Two