Opinion

Here's What Marc Lamont Hill Should Have Said: Palestinians, Like Israelis, Deserve to Be Free From the River to the Sea

After CNN fires commentator for controversial statement, it’s time to stop focusing on territory and recognize that all the people living in this land need to be freed

A Palestinian teacher displays a map of Israel and the Palestinian territories during a lesson marking Nakba in the West Bank city of Hebron May 15, 2006.
Reuters

The conflict over Israel-Palestine has claimed another professional casualty: Marc Lamont Hill, a Temple University professor and a television commentator, was fired by CNN after he gave a speech at the United Nations. 

In the speech, he spoke of the “irony” of this being the 70th anniversary of the issuing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights given that the Palestinian people have been deprived of these same rights. He went on to paint a grim picture of life for Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli military and political apparatus: torture, administrative detention, a 99 percent conviction rate when facing military courts, settlement expansion, the recent demotion of Arabic from an official language in Israel, restriction of movement, settler colonialism, and the nation-state law

But none of this — not even his tacit support of the use of armed force (when he said that “we must advocate and promote non-violence at every opportunity. But we cannot endorse a narrow politics of respectability that shames Palestinians for resisting, for refusing to do nothing in the face of state violence and ethnic cleansing”)  — raised the ire of those on social media and elsewhere like his closing phrase did. There, he called for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea.”

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I’m going to leave aside the question of whether or to what extent speech should be policed by employers. It’s an important question for another piece. (Readers may want to dig into another broadcast firing the same week, this for an ill-conceived Twitter joke that NPR’s Fresh Air film critic David Edelstein apologized for.)

On Twitter, Hill explained his closing remarks this way: The “call to free Palestine from river to sea….means that all areas of historic Palestine —e.g., West Bank, Gaza, Israel— must be spaces of freedom, safety, and peace for Palestinians.”

But two days later, Hill had issued an apology: “Rather than hearing a political solution, many heard a dog-whistle that conjured a long and deep history of violence against Jewish people. Although this was the furthest thing from my intent, those particular words clearly caused confusion, anger, fear, and other forms of harm. For that, I am deeply sorry.”

Hill concluded his apology this way: “I remain open to learning, growing, and struggling together toward freedom.”

In that spirit, here is where I think the problem lies, followed by a modest suggestion, one that I think forces people of good will to consider what is most urgent in Israel/Palestine.

Aside from environmental imperatives perhaps, rights are not vested in land. Rather, rights are vested in people. And human rights, in particular, are vested in individuals. So to say that Palestine — the place — deserves to be “free” is confusing and distracting. Too many Israeli and Diaspora Jews hear the phrase as a desired replacement of Israel by Palestine, something they understandably bristle at.

Even the democratic binational model that Hill has said he favors would not be a replacement of Israel by Palestine. It would be a reimagined state that would nurture universal rights and equality rather than being one that has swapped out one kind of ethno-national supremacy for another. (And if it weren’t, then it wouldn’t actually be binational.)

Most importantly, the phrase diverts attention from what should be a focus on people to a fetishizing of territory. As we know all too well, framing political struggles in terms of land — rather than in terms of individual and collective freedoms — has served to harden attitudes and intensify some of the thorniest issues of the conflict. The many problems brought about by what some groups see as being holy space are among the starkest examples.

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What, then, if we focused on the people who deserve freedom? What if we focused on those Palestinian minors who are detained by the IDF; those Palestinian residents of Hebron who can’t leave by their front doors; the Bedouin communities that face military demolition; and the Palestinian protestors in Gaza who run the risk of being shot by IDF snipers? And what if we broadened the conversation more regularly to discuss Palestinian refugees?

It is the people living in that troubled land — and those who are still stateless outside it — who deserve freedom: freedom of movement, freedom from violence, freedom from military occupation. A better phrase would remind us that Palestinians desire and deserve exactly what Jews worldwide who sing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, do: “to be a free people in our land.” A better phrase — one focusing on souls rather than soil — would remind us that in that troubled space between the river and the sea, none are truly free until all are.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Twitter: @sucharov