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From the River to the…Where?

March 11, 2024

by: Cheryl Hauer, International Vice President

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Professor Ron Hassner, Israel studies chair at the University of California, rattled a few academic cages in a recent widely quoted article where he stated, “There’s no shame in being ignorant unless one is screaming for the extermination of millions.”

The comment was both a harsh indictment of an ineffective educational system that has left countless young people vulnerable to historical revisionism and a critical comment on the current reality that lack of foundation has created.

Hassner’s article referenced the ongoing response to the war raging in the Gaza Strip. On October 7, thousands of Hamas terrorists infiltrated Israel and embarked on a killing spree of such savagery that the Western world was left stunned and aghast. As reports of the horrors of that carefully-planned attack hit the news, the global reaction was strongly in support of the actions Israel would take to defend itself. And as Hamas spokesmen proudly broadcasted their intent to carry out similar massacres all over Israel, leaders around the world sent messages of support and condolence to the Israeli government. Many of them made strong public statements in support of Israel’s right and obligation to protect its citizens.

That support, however, would soon be overshadowed by growing unrest on college campuses and in the streets of major cities, as a wave of anti-Israel protests and rallies took the world by storm. According to an Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED) report, in just three short weeks, millions of people had participated in over 4,000 major demonstrations across the globe that were specifically linked to the conflict. Over 90% were pro-Palestinian events, while only the remaining few were supportive of Israel. From southeast Asia and Australia to Europe, Venezuela and South Africa to Japan, the United States and Canada to the United Kingdom, protestors took to the streets waving Palestinian flags, wearing keffiyehs and shouting for Israel’s destruction. Nearly half, however, occurred in the Middle East. Fifty-five percent of the pro-Palestinian events took place in Yemen, Turkey, Iran and Morocco.

According to data reported by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, hundreds of thousands flooded Tahrir Square in Baghdad chanting, “No to the occupation! No to Israel! No to America!” A similar sized crowd gathered in Istanbul and later in southern Turkey, where Turkish law enforcement deployed tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators who were attempting to storm a US military base. In Amman, Jordan, thousands of protesters attempted to attack the Israeli Embassy, and clashed with anti-riot police.

In the West, demonstrations in support of Palestinians have occurred with increasing frequency. Tens of thousands gathered in Washington on November 4 for the largest pro-Palestinian rally in US history. And similarly large protests are occurring in New York, London, Toronto and Berlin, all calling for a cease-fire and an end to “Israeli genocide.”

Although some of these demonstrations are peaceful and without incident, others are not. Many have erupted in violence, requiring police intervention, while others have left behind vandalized buildings and piles of trash and broken glass. Protestors have blocked major highways, disrupted emergency services, illegally occupied government buildings, vandalized monuments and intimidated passersby.

This is a global phenomenon involving groups of demonstrators who have precious little in common. They are separated by thousands of miles, speak different languages, share no common history and are on vastly differing ends of the political and religious spectrum. To some, Palestinians represent all oppressed and victimized people everywhere, making every random cause inseparably linked to what is happening in Gaza. Some are looking for a “sexy” cause, a raison d’etre. And many are simply suffering from FOMO (fear of missing out). But they are united by the movement’s new battle cry: “From the river to the sea.”

The Nile, the Euphrates and the Caribbean

Hassner’s article revealed one startling thing that the protestors seem to have in common regardless of where they are from. That, unfortunately, is ignorance. Several reporters, including a professional survey firm Hassner hired, have joined demonstrations both on and off college campuses to simply ask participants a few very relevant questions. Their answers were alarming.

When asked about the phrase, “From the river to the sea,” the majority of protestors polled strongly agreed with it. However, most thought it referred to an idyllic resolution to the conflict, with Jews and Arabs living happily side by side, each with their own share of the land and with peace finally achieved. Some knew it meant the removal of the Jews from the area, but were shocked to hear it referred to the expulsion or annihilation of 7 million Jews and 2 million Arabs. When pressed to identify which river and which sea, few could correctly do so. Some thought it was the Nile River and the Euphrates Sea. Others suggested the Caribbean and the Dead Sea, or maybe the Atlantic. One college student carrying a sign boldly proclaiming the mantra was pretty sure it was the Black Sea and “that river that’s on the other side of Gaza.”

At a pro-Palestinian event in Canada, protestors were asked about the meaning of genocide. None could give an actual definition, but were convinced that Israel has been “doing genocide on the Palestinians” since 1948 and “what they do every day is worse than what Hamas did on October 7.” In a recent video, one young woman was terribly distressed and commented that the “genocide is just terrible. They [Palestinian women] can’t even wear wedding dresses.” Very few of the students on any of the campuses polled had any knowledge of the history of the conflict, or the geography and current demographics of the land. Most of them had never seen a map of the region. Moreover, more than 10% of students polled thought Yassir Arafat was the first prime minister of Israel.

All Is Not Lost

There is, however, hope. Most of those doing the polling found that those students who were willing to engage in conversation were surprised to learn the truth and many were profoundly affected. Hassner reports that after learning some basic facts about the Middle East and actually seeing a map, 67% of students who had strongly supported the mantra actually changed their minds and rejected it. “Those who hope to encourage extremism depend on the political ignorance of their audiences,” he said. The remedy, he believes, lies in good teachers, parents and leaders joining the fray and combating bias with education. The truth, he says, is the answer.

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