As Israeli armed forces continued their assault on Gaza in mid-May 2021, resulting in almost 200 deaths including more than 50 children, protests erupted around the world. The crisis exploded with plans by Israel to possibly expel several Palestinian families from their homes in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem.
Some of the largest protests took place in New York City, one of which was attended by supermodel Bella Hadid, who is of Palestinian descent. Hadid was seen live-streaming a protest in Brooklyn from her Instagram account, which has more than 42 million followers. She immediately received criticism from the Israeli government, which accused her of antisemitism by advocating for “throwing Jews into the sea.”
On May 16, the Israeli state’s Twitter account shared a screenshot from Hadid’s Instagram live:
When celebrities like @BellaHadid advocate for throwing Jews into the sea, they are advocating for the elimination of the Jewish State.
This shouldn’t be an Israeli-Palestinian issue. This should be a human issue.
— Israel ישראל (@Israel) May 16, 2021
In reality, Hadid was participating in a popular chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” She can also be heard chanting “Free, free Palestine!” A recording of her Instagram live was shared on YouTube.
On May 17, the Israeli government Twitter account followed up with another tweet saying the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is a “phrase used by those who call for the elimination of Israel.”
For those of you who don’t know, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” is a phrase used by those who call for the elimination of Israel (from the river to the sea….)
— Israel ישראל (@Israel) May 17, 2021
This characterization of the slogan is widely disputed by activists who are Jewish and Palestinian. Advocates stress that the slogan refers to the geographic and political landscape of Palestine and Israel, not the religious or ethnic one. Since 1948, Palestinians have been uprooted from their homes through a combination of war with Israel and the growth of Israeli settlements that are considered illegal under international law. There are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees today, which include the descendants of those displaced in 1948. Palestinians call this mass eviction the Nakba, which is Arabic for “catastrophe.”
According to Hadid, her father, Mohamed Hadid, was among the Palestinians displaced in 1948. In an Instagram post she described how her grandparents, “With my uncle Mahmoud in his arms. And my Teta far left … With 8 children under the age of 15 … Who were taken out of their homes in Palestine in 1948, becoming refugees in Syria, then Lebanon, then Tunisia.”
According to Amnesty International, Palestinians living today in Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) under Israel continue to face institutionalized discrimination, forced displacement, abuse at the hands of law enforcement, and more.
Many argue that criticism of the slogan from the Israeli government is conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Zionism involves the belief that Judaism is both a faith and a nationality, and that Jews deserve their own state in their ancestral homeland, Israel. Arabs and Palestinians have historically opposed Zionism because the explicitly Jewish character of the state has resulted in privileges for Jewish people there that are not afforded to other groups.
Antisemitic language specifically refers to prejudiced or discriminatory language against Jews as a religious group.
According to activists, the “from the river to the sea” slogan recalls the boundaries of Palestine before 1948, when Palestinian Christians, Muslims, and Jews coexisted. The “river” refers to the Jordan River, which flows to the east of Palestine. “The sea” is referring to the Mediterranean Sea to the west.
Rabbi Alissa Wise, an activist with Jewish Voice for Peace, told Middle East Eye that, “in order to hear that phrase and have it feel antisemitic, what’s happening in the ears of those who are hearing it, is a deeply Islamophobic idea that Palestinians are murderous and are going to ‘throw Jews into the sea.’” Wise was referring to Israeli accusations after the 1967 war that Ahmad al-Shuqayri, one of the first leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), said he wanted to throw “Jews into the sea.” Shuqayri would maintain that he never said those words, accusing Zionist propaganda of generating this claim. A detailed account of that controversy can be read here.
On Instagram, Hadid herself has denounced antisemitic language: “I will not stand to hear people talk badly about Jewish people through all of this. This is about HUMANITY not about religion !!!! This is about freedom in Palestine.”
We have reached out to Hadid and we will update this post when we hear more information.
The slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” according to numerous interpretations calls for the freedom of Palestinian people, and refers to the geographic boundaries that once made up Palestine. Given that the Israeli government’s claim is based on their opinion regarding a chant, and we have not confirmed Hadid’s interpretation of the slogan, we are are issuing a rating of “Unproven” for this claim.