LTE: Palestinian freedom is a fight for Black and brown liberation

Rivers Leche, Op-Ed Contributor

Just a few days ago, Lily Cohen authored an op-ed entitled, “I am more proud of my Jewish identity than anyone can ever hate me for it.” Cohen and all Jewish students deserve spaces on Northwestern’s campus and the world at large where they feel embraced and affirmed in their identity by their community. I am glad that she is able to embrace her Jewish roots and fully express this fundamental part of her personhood in a country and time where that is not true everywhere.

Cohen’s op-ed is about more than pride in her Judaism. The heart of the piece implicitly critiques the organization Students for Justice in Palestine without naming the organization or saying Palestine once. In doing so she negates Palestinian students’ perspectives and provides a critique lacking critical context.

Cohen asks the university to condemn the phrase “From the River to The Sea” as hate speech, citing its origins in the 1988 Hamas charter. But that’s not the phrase’s origin.

Maha Nassar, journalist and associate professor of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona, details the historical origins of the phrase in a 2018 piece entitled “‘From the River to the Sea’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think it Means,” published in The Forward, a news organization geared toward Jewish American audiences. In the 1960s, the phrase became popular as a call from Palestinians for the establishment of “a secular democratic state … in all of historic Palestine,” Massar writes. It is a call for freedom from a colonialist oppressor.

“Dismissing or ignoring what this phrase means to the Palestinians is yet another means by which to silence Palestinian perspectives,” Nassar writes. “Citing only Hamas leaders’ use of the phrase, while disregarding the liberationist context … shows a disturbing level of ignorance about Palestinians’ views at best, and a deliberate attempt to smear their legitimate aspirations at worst.”

As an English major, I agree that language is important. What’s ironic is how Cohen fails to understand the power and harm of her own words, given the lack of context she provides in her op-ed. When Cohen blankets all Palestinian students, anti-Zionist students and SJP members and supporters as antisemitic, she sucks the oxygen from the conversation.

Former University President Morton Schapiro issued a statement my freshman year at NU accusing NUCNC protestors of antisemitism after some chanted “Piggy Morty” outside his residence. Schapiro cited the antisemitic history of Jewish people being called pigs, but failed to mention the much more common meaning — and the protestors’ intended one — of calling police “pigs.” The context in which words are used gives them their meaning. When context is lost and we fail to empathize with the perspective of those with a different viewpoint than our own, we can cause unintended harm.

If anyone feels they are being attacked with hate speech, they must be allowed to express that feeling. I do not want to negate Schapiro’s or Cohen’s feelings that they were attacked with antisemitic comments and rhetoric. Antisemitism is unacceptable and, I hope, unaligned with the moral values of everyone on campus. But I know that when the phrase “From the River to the Sea” is used in protest on NU’s campus, it is meant as a call for Palestinian liberation and against the Israeli government, not as antisemitic rhetoric against Jewish people.

I am not Jewish, nor am I Palestinian. I don’t have personal stakes in this matter — except I do. When a group of people are being abused and denied their human rights, we all must speak up. My father is from Lesotho, a country for which I must always provide an explanatory note when meeting people for the first time.

Lesotho is a landlocked country, about the size of Maryland, inside South Africa’s borders. The Basotho fought for their sovereignty, and have resisted colonial encroachment from South Africa and its apartheid regime. The world stood by for too long regarding South African apartheid and only intervened when it was most convenient for global capitalist interests to reap South Africa’s natural resources. Apartheid is not merely political language, nor is it a word I use lightly. It describes the deep pain, institutionalized oppression and racial domination one group puts onto another.

There is an apartheid being perpetrated by the state of Israel on the Palestinian people, and this movement is an ongoing fight for Black and brown liberation — this is something I will not debate.

Cohen’s, “Come talk with me. Ask questions,” makes a mockery of the anger and pain felt by Palestinian students. It says that anger and loud protest is uncivil, unworthy of evaluation and lacking merit. It says Cohen’s position is rational, while those who oppose her are not.

I agree that dialogue, empathy and kindness are important aspects of creating a path to peace in any conflict. However, civil disobedience and other valid forms of protest that might offend some people’s sensibilities are necessary, too.

When I criticize Israel, I criticize the Israeli government. The Palestinian students and SJP members and supporters I know do this very intentionally in every statement or comment. Because we know our words matter. Antisemitism and hate speech is unacceptable, and it’s horrible that it has taken on a particular fervor in the last few weeks and frankly years. As a Black, queer woman — as a human being — I would never want someone to feel the pain of a fundamental part of their identity being attacked. Cohen calling “From the River to the Sea” an antisemitic phrase ignores critical aspects of the phrase’s history, shuts down any real possibility of conversation about the Israeli-Palestine conflict and is offensive to the empathy and intelligence of students who critique the Israeli government, support Palestinian liberation or both.

Rivers Leche is a Communication junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.