A Chicago City Council member has waded into the thorny debate over the use of a controversial phrase that some Jewish American groups have called antisemitic and was at the center of a recent Congressional censure.
Others say the phrase simply refers to the right of Palestinians to self-determination and the ability to live anywhere between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd Ward) posted a tweet Thursday morning to X, formerly known as Twitter, that read: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free.”
The decades-old phrase, commonly chanted as a slogan at pro-Palestinian rallies, has in the past been a source of tension between some Jewish and Muslim groups, who have different views on its underlying meaning.
It has taken on new context since the militant group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and Israel responded with an air and ground incursion into Gaza, setting off a humanitarian crisis for the 2 million people living in the narrow strip of Palestinian land along the Mediterranean coast.
More than 1,400 Israelis were reported killed in the initial assault and more than 10,000 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed since the start of the war, according to numbers from Palestinian authorities.
The Anti-Defamation League refers to the “from the river to the sea” statement as “hateful” and says that groups like Hamas have used it as a rallying cry, even though not all who express the phrase have the same intent.
In a public statement, ADL’s Chicago chapter called Rodriguez Sanchez’s use of the phrase “shameful.”
“This is an antisemitic charge denying the Jewish right to self-determination, including through the removal of Jews from their ancestral homeland. Hamas massacres innocent Jews, rapes women, kidnaps children and the elderly, (Rodriguez-Sanchez) says nothing ... then this,” the statement read.
Hatem Abudayyeh, chair of the Chicago-based U.S. Palestinian Community Network, says he agrees that the statement does signify opposition to the state of Israel but that it does not mean Jews or Israelis should be removed from the land.
“Essentially what it means is Israel is a settler state,” Abudayyeh told WTTW News, adding that “If that system is dismantled and there is no racism and white supremacy, then all the people there can live in a democratic secular pluralistic state. That’s what from the river to the sea means. It does not mean the destruction of a people.”
Rodriguez Sanchez followed up with a post that read: “Ppl angry abt a slogan that speaks to the liberation of colonized ppl while they watch Israel commit genocide, bomb civilians, leaving ppl of all ages from babies to elderly dismembered is some intense gaslighting. Over 10K killed & many more lost under rubble. Go find your soul."
Rodriguez Sanchez’s statement comes on the heels of the U.S. House of Representatives voting to censure Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), the only Palestinian American in Congress, for her public use of the phrase, and for “promoting false narratives regarding the October 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel and for calling for the destruction of the state of Israel.”
The resolution received support from the majority of Republicans and 22 Democrats, including Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) of the north suburbs. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre also condemned Tlaib’s use of the phrase, calling it “divisive and hurtful.”
On Oct. 13, Chicago’s City Council passed a resolution condemning Hamas’ attack after a chaotic debate that, at one point, led Mayor Brandon Johnson to clear the main public gallery in council chambers after protests got out of hand.
Rodriguez Sanchez led an effort to change the language of the original resolution, sponsored by Ald. Debra Silverstein (49th Ward).
Rodriguez Sanchez wanted the condemnation to include context about the war’s toll on Palestinians in Gaza. She had also asked for the resolution to be amended to recognize “the history of oppression, occupation and violence that Palestinians have endured.”
That specific reference was not ultimately included, and Rodriguez-Sanchez was recorded as a ‘no’ vote on the final compromise resolution.
Silverstein echoed the ADL’s contention that the use of the phrase was antisemitic, saying she believes it is a call for the destruction of Israel.
“She should never have used it,” Ald Silverstein told WTTW News. “She’s chair of (City Council’s) Human Relations Committee and she should know better.”
At the time when the City Council was debating the resolution, Rodriguez Sanchez futher explained her opposition.
“Chicago is always going to be a sanctuary for Jewish people and we are going to work towards that always,” Rodriguez Sanchez said at the time. “But that cannot be at the expense of the lives of Palestinian people. The name of Chicago should not be signed on to commit genocide.”
Rodriguez-Sanchez did not return phone calls from WTTW News seeking additional comment Thursday.