Terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas on October 7, 2023, led to a massive invasion of the Gaza Strip by Israel. These events placed the wider Arab-Israeli conflict under increased scrutiny—if greater attention were even possible. In connection with these incidents, pro-Palestinian groups, rallies, and protests have sometimes used the phrase from the river to the sea. This may be combined with Palestine will be free.
Israel’s territory is bounded by the Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Jordan River on the east. Some interpret the words from the river to the sea as a plea for peace and equal rights for Palestinians. For others, the only thing they think of when they hear from the river to the sea is genocidal murder of every Jew currently occupying the nation of Israel.
Common use of language doesn’t always follow strict definitions; slogans are especially subject to interpretation. Regardless of good intent, however, from the river to the sea is associated with deeply anti-Semitic ideals. As a result, followers of Christ should not use the expression. At the same time, Christians should be gracious when responding to those who repeat it (Philippians 4:5), not assuming anti-Semitic and/or genocidal intent.
The phrase from the river to the sea became popular in the years prior to the Six-Day War. In theory, it was a rallying cry among Arabs who felt dominated by Middle Eastern nations such as Jordan and Israel. But it was not used in a political vacuum, nor always spoken with positive intent. Arabic nations surrounding Israel in the 1960s openly called for its annihilation. Many groups and governments still do so today. From the river to the sea has been used as a catchphrase for total obliteration of Israel by terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Use of the phrase is provocative. The current crisis magnifies feelings on both sides of the issue. Context is crucial to understanding any combination of words. It is possible for someone to use the phrase from the river to the sea without evil intent. Merely speaking, writing, or chanting that expression does not prove a person is an anti-Semite. Nor is every possible reference to seas or rivers a reference to genocide. However, common sense makes it impossible to ignore the historical context in which Israel exists and in which the phrase from the river to the sea has been used.
As a parallel, consider an example from modern Western culture: the expression black lives matter. This specific set of words is associated with a political and social movement. Whether one agrees or disagrees with that ideology, using this phrase or obvious variants evokes those ideas. This is true regardless of the speaker’s intent. The same is true of other phrases, such as I can’t breathe, hands up, don’t shoot, and so forth. In 1995, or even 2012, those phrases would not have called to mind the same ideas as they do now. Today, they are imbued with political and racial significance. Naivety is one thing, but to deliberately use phrases while rejecting their connotation is counterproductive.
It is possible that some people—perhaps even most—merely parrot the expression from the river to the sea knowing nothing of its history or use. Others may understand the controversy but sincerely hold to an idealized meaning of the expression. Sadly, for some, the expression is used in hopes of erasing Jews from that region. In response to from the river to the sea, rather than adding fuel to fires (Romans 12:18), believers should speak truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) without unduly judging anyone by first impressions (1 Samuel 16:7; John 7:24; Proverbs 18:13, 17).