The Controversial Phrase “From the River to the Sea”: A Product of Ignorance?

For the past two months, colleges and public squares across the country have been filled with demonstrations in support of Palestinian statehood and opposing Israel’s military response to the October 7 terrorist attacks and its policies toward the West Bank. “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free,” is a common chant at these protests, prompting debate over whether the phrase is or should be considered inherently threatening to Jewish students and others. University of Pennsylvania professor Claire Finkelstein, for one, argues this phrase “in the present context . . . creates a hostile environment that can impair the equal educational opportunities of Jewish students.”
Political Science Professor Ron Hassner of the University of California at Berkeley was curious whether college students and others calling for Palestine to be “free” “from the river to the sea” understood what that slogan entails, so he conducted a survey to find out, and wrote up his results in the Wall Street Journal. His op-ed begins:
Hassner also reports that a majority of those surveyed who initially voiced support for a single Palestinian state moderated their views “when they learned it would entail the subjugation, expulsion or annihilation of seven million Jewish and two million Arab Israelis.”
Hassner’s survey focused on the implications of “from the river to the sea.” I would not be at all surprised were surveys looking at claims Israelis are European colonizers or comparing civil and religious freedom across the Middle East to find similar levels of ignorance, and an equivalent moderation of views when respondents were presented with relevant history and context.
While some argue that universities (and others) should tamp down on free expression in order to quell discord on college campuses, Hassner’s findings suggest universities might do better to double-down on their core mission: Educating their students and providing a forum for the presentation and examination of ideas. As Hassner found, something as simple as showing students maps of the Middle East significantly informs and affects their understanding of the current Israel-Hamas conflict. Now imagine what might happen if universities made a serious effort to sponsor substantive forums on the history of the conflict, presenting thoughtful proponents of the competing positions and laying bear the full complexity (and perhaps intractability) of the current situation, all the while modeling civil discourse for assembled students. This would do more than policing memes and chants. Universities, of all institutions, should believe in the power of education.