Over the past week, I have been embroiled in a controversy regarding my speech at the United Nations regarding the plight of Palestinian people. My remarks have sparked heavy controversy, around the nation and right here in Philadelphia. Specifically, some have argued that my remarks endorsed or reflected anti-Semitism. For this reason, I feel morally compelled to respond.
First, I strongly believe that we must reject anti-Semitism in any form or fashion. This means not only preventing physical violence against Jews, but also ugly anti-Semitic images, stereotypes, conspiracy theories, and mythologies. As an activist and scholar, I have done my best to point out these realities and challenge them whenever possible. For example, in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, I not only decried it as an ugly act of terrorism, but spoke about the broader rise of anti-Semitism in the United States and around the globe. Throughout my career, I have done my best to identify and uproot anti-Semitism in every political and social movement of which I have been part. One simply cannot be committed to social justice and not be committed to battling anti-Semitism.
It is precisely this commitment to social justice that prompted me to accept an invitation to speak before the United Nations on the plight of Palestinians. During my speech, I offered a deeply critical analysis of the State of Israel. Specifically, I challenged the Israeli criminal justice system, settlement expansion in the West Bank, and the need to attend to human rights abuses throughout the country and occupied territories. I also reiterated the importance of global solidarity in order to produce justice. One simply cannot be progressive if they ignore the plight of Palestinians.
Many have focused specifically on my final remark, which said that justice required a "free Palestine, from the river to the sea." Critics of this phrase have suggested that I was calling for violence against Jewish people. In all honesty, I was stunned, and saddened, that this was the response.
My use of "river to the sea" was an invocation of a long history of political actors – liberal and radical, Palestinian and Israeli – who have called for their particular vision of justice in the area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. For many, justice will come from a two-state solution. For some, like me, justice will come through a single bi-national democratic state that encompasses Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. I strongly believe that this is the best method to achieve peace, safety, security, and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians. Justice requires that everyone, not just a single side, is free and equal.
Throughout my speech, I spoke explicitly about the need for Israeli political reform, specifically as it pertains to Arab citizens of Israel. I also called for a redrawing of borders to the pre-1967 lines, as well as a greater attention to human rights for those living in the West Bank and Gaza. At the time, I believed that these demands made in the speech sufficiently reflected my belief in radical change within Israel, not a desire for its destruction.
Clearly, they did not.
I take seriously the voices of so many Jewish brothers and sisters, who have interpreted my remarks as a call to or endorsement of violence. Rather than hearing a political solution, many heard a dog-whistle that conjured a long and deep history of violence against Jewish people. Although this was the furthest thing from my intent, those particular words clearly caused confusion, anger, fear, and other forms of harm. For that, I am deeply sorry.
As a communicator, I must take responsibility for the reception of my message. In this case, the final words of my speech became a dangerous and harmful distraction from my political analysis. Rather than talking about the plight of Palestinians, or engaging in tough but necessary conversations about a positive and successful way forward for both parties, the bulk of the conversation has been about my choice of words. To this extent, I did no favors to Israelis or Palestinians. For this too, I am deeply sorry.
In the aftermath of this controversy, I remain steadfastly committed to love and solidarity with oppressed people. I remain committed to critical dialogues throughout the city, nation, and world in order to advance the cause of justice. And I remain open to learning, growing, and struggling together toward freedom.
Marc Lamont Hill is a professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University.