Marc Lamont Hill, an academic and author, spoke for 20 minutes at the United Nations in New York on Wednesday about Palestinian rights in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. He lamented that 70 years after the displacement of Palestinians, they remain refugees. He criticized Israeli laws that restrict Palestinians from full citizenship rights. He spoke against the Israeli criminal justice system, including its “administrative detention” of Palestinians without trial, and its 99 percent conviction rate. He also said, at one point, “We have an opportunity to not just offer solidarity in words but to commit to political action, grassroots action, local action, and international action that will give us what justice requires and that is a free Palestine from the river to the sea.”
Less than 24 hours later, Hill was fired by CNN, where he had been a political contributor.
CNN did not cite a reason for its decision, but in the hours after his speech, the Anti-Defamation League and others had zeroed in on the phrase “from the river to the sea,” which they described as a Hamas mantra and a call for “an end to the State of Israel.” Soon, Seth Mandel, a top editor at the right-wing Washington Examiner—who, many have pointed out, has railed against our “internet outrage machine”—began referring to Hill’s “explicit call for Jewish genocide” and his “rabid anti-Semitism.” Pro-Israel groups, propped up by right-wing trolls, seized on the remarks and, no doubt, the chance to depose a liberal cable commentator. It worked.
Hill, pointlessly, took to Twitter to try to refute the accusation. “I do not support anti-semitism, killing Jewish people, or any of the other things attributed to my speech. I have spent my life fighting these things,” he tweeted. Around the same time, his detractors were already celebrating his firing by posting GIFs to gloat. “FINALLY FIRED,” Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump aide, wrote on Twitter.
Hill, obviously, did not come close to calling for Jewish genocide. His critics, to the extent their arguments are sincere, arrived at this conclusion based on that single phrase, “from the river to the sea,” convinced the phrasing was a dog whistle to violent factions that seek to destroy Israel. It’s true that organizations like Hamas, which fires rockets at civilian targets, uses “from the river to the sea” to describe its desire for a free Palestine. But that is also true of Israel’s ruling right-wing Likud party as well. In the Likud’s founding charter from 1977, 10 years before the founding of Hamas, the very first paragraph says “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” In 1999, the charter was amended, but the first stanza remains, asserting “the Jordan river will be the permanent eastern border of the State of Israel.”
“From the river to the sea” has also been used, neutrally, by Jewish journalists to describe the area again and again. Jewish settlers who live beyond the green line in Israel Defense Forces–protected settlements live by this slogan as well. An Israeli minister used the phrase to dismiss the prospect of a two-state solution, saying, “There is no other option but the state of Israel, certainly between the Jordan [River] to the sea there will be one state.” One needn’t look far for more examples of the phrase being used by public officials and in headlines to describe the land. It may be loaded, but it is hardly a clear signal of anti-Semitism. Yet its inclusion appears to have been the main factor in prompting the manufactured “outrage” about Hill’s speech. And still, seemingly on impulse, CNN caved.
Hill’s firing is rash at best and a cowardly, dangerous precedent at worst. It’s disturbing not just as a capitulation to disingenuous critics but also because it’s another step toward recasting all speech about Israel’s brutality as anti-Semitism—or, in this case, a call for “Jewish genocide.” The Anti-Defamation League’s statement sought to delegitimize the event at the United Nations, held on International Day of Solidarity With the Palestinian People, based on Hill’s speech. “It is a shame that once again, this annual event at the United Nations does not promote constructive pathways to ‘Palestinian solidarity’ and a future of peace, but instead divisive and destructive action against Israel,” a vice president for the group said. The consequences for Hill are part of a disquieting, and thriving, effort to shut down criticism of Israel wherever it lives—an effort CNN has now emboldened.