Last night, Congress did the right thing on a controversial topic: the House voted to censure Democratic Rep. Rashida Tlaib for, among other transgressions, repeatedly calling for the destruction of the Jewish state using an explicitly and famously genocidal slogan.
It was controversial because the combination of partisan loyalty and personal interest means members of Congress rarely censure their colleagues. Censure is the most serious reprimand shy of expulsion from the House, and Tlaib’s genocidal incitement, cheering on the violent designs of those already attempting to carry out their murderous aims, certainly earned it. Her behavior was so unbecoming a member of Congress (or, one might be tempted to add, a member of society) that 22 Democrats joined most Republicans in voting in favor of her censure.
Her Democratic colleagues’ last straw seemed to be her promotion of a video using the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and then defending it. (Accusing her own party’s leader, President Biden, of genocide probably made it easier for Democrats to vote for censure as well.)
Putting “From the river to the sea” at the center of the censure motion was important, and was foreshadowed by a specific type of response that bodes well for the American Jewish community.
When Tlaib tweeted “From the river to the sea,” Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen responded that the slogan “is a call for eliminating the state of Israel.” When Tlaib defended it as “an aspirational call for freedom,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz posted, correctly: “This phrase means eradicating Israel and Jews. Period. Dressing it up in a new PR ploy won’t change that.” Washington Rep. Kim Schrier: “This expression is a call for the elimination of the State of Israel.”
What these responses have in common is what they are missing: equivocation. Members of Congress have resisted the temptation to say something like: “that’s not how Jews hear it” or “that’s how Hamas interprets it and that’s what matters” or the like, which would be an error and would also be inaccurate.
The phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is not, in fact, open to interpretation. It is open to gaslighting and revisionist propaganda, as are all things.
One of the most unintentionally humorous subplots to the Oslo peace process was when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat finally acceded to amend the Palestinian National Charter to remove the parts that were “inconsistent” with the PLO’s obligations under the peace process. If the slogan “From the river to the sea” was the bumper-sticker expression of the Palestinian commitment to eradicate the Jewish state, the national charter was the essay form of the idea.
In 1998, Arafat assured Bill Clinton in writing: “As a result, Articles 6-10,15, 19-23, and 30 have been nullified, and the parts in Articles 1-5, 11-14, 16-l8, 25-27 and 29 that are inconsistent with the above mentioned commitments have also been nullified.”
If you’re keeping track, that means the articles of the Palestinian National Charter that survived unscathed were 24 and 28. Article 24: “The Palestinian people believe in the principles of justice, freedom, sovereignty, self-determination, human dignity, and in the right of all peoples to exercise them.” Article 28: “The Palestinian Arab people assert the genuineness and independence of their national (wataniyya) revolution and reject all forms of intervention, trusteeship, and subordination.”
The rest of the charter is basically all the ways and reasons the Palestinians would go about freeing the land between the river and the sea, and it does not mince words. (“[T]he liberation of Palestine will destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence.”)
In fact, the pre-1998 charter makes for instructive reading for anyone interested in Tlaib and her supporters’ “aspiration” for the land between the waters. Those hoping for actual peace and self-determination for Israelis and Palestinians, for Jews and Arabs, should hope Tlaib’s aspirations go unfulfilled.