Joshua Weinberg

“Free Palestine” And Other Popular Slogans

At a public high school in a major North American city, a student hung a flyer on a student-led social justice board in the hallway. “Free Palestine” it read and boasted a picture of a Palestinian flag. No context, no explanation, no commentary, no elucidation as from whom “Palestine” should be “freed.” Subsequently, another student scribbled the words “from Hamas,” which was almost immediately painted over. A different student ripped down the flyer claiming it was antisemitic and hate speech. The principal exacerbated the incident, and the student now suffers from social media attacks for being racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Arab.

In another case, a teenager proud of his challah baking experiment posted a picture of his freshly baked golden braids on his Instagram account and received a barrage of “Free Palestine” comments (!) forcing him to remove the post. What does challah have to do with Palestine?  Good question.

The student union at the University of Toronto recently proposed a new policy, tabled on November 24, whereby the union will no longer engage with events, services, or groups — including kosher food vendors — that “further normalize Israel apartheid.”

This is happening all over the Diaspora. During Operation “Shomer Homot” – the recent war between Hamas and Israel last May, we witnessed a slightly different expression of this phenomenon. People, especially teens, who had never been active or shown interest in this issue, jumped on the bandwagon-of-justice and the meme-post of “Free Palestine”– again, bereft of context, nuance, sophistication, and background.

Today, “Free Palestine” is the call of many who do justice work and champion anti-racism, the cause-du-jour of the anarchist left, resulting in some quarters as superficial popular progressivism.

What does it mean, and how should we respond?

When the claim is to “Free Palestine” we must ask from what?  Freedom from an oppressive and corrupt regime? Freedom from Hamas that chooses to use every resource to build tunnels, rockets and missiles and maintain the squalor of its people? Freedom from the international community that champions the Palestinian cause but does little for the Palestinian people?

Or, freedom from the Occupation? In which case we must ask, does this refer to the 1967 occupation, settler dependence on State infrastructure support in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or the establishment of Israel itself in 1948?

Do advocates for a free Palestine mean ‘Free of Jews’ echoing the German ‘Judenrein’ of the Third Reich?

The students claim that ‘Free Palestine’ is not hate speech nor a terrorist slogan. Rather, it’s a call to liberate Palestine from the throes of colonialist oppression – Israel.

We often hear the protest chant that Palestine should be “free from the river to the Sea” suggesting that a Palestinian State ought to replace the Jewish State of Israel.

 Professor Maha Nassar (Associate Professor at the University of Arizona) claims that we, Jews misunderstand the meaning of “Free Palestine”:

“The call for a free Palestine ‘from the river to the sea, gained traction in the 1960s and was part of a larger call to see a secular democratic state established in all of historic Palestine. Palestinians hoped their state would be free from oppression of all sorts, from Israeli as well as from Arab regimes.

To be sure, a lot of Palestinians thought that in a single democratic state, many Jewish Israelis would voluntarily leave, like the French settlers in Algeria did when that country gained its independence from the French. Their belief stemmed from the anti-colonial context in which the Palestinian liberation movement arose.”

Prof. Nahar offers a problematic view – to say the least – comparing Israel to a true colonialist entity such as France in Algeria. Rather than making the comparison to the British Mandate in Palestine when both Jews and Palestinians were colonized she completely skews the picture.

Let me be clear, I also want a free Palestine. I want one day to see an independent Palestine living peacefully and securely side-by-side with a Jewish, democratic, and secure Israel. I believe strongly in the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people. They deserve a representative government and working systems of health care, welfare, education, and the opportunity to make a living.

I support Palestinian human rights and their right to self-determination just like I see the State of Israel as the embodiment of the national Jewish liberation movement, and as the only democracy in the Middle East and the social justice movement of the Jewish people.

There is no question that Israel has yet to fulfill its aspirational vision, but when we protest the policies of the United States, we never call for the dismantling of the project that is the United States. However, many who advocate for Palestinian rights regularly call to question Israel’s very existence. When we hear “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free” we understand that to mean that there is no place for a Jewish State, even if those saying it claim to not see it that way.

Let’s state the obvious:

First, it isn’t a secret that a “single democratic state” means the end of Israel and the Zionist enterprise. Yes, many Jews would leave, and many more might be slaughtered.

Second, Israel isn’t a colonialist entity, and the accusation of such is a gross misconception that undermines the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.

Zionism bears none of the defining features of European settler-colonialism. All settler colonialist movements of the modern period consisted of imperial conquests of foreign lands. For instance, the British and the Spanish, who ruled their own homeland, conquered, and settled the land of other peoples, mostly in South and Central America, Africa, and Asia – lands with which they had no prior relationship or connection.

In contrast, we Jews lost our homeland and lived in exile/Diaspora. We then returned to our homeland, purchased land from local and absentee Arab landlords, and built a country. While that is our narrative, we can and should acknowledge that Palestinians maintain a different foudnational narrative, one of catastrophe and displacement, known in Arabic as “Nakba”.

What is needed, in order to achieve freedom and justice for Palestine and Israel, is a serious, and more invested effort of dialogue and, of course, a commitment to end the conflict, not just for the other to disappear. Not surprisingly, we learn such a lesson from this week’s Parasha.

At the opening of Parashat Vayigash, Jacob’s fourth son Yehuda offers a long speech to Yosef. He doesn’t actually discuss the stolen goblet (continuing last week’s story), but rather chooses to tell the story of his family. He ends by changing his appeal – offering himself as a slave in exchange for his younger brother Binyamin, who should go free with the other brothers (Bereishit 44:33).

His words were so powerful that Joseph could no longer contain himself. In a dramatic scene, Joseph clears everyone out of the room, weeps uncontrollably, and discloses his identity: “I am Joseph, your brother.”

What was so powerful about what Yehuda said that caused Joseph to undergo such an emotional reaction and lead himself to reconcile with his brothers?

Some commentators suggest that Yehuda wasn’t actually taking responsibility for the lifted goblet, but rather for the formative act of selling Joseph into slavery (which he did only to spare his life). Yehuda was taking responsibility and holding himself accountable for past actions.

We Jews, we Israel, also need to do that and haven’t done it enough. Let’s tell our story (which may require us having to learn our story).

Like, Yehuda, we also need to confess our mistakes, and when we inflict pain and suffering on others. We cannot go back, as the famous line goes: “He whose candle was snuffed out and was buried in the dust – bitter crying won’t wake him up and won’t bring him back…” (Shir L’Shalom, Yankele Rotblit, 1969)

We cannot undo the past, but we can apologize, reconcile, and work to make things better and more just. But we cannot do this alone. Is it fair to insist that while we uncover the warts of Israel’s past and current behavior that the Palestinians do the same? Is it fair to champion the Nationalist Movement of the Palestinians but to deny Jewish peoplehood and nationalism? At the end of the day, we can only control our own words and behavior.

When we see “Free Palestine” (online or in person), we must ask if it is an invitation to a conversation, or an attempt at delegitimization that inhibits any possibility of genuine dialogue?

The story of Joseph and his brothers teaches us that even in difficult situations discourse is possible and the only way towards rapprochement. In order to succeed, for this purpose, each side must take responsibility for its actions and make a serious attempt to understand the other.

Let’s tell our story, our full story, hold ourselves accountable when we make mistakes, correct those mistakes, and believe that our narrative will touch people’s hearts.

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.