Ron Hassner is the Faculty Co-Director at the Helen Diller Institute.
College students don’t know, yet they agree with the slogan.
When college students who sympathize with Palestinians chant “From the river to the sea,” do they know what they’re talking about? I hired a survey firm to poll 250 students from a variety of backgrounds across the U.S. Most said they supported the chant, some enthusiastically so (32.8%) and others to a lesser extent (53.2%).
But only 47% of the students who embrace the slogan were able to name the river and the sea. Some of the alternative answers were the Nile and the Euphrates, the Caribbean, the Dead Sea (which is a lake) and the Atlantic. Less than a quarter of these students knew who Yasser Arafat was (12 of them, or more than 10%, thought he was the first prime minister of Israel). Asked in what decade Israelis and Palestinians had signed the Oslo Accords, more than a quarter of the chant’s supporters claimed that no such peace agreements had ever been signed. There’s no shame in being ignorant, unless one is screaming for the extermination of millions.
Would learning basic political facts about the conflict moderate students’ opinions? A Latino engineering student from a southern university reported “definitely” supporting “from the river to the sea” because “Palestinians and Israelis should live in two separate countries, side by side.” Shown on a map of the region that a Palestinian state would stretch from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, leaving no room for Israel, he downgraded his enthusiasm for the mantra to “probably not.” Of the 80 students who saw the map, 75% similarly changed their view.
An art student from a liberal arts college in New England “probably” supported the slogan because “Palestinians and Israelis should live together in one state.” But when informed of recent polls in which most Palestinians and Israelis rejected the one-state solution, this student lost his enthusiasm. So did 41% of students in that group.
A third group of students claimed the chant called for a Palestine to replace Israel. Sixty percent of those students reduced their support for the slogan when they learned it would entail the subjugation, expulsion or annihilation of seven million Jewish and two million Arab Israelis. Yet another 14% of students reconsidered their stance when they read that many American Jews considered the chant to be threatening, even racist. (This argument had a weaker effect on students who self-identified as progressive, despite their alleged sensitivity to offensive speech.)
In all, after learning a handful of basic facts about the Middle East, 67.8% of students went from supporting “from the river to sea” to rejecting the mantra. These students had never seen a map of the Mideast and knew little about the region’s geography, history or demography. Those who hope to encourage extremism depend on the political ignorance of their audiences. It is time for good teachers to join the fray and combat bias with education.