Todd L. Pittinsky

Palestine Will Never Be from the River to the Sea

When college students protest, they often do so with a naive conviction that they can make the world the way they think it should be by yelling at it. This can be an endearing—even admirable—rite of passage. But when college students en masse shout “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” it is something else—something dangerous and even deadly.

Research has found that the majority of college students cannot accurately identify which “river” and what “sea” they are talking about. Nor can they locate them on a map. In short, they have no idea what they’re actually saying. But Hamas does. They have said clearly—again and again—that “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a call for a Palestinian state encompassing all of modern-day Israel. That makes it a call for the annihilation of the state of Israel and a genocide of Jews—as Hamas gladly acknowledges.

A Palestine from the (Jordan) river to the (Mediterranean) sea is not going to happen. What real harm, then, can come from students over five thousand miles away making such a demand, one which even Rashida Talib rather oddly described as only an “aspirational” call? Plenty of harm for the people living in Gaza, the people for whom those protesters claim to protest.

When Islamists chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” they are not making a political statement—they are expressing their willingness to die a martyr’s death to annihilate the Jews. In their minds, they are not fighting a border dispute—they are fighting a holy war. If you’re male and die in that fight, Allah will grant you 72 virgins in the afterlife—for exactly what you think.

When secular college students call for it, they irresponsibly encourage a set of religious beliefs and a theocratic state system to which they themselves would never subscribe or submit. But worse, they hinder progress for Palestinians by holding out the false hope that a Palestinian state will one day replace—rather than coexist with—a Jewish state. The refusal of Palestinian leadership to choose coexistence over annihilation has been a major cause of the very real suffering of the Palestinians for 76 years.

Palestinians were offered statehood in the original United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, in the Camp David Accords of 1978, and in the 2000 Camp David II Summit. The withdrawal of Israel from Gaza in 2005 was yet another opportunity for Palestinians to begin building a state, but the election of Hamas as the government (an election Hamas would never let be repeated) led to the doubling down on a “holy war” and the false hope that the entire Middle East will someday be “Jewless.” That’s what so many American college students are calling for and if they don’t realize it, their ignorance is willful because Hamas has never made any secret of it.

A soft version of “from the river to the sea” calls for a “right of return” for displaced Palestinians, which would turn Israel overnight into an Arab Muslim state. Not to mention (since it never is) that if Palestinians have a right of return, so do the nearly one million Jews “ethnically cleansed” out of Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, and other Arab countries in the mid-twentieth century. Those countries are not willing to take their Jews back and return their land. Many Palestinians today are dreaming of land that their forebearers sold—are they prepared to buy it back?

In any case, even if one concludes that Palestine should extend from the river to the sea, it isn’t going to happen. Israel is too militarily strong and willing to use its might.

It’s bad enough that Palestinian leadership has squandered all these decades holding out this false hope, but at least there is some logic to it. It keeps that particular group in power. When US college students do so, it is delusional and inexcusable. They are morally culpable in dooming another generation of Palestinian children to live in needless poverty and under a vicious Islamist tyranny, squandering their idea of a future on a destructive fantasy.

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY). Prior, he was an Associate Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he also served as Research Director for the Harvard Center for Public Leadership. Todd was a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center (2020-2022) and a Faculty Fellow of Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College (2018–2020). He has published in leading academic journals and has authored or co-authored general audience pieces in outlets including The Atlantic, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Post, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, Phi Delta Kappan, Science and The Wall Street Journal. Todd’s most recent book is “Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy” (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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