Malcolm X or the Indian National Army.
It’s always difficult to talk about the right of an occupied people to resist with force. I wouldn’t argue with someone who says that Marc didn’t do it well in this case. But he was not urging violence, any more than one American president after another was calling for violence when he said that Israel has the right to defend itself. In both cases, the point was about the right to self-defense, not a call to violence.
Each call is heard differently by different people, and that is not surprising. Palestinians and Israelis, and their supporters, hear, see, and experience almost everything differently. But the last I time checked, no one was calling for any supporter of Israel to be fired for declaring Israel’s right to defend itself. The idea is absurd. It should be equally absurd in the case of supporters of Palestinian rights affirming Palestinians’ right to defend themselves. But, as Hill is only the latest to demonstrate, different rules of both ethics and consequences apply.
“The River to the Sea”
This phrase was what really seemed to set some people’s blood to boil, and I certainly understand why. It has been used by Palestinian movements who believed that the only way Palestinians could ever be truly liberated is if all of what had been Palestine under the pre-1948 British Mandate was also liberated, “from the river to the sea.” The PLO used it before they adopted a two-state position and Hamas has used it since, and both groups have employed violent methods to implement that vision. For most Americans, especially American Jews, who are familiar with the phrase, it has no other connotation.
But the phrase actually has a more varied and nuanced meaning for many Palestinians (as well as more than a few Israelis and international activists of various stripes) these days. It might mean the complete elimination of the State of Israel, but it might also be used as a blanket term to refer to the multiple forms of discrimination and oppression Palestinians face, or simply as a referent to express the entire land including Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
In the past 15 years or so, the Palestinian national movement has re-emphasized the broad nature of its struggle. Palestinians are besieged in Gaza, live under stifling occupation in the West Bank, as non-citizen residents in Jerusalem, as second-class citizens of Israel, or as refugees outside the areas under Israeli control. In a nod toward a general trend of inclusiveness in activism, Palestinians consciously address this disparity and use the “river to the sea” to represent that idea.
But again there is a truly radical, and harmful, double standard. For example, a headline in the Times of Israel on January 1, 2013 read, “Palestinians will outnumber Jews between the river and the sea by 2020, PA report says.” The report itself never uses that phrase, referring instead to “historical Palestine.”
No one accused TOI editor-in-chief David Horovitz of calling for the eradication of Israel for that headline. Indeed, the use of it raised no concerns anywhere. Nor did anyone call for the firing of Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy when he published an op-ed with the headline, “Undemocratic From the River to the Sea.” Levy elaborated in the column: “we have to acknowledge that the country’s genuine borders are the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Jordan River to the east, including not only the West Bank but also the Gaza Strip.”
That’s exactly what Marc meant too, as he stated on Twitter, “My reference to “river to the sea” was not a call to destroy anything or anyone. It was a call for justice, both in Israel and in the West Bank/Gaza. The speech very clearly and specifically said those things. No amount of debate will change what I actually said or what I meant.”
I’m not minimizing how much of a trigger this phrase is for many. I don’t doubt that they viscerally hear it as a call to “push the Jews into the sea,” another phrase of old. Frankly, I wish Marc had asked me to look over the speech. I absolutely would have told him to rephrase that.
But he clarified what he meant several times now, something that should have been taken into consideration before penalizing him for the use of six words that were triggering, but also open to misinterpretation. This contrasts with another use of a similar phrase: “The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked with the right to security and peace; therefore, Judea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”
Those words, which deny Palestinian self-determination as surely as the worst interpretation of “the river to the sea” does, are from the founding platform of the Likud in 1977. Unlike Hill’s use of the Palestinian phrase, the meaning is not ambiguous. Unlike Hill—or, for that matter, any Palestinian or Palestinian solidarity group—the Likud has all the power it needs to implement that statement, and it has, in fact, done so, both de facto and de jure for the past 50 years. Unlike Hill, Likud explicitly holds to that same position today.
It would serve everyone much better if Marc Lamont Hill were reinstated at CNN and the Likud were fired from Israeli politics.