The ‘River to the Sea’ Rorschach test
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Last Saturday, at the big pro-ceasefire demonstration in Washington DC, a young Palestinian-American woman named Ahlam offered an unusual justification for feeling angry about what Israel is doing to Palestinians in Gaza. Speaking from the stage, and directing her message to fellow Palestinians, she said, "You should feel angry. Righteous anger is not hatred. It is love. Righteous anger is love for our people, our land and humanity.”
My first reaction to this was: But couldn’t that logic be used to validate the righteous anger that is driving the Israelis to do what they’re doing to Palestinians in Gaza? After all, the Israelis’ anger, too, is intertwined with their love of their people and their land. Doesn’t Ahlam realize that her rhetoric is a two-edged sword?
But then I remembered a conversation I had a few years ago with a psychologist at Boston College named Liane Young. She and some colleagues had done research on how Palestinians and Israelis view their conflict and found that the two groups have something in common: Both believe that people on their side of the fight are motivated more by love for one another than by hatred of people on the other side, but that on the other side it’s the other way around: there, people are motivated more by hatred of the enemy than by love of one another.
Maybe Ahlam was evincing this bias, seeing the love on her side of the conflict but not the love on the other side. And, maybe, so was Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir when she said, half a century ago, “We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.”
This isn’t just a Middle Eastern thing. Young and her colleagues found the same dynamic when they studied Democrats and Republicans. In general, they concluded, “adversaries attribute their ingroup’s actions to ingroup love more than outgroup hate and attribute their outgroup’s actions to outgroup hate more than ingroup love.”
This finding isn’t shocking. We’ve long known that people are adept at convincing themselves that they’re right and good and their enemies are wrong and bad. And we’ve long known that various cognitive biases (confirmation bias, etc.) can abet this process. But this finding highlights yet another thread—a kind of “We’re lovers, they’re haters” bias—in the fabric of cognitive distortion that sustains our self-righteousness.
That brings us to the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which was chanted at the Washington protest and tends to get chanted at pro-ceasefire, pro-Palestine protests. The phrase is a kind of Rorschach test for people in the pro-Israel and pro-Palestine camps, and helps illuminate the challenges posed by human nature to a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
A few days ago the phrase entered congressional politics in an explosive way. Embracing this phrase, more than anything else, is what got Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American from Michigan, censured on Tuesday. The censure resolution—backed by 212 Republicans and 22 of Tlaib’s fellow Democrats—said she had called “for the destruction of the state of Israel.”
Some people go further and say that “from the river to the sea” is a call for the extermination of Jews, or at least of Israeli Jews. Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee tweeted that Tlaib was “calling for the genocide of the Jewish people.”
“From the River to the Sea” refers to the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—the eastern and western bounds of historic Palestine, encompassing Israel proper, the occupied West Bank, and Gaza. When you ask people why they consider the phrase anti-Semitic, or genocidal, or just threatening to Israel, they often start by saying it’s been used by Hamas, a group known not only for its violence against Israelis but for its aspiration to claim all of Palestine for Palestinians. (Ironically, the phrase doesn’t appear in the original 1988 Hamas charter, which featured virulently anti-Semitic language, but does appear in the revised and more moderate 2017 charter—which, as this New York Times explainer notes, seems to accept, in principle, the idea of a Palestinian state that would be confined to the West Bank and Gaza and wouldn’t include Israel proper.)
But if you ask people who chant the phrase at these demonstrations what they mean by it, they’re not likely to talk about destroying the Jews or the Jewish state or even about territorial aspirations per se. They’re more likely to talk about freedom and civil and political rights. They may say that West Bank Palestinians should get to vote in Israeli elections, or that descendants of Palestinians who were driven from their homes within Israel in 1948 should have the right of return. Palestinian-American activist Yousef Munayyer, writing in Jewish Currents two years ago, said he chose to emphasize the phrase because “I was concerned that Palestinians were being denied basic rights throughout their homeland.”
So in a way the current controversy mirrors the findings of Young and her colleagues: Whereas many Palestinians see “from the river to the sea” as an expression of their concern for fellow Palestinians, many Israeli Jews and pro-Israel Americans see it as an expression of hostility toward Israeli Jews.
This isn’t to say there’s no reason for Israeli Jews to in any sense feel threatened by the phrase as it’s used by American protesters. The most robust realization of a right of return could mean that hundreds of thousands of Jews had to leave their homes. And if Israel gave the vote to Palestinians not only in the West Bank but also in Gaza, then the number of Palestinian voters (including those who live in Israel proper and already have the vote) would roughly equal the number of Jewish voters.
