Poster calling for Palestine to be free
Screenshot of poster-like image from email newsletter sent by the San Diego State University Women’s Resource Center.

On May 8, the Women’s Resource Center at San Diego State University sent out a newsletter featuring announcements for lectures, courses from the Women’s Studies Department, and other items of interest. But at the bottom of the email, a student inserted a poster-like image of woman with a gun and the language “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free.”

Coming on the heels of the Poway shooting, the inclusion of this image seems especially shocking. But how are we to respond to a glorification of violence in a university-sanctioned newsletter?

As I’ve frequently, and publicly, affirmed the importance of the First Amendment, banning such images is not an option, no matter how offensive. Instead, let’s unpack this image’s content.

First, the woman holding the AK-47 is Leilah Khaled, the world’s first female airplane hijacker. She belongs to a group called the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, (PFLP) which from the late 1960s has engaged in various forms of terrorist violence, the most recent being a drive-by shooting in June 2015 that killed one person and injured three others. Khaled participated in two hijackings in 1969 and 1970.

The second attempt was foiled in mid-air, and the plane diverted to Heathrow. Although the British government arrested Khaled, they released her after the PFLP hijacked another plane and the British government traded Khaled for hostages.

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Since then, Leilah Khaled has become something of a folk hero, and she has far from renounced violence. In 2014, Khaled stated the Second Intifada failed “because the leadership was not brave enough at that time to escalate the intifada, to take it to another level.”

Given the level of carnage inflicted by the Palestinians, including multiple suicide bombings, such as the Sbarro pizza restaurant massacre, it’s hard to imagine what taking “it to another level” might mean, but you can be sure the body count would be very, very high.

Next, the phrase “From the river to the sea Palestine will be free” is frequently invoked by proponents of the Palestinian cause. The river is the Jordan River, and the sea is of course the Mediterranean. Essentially, the phrase means that the Palestinians want all the territory the state of Israel presently occupies. The phrase, in other words, calls for the eradication of a sovereign state. Needless to say, the present Jewish inhabitants will not exactly be welcomed.

In 1984, Abu Iyad, leader of the terrorist group Black September, which carried out the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre, stated on Radio Amman: “The Zionists took Palestine inch by inch. And we must retrieve it inch by inch. We believe that Palestine, from the river to the sea, is our country.” 

Article 12 of the Fatah constitution (they are the largest of the groups making up the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the first to launch terrorist attacks against Israel), is even more explicit: “Complete liberation of Palestine, and eradication of Zionist economic, political, military and cultural existence.”

Recently, Hamas political leader Fathi Hammad stated his intentions concerning Israel as bluntly as possible: “The day of your slaughter, extermination and annihilation has drawn near … You should search for a place in Europe, in hell, or in the ocean or the Bermuda Triangle because there is no place for you in [here] or anywhere.”

So the image that appeared in the Women’s Resource Center newsletter endorses both terrorism and genocide.  

How has SDSU responded? On the one hand, J. Luke Wood, the Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President for Faculty Diversity and Inclusion (SDSU likes long titles for their administrators) sprang into action. He had the WRC take down the newsletter and issue an apology. He has also spoken to several local rabbis, and has promised further action over the summer. On the other hand, President Adela de la Torre has so far remained silent, even though she responded very quickly after similar racist incidents in the recent past.

Unfortunately, the WRC’s use of this image provides yet another example of how anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have become acceptable in progressive circles. To give but two examples, several leaders of the Women’s March, have expressed their admiration for noted Jew-hater, Louis Farrakhan. The student government at Williams College recently tried to deny recognition to a pro-Israel student group (the decision was reversed), even though Students for Justice in Palestine had no difficulties.

In his excellent book, Contemporary Left Antisemitism, noted University of London sociologist David Hirsh examines the hatred of Jews “within that part of the elite which thinks of itself as progressive” (such as the WCR), but notes that “this elite anti-Semitism has failed to energize much of a mob.” Maybe in the UK. But in the United States, the mob has most certainly been energized, as anti-Semitic incidents have rocketed since Donald Trump’s election.

None of which is to say that the Palestinian case is entirely without merit. As Ari Shavit writes in My Promised Land, the Nakba (the Catastrophe), represented by the expulsion of Arabs from Lydda (renamed “Lod”) is Zionism’s “black box,” its “dark secret.”  When the Jewish forces banished the Arabs from Lydda (renamed Lod), the military governor “watches the faces of the people marching into exile, he wonders if there is a Jeremiah among them to lament their calamity and disgrace.”

Even so, advocating the elimination of the entire state of Israel is not a feasible solution. That the WRC seems to think so, and sides with terrorists advocating genocide, is not only deeply unfortunate, but illustrates how the overlap of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism has become unexceptional even among the supposedly educated. This is not likely to end well.

Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism. He is the editor of the recent book Critical Concepts: Terrorism and Literature.