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‘From the River to the Sea’ is the Postmodern ‘Hep! Hep!’

Jan 11, 2024 | Aviva Winton

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Fathom magazine – January 2024

 

‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ is a new attempt to deny any Jewish claim to national self-determination in the land of Israel, to deny Jewish indigeneity in the land of Israel, despite our unbroken and documented presence on the land for almost 4,000 years, and ascribe indigeneity solely to another people.

Although I am the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors growing up in the shadow of the Shoah, and I have read deeply into the history of the persecution of my people, it did not prepare me for the pogrom Hamas waged against the people of Israel on 7 October. Massacring over 1200 people in the most savage of ways, Hamas carried off 240 into subterranean captivity. They continue to torture their victims’ families psychologically. The rest of the Jewish people have been traumatised.

Suddenly, the past had invaded the present. Every day since October 7 I have cried, and I am by no means alone. I see my heavy and dark eyelids reflected by most in my community.

But it has not been only October 7 that brought back the tears. Antisemitism has been unleashed by the events of that day. That old flimsy pretext of ‘anti-Zionism has nothing to do with antisemitism’ has been thrown aside. We all heard ‘f*** the Jews’ and ‘gas the Jews’ being bayed in the Opera House forecourt in Sydney and we have seen the signs paraded through our streets with Stars of David being placed into rubbish bins with the caption ‘keep the world clean’.

HEP! HEP!

In the immediate aftermath of 7 October, the rallying cry of ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ was heard. Here was an updated version of the same antisemitic cry that British novelist, philo-semite and proto-Zionist George Eliot (nee Mary Ann Evans), of Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda fame, wrote about in her final essay, entitled, ‘The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!’ in her last book, Impressions of Theophrastus Such, in 1878.

‘Hep! Hep!’ was the rallying cry of the marauding Crusaders as they charged across Europe massacring whole Jewish communities en route to Palestine. It is believed to be an acronym for the words Hierosolyma Est Perdita – Jerusalem is lost (although it is also thought to have been appropriated by medieval antisemites from the simple cry of shepherds herding their sheep). It was used again in the German anti-Jewish riots of 1819, when Jews became the victims of violent mob attacks in response to their desire for emancipation.

‘Hep! Hep!’ has been given a postmodern makeover. ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ is a new attempt to deny any Jewish claim to national self-determination in the land of Israel, to deny Jewish indigeneity in the land of Israel, despite our unbroken and documented presence on the land for almost 4000 years, and ascribe indigeneity solely to another people. It is an outright lie which, in its refusal to concede objective facts, seeks to at once demonise the Israeli Jews and shut down rational discussion about the conflict.

Post-October 7, ‘From the River to the Sea’ has taken on a darker meaning. More than an attempt to disenfranchise the Jewish people from the land of Israel. It has functioned, in the shadow of the Hamas Pogrom, as a call to annihilate the Jews in their entirety from their land. And that darkness has been openly supported by a global movement of activists.

‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’ is not a new chant. It has been around for decades. But on 7 October we had a live enactment of what that chant really means: the attempted genocide of the Jewish people in the south of Israel, with both captured plans and public statements from Hamas making it more than clear that the same fate is intended for all Israelis.

In her brilliant 2004 essay on antisemitism which, like Eliot, she also titled The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!, American essayist and novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote: ‘Naïvely, foolishly, stupidly, hopefully, a-historically, we thought that shame and remorse—worldwide shame, worldwide remorse—would endure. Naïvely, foolishly, stupidly, hopefully, a-historically, we thought that the cannibal hatred, once quenched, would not soon wake again. It has awakened.’ This was published 19 years ago.

Ozick explains: ‘George Eliot noted [in her original essay] that it would be ‘difficult to find a form of bad reasoning about [Jews] which had not been heard in conversation or been admitted to the dignity of print’… Yet her title points to something far deadlier than mere ‘bad reasoning’. Hep! was the cry of the Crusaders as they swept through Europe, annihilating one Jewish community after another… In this single raging syllable, past and future met, and in her blunt bold enunciation of it, George Eliot was joining bad reasoning— i.e. canard and vilification—to its consequences: violence and murder.’

The ‘bad reasoning’ against the Jews has become another Hep! today a mix of post-colonialism, intersectionality, critical race theory and identity politics. These converge to claim that Israelis are white settler colonialists who are guilty of ethnic cleansing and the genocide of indigenous Palestinians from their native land. In essence, Israel’s very existence is a horrific crime, and every Israeli is a criminal, as is every Zionist who supports Israel’s right to exist. Everything that therefore happens to the Israelis/Jews is justifiable because it is an act of resistance by a colonised people to whom all moral and progressive individuals have an absolute obligation to give complete and wholehearted solidarity, no matter what they choose to do. This is the new ‘Hep!’

George Eliot concludes her ‘Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!’ essay thus: ‘for the effective bond of human action is feeling, and the worthy child of a people owning the triple name of Hebrew, Israelite, and Jew, feels his kinship with the glories and the sorrows, the degradation and the possible renovation of his national family. Will anyone teach the nullification of this feeling and call his doctrine a philosophy? He will teach a blinding superstition—the superstition that a theory of human wellbeing can be constructed in disregard of the influences which have made us human.’

Artificially constructed identity politics which seeks to divide all humans simplistically into oppressors/oppressed—with Jews in the former category despite their long and unprecedent history of being persecuted and massacred—amounts to just such a blinding superstition, rooted in inhumanity.

Yet, tearful as I am for my people, these attempts to stigmatise, demonise and deprive us of our national rights and identity will never be victorious, because a united Jewish people has come together in magnificent force since 7 October in a way I have never previously witnessed. The tears of grief we are all shedding are mingled with a common resolve uniting Jewry worldwide—that what happened to the Jews pre-1948 will never happen again. Jerusalem and our homeland will never be lost to the Jewish people.

Aviva Winton is a policy analyst with the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and a PhD student in Jewish Studies and Anthropology at the University of Sydney.

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