There’s no reason in principle that this many Palestinian voters would have to be bad news for Israeli Jews. Ethnic groups can be secure in democracies even if they don’t control the electorate. And in the near term Jews would have much more wealth and entrenched power than Palestinians—and, as you may have noticed, money carries influence in democracies. Still, this “one-state solution” would no doubt mean the eventual end of Zionism as now incarnated, with formal preferences for Jews in matters ranging from immigration to property rights.
So if “from the river to the sea” means “one state solution”—which it does to many and probably most people who chant it—then the phrase does in some sense signal an aspiration to “eliminate the Jewish state.” At the same time, that’s a pretty misleading way to put it, since “eliminate” has connotations of violence and physical destruction, something those people don’t have in mind. Even more misleading is the Anti-Defamation League’s assertion that the phrase is anti-Semitic because it’s a “call to annihilate Israel”—a characterization that has especially lurid vibes of mass violence. (As I wrote three years ago: “Insiders have long known that the ADL sees the defense of Israel’s interests, as it conceives them, as a big part of its mission—and uses its status as a lauded humanitarian organization and arbiter of bigotry to cast aspersions on people who say things it finds threatening to those interests.”)
That said, the ADL is, while being irresponsibly inflammatory, also channeling a fear found in no few Israeli Jews: that Palestinians, given influence over policy through democracy, would use it to oppress Jews, perhaps violently.
This gets at one of the most persistent and pernicious of cognitive biases, a perceptual asymmetry that has started and sustained wars since the dawn of history: Measures that are seen as defensive by the side that’s taking them or advocating them are often seen on the other side as offensive. Most advocates of a one-state solution don’t consider it an act of aggression, but more of a defensive measure, a way of protecting the rights and the physical security of Palestinians. But many Israeli Jews genuinely see a one-state solution as an offensive initiative, a planned prelude to violence and/or dispossession.
If you ask Israeli Jews why they deny West Bank Palestinians the vote and basic rights like due process of law and such amenities as access to the well-maintained highways that Jewish settlers use, many of them will recall the second Intifada, with its suicide bombers, and say their concern for their own security leaves them no alternative. If you ask them why they’ve long imposed a suffocating economic blockade on Gaza, they’ll say it’s to keep them safe from Hamas. The oppression of the Palestinians, they say, is fundamentally defensive. And I think most of them mean it.
But if you ask Palestinians why the Israelis treat them this way, you get a different answer: The oppression is offensive in nature. The relentless influx of settlers over the past half century, they say, is slow-motion ethnic cleansing (and, lately, faster-motion ethnic cleansing)—and the long term goal is to take all their land. Many Palestinians view the current coerced relocation of Palestinians from north to south Gaza as another illustration of this expansionist Israeli aspiration. (And indeed, some Israeli officials are known to wish the Gazans would go all the way to Egypt and stay there.)
When the reading of an enemy’s defensively motivated measures as offensive is evinced by great powers, political scientists call it an example of the “security dilemma.” And in these cases the offensive calculation that’s being imagined may be imagined as just that—a cool calculation. But in the case of Israel-Palestine, both sides, as Liane Young’s work suggests, see raw hatred as playing a role in the other side’s machinations. And the more the two sides believe this about each other, the truer it becomes.
These perceptions, and these feelings, are increasingly spilling beyond the river and beyond the sea, into the US, among other countries. Here the phrase “from the river to the sea” has become incendiary—in Congress, in the streets, on social media. And the resulting tension has reached scary levels.
I’ve had a couple of exchanges on Twitter lately with people who want protesters to stop using the phrase. I’ve argued for a more symmetrical approach: try to educate protesters about how offensive some people find the phrase, but also try to educate the offended about what most protesters mean by it. In both cases, it may be an uphill battle, and the gains may be modest. But that’s to be expected when you’re fighting human nature itself.
PS: This week I may have made an increment of progress in this struggle. During a podcast conversation, I encouraged—apparently with some success!—noted journalist Ron Kampeas of JTA to try to educate his Jewish audience about the diversity of interpretations of “from the river to the sea.”
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The Overtime segment of Bob’s conversation with psychologist Paul Bloom.
This week’s edition of Earthling Unplugged. The episode airs tomorrow at noon, so look for it in your paid subscriber podcast feed (to set that up, simply go to the link above, click “listen on” on the audio player, and follow the instructions).
Western officials are nudging Ukraine’s government toward peace talks with Russia, according to NBC News. Unnamed US officials told NBC they’re worried that the war has reached a stalemate and Ukraine won’t be able to overcome Russia’s manpower advantage if the fighting continues.
Talk about slow learners! A year ago today, the New York Times reported that General Mark Milley, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believed that future battlefield progress looked iffy at best—and so was trying to convince the White House to push Ukraine toward peace talks. And a few weeks later I published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post echoing that basic argument—and noting that, the longer the war went on, the more Ukrainians would die and the more of Ukraine would get wrecked.