Last week, CNN fired political commentator and Temple University Professor Marc Lamont Hill because of remarks he made about Israel and Palestine in a speech to the United Nations. Since then, the discussion in the media has been singularly unhelpful. At least from the coverage, it appears Professor Hill either called for nothing less than the annihilation of Israel, or nothing more than equality for Palestinians. Where you stand seems to depend on what you read.
I am not neutral on this matter. I am an American Jew, my sister and her family live in Jerusalem, and I strongly support Israel’s right to exist. Some might say that predisposes me to view the controversy through a particular lens. Yet I also strongly support the Palestinian struggle for equality and vigorously disagree with many of Israel’s policies, particularly in her treatment of the Palestinians. Some might say that predisposes me to view the affair through the opposite lens. Still others might say my views are contradictory. But my positions are not at all inconsistent. I support Israel’s right to exist, I support equality for the Palestinian people, and I support basic civil and human rights for everyone, everywhere, without exception. And while we’re on the subject of my biases, I should say that I have never met Professor Hill and have never corresponded with him.
Faced with irreconcilable interpretations of Professor Hill’s remarks on a matter that is so important to me, I made an apparently radical decision. I watched and listened to his entire speech so I could judge the matter for myself. No one seems to do that nowadays, preferring to trust what others say about an issue rather than conduct their own inquiry. But I strongly encourage everyone to watch the speech. For the cost of 21 minutes, you will acquire a priceless reward—the capacity to make up your own mind, rather than accept what swirls about us in the guise of “news.” In the remainder of this essay, I will offer my thoughts based not on partisan appeals to pre-existing preferences, since for me they cut both ways, but on the speech itself, which I have now watched several times. Still, I implore you, do not take my word for it; watch it yourself. Afterwards, I suspect you will conclude, as I did, that charging Hill with calling for the destruction of Israel is not just mistaken. It is not just anti-intellectual. It is literally an exercise in willful ignorance.
Let me begin with Professor Hill’s most troublesome language. In the last eight words of the final sentence of his speech, he called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” This is the language that has gotten him into so much hot water. The expression, which refers to the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, has also been used by Hamas. In its 2017 Charter, for instance, Hamas claimed for the Palestinian State all territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war and rejected “any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea.” In the same document, the group also said “that no part of the land of Palestine shall be compromised or conceded,” Jerusalem is the rightful capital of Palestine, and that “[n]ot one stone of Jerusalem can be surrendered or relinquished.” Though the 2017 Charter is considerably less hostile to Israel and the Jews than the 1988 predecessor, it is unquestionably a challenge to the right of Israel to exist within its present boundaries.
If Professor Hill had said nothing else than to wish for the creation of a Palestine that ran “from the river to the sea,” a case could be made that he had allied himself with those who challenge Israel’s basic right to exist, at the very least within its current space. Frankly, the case would have been ambiguous, since the expression predates Hamas by many years and has been used by others to demand only equal rights for Palestinians within a certain geographic range. The expression, in other words, does not have only one meaning or usage, and is not owned by only one voice in the debate. Still, I freely concede, given how often the expression has been used by people who do hope for Israel’s destruction, that if he had said nothing else, the charge could have been leveled against him.
And unfortunately, that is precisely how the language has been used against Professor Hill. In some quarters, the last eight words of his speech have been taken as the only eight words of his speech—or, at the very least, the only eight that matter. A senior vice president of the Anti-Defamation League, for instance, said in the Jewish Journal, “Those calling for ‘from the river to the sea’ are calling for an end to the State of Israel.” An opinion piece in the Washington Examiner likewise noted, “The phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ has been a rallying cry for Hamas and other terrorist groups seeking the elimination of Israel, as a Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea would mean that Israel would be wiped off the map.”
But focusing this way on the last phrase in his speech simply elides virtually his entire text. The organizing structure of the speech was a juxtaposition of the 70-year anniversary of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the event known in Arabic as the Nekba, when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the land that became Israel after the 1948 war. For 70 years, the world has claimed its commitment to certain ostensibly universal human rights. Yet for the whole of that period, the State of Israel has denied many of those rights to the Palestinian people. Hill mentioned in particular the denial of full citizenship rights for Palestinians, the threat of arbitrary arrest and random violence, the use of solitary confinement and military courts, and restrictions on the freedom of movement, in each case contrasting the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration with the practice of the Israeli government.
Lamenting the chasm between lofty ideal and lived reality is the bread and butter of political discourse. Abolitionists in the United States, for instance, routinely pointed out that a country supposedly founded on the principle that all men are created equal could not justify slavery, and that every year which passed under slavery mocked our commitment to equality. But this is just one example. Every time an American politician begins a criticism of a policy with the words, “this is not who we are,” she is making precisely the same argument, invoking the space between reality and ideal to generate support for a change.
Moreover, and more importantly, there is nothing in this critique that challenges Israel’s right to exist. Instead, it is a challenge to certain aspects of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. Criticizing a state’s policy is not remotely the same as calling for its destruction. Even the most ardent defenders of Israel do not claim that criticism of her policy is off limits. Indeed, as Professor Hill noted in his speech, the criticisms he mentioned are not even particularly novel. Many others have leveled the same charges, both within Israel and without, including Israeli human rights organizations.
The Association for Human Rights in Israel, for instance, which is the oldest civil rights organization in the country, has denounced Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories in similar terms:
Since the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel has denied millions of Palestinian residents their fundamental human rights and has prevented them from taking part in decisions affecting their fate. The Occupation permeates every aspect of Palestinians’ daily lives, with almost every basic right violated: the right to life and bodily integrity, freedom of movement, employment, family life, housing, health, education, and human dignity. Palestinians living within the Occupied Territories increasingly see their rights sacrificed in favor of Jewish Israelis for the expansion of settlement building projects.
Likewise, B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, reports that it “strives to end Israel’s occupation, recognizing that this is the only way to achieve a future that ensures human rights, democracy, liberty and equality to all people, Palestinian and Israeli alike, living on the bit of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea” (emphasis added).
In the last part of his speech, Professor Hill turned from words to action. It is not enough, he said, to express solidarity with the Palestinians. Solidarity must be more than a noun; it must be a verb. He therefore asked his audience, “What does justice require” (emphasis his). Justice to Professor Hill took its meaning from the aspirations of the Universal Declaration. The goal, he said at the outset, was “freedom, justice and equality,” as envisioned and articulated by the Universal Declaration.
And because he linked his “radical hope” for Palestine and Palestinians to the Universal Declaration, it is impossible to hear his speech as a call for Palestinians to do unto Israel what he believes Israel has done unto Palestinians. His speech, in other words, was emphatically not a call for vengeance but for justice, and to demand that Jews be treated as he believes Palestinians have been treated would have rendered his entire speech nonsensical and made a mockery of his commitment to the Universal Declaration.
It is in this larger context, a context that has played almost no part in the discussion of his speech, that we must hear his call for action. When he gave his support for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS), when he insisted the world hold Israel accountable, and when he acknowledged “the right of an occupied people to defend itself,” it was for the singular purpose of achieving the ideals contained in the Universal Declaration and in that way “give us what justice requires.”
Professor Hill made the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the North Star that guides and contains his vision for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea.” I think it should be ours as well. But watch his speech and decide for yourself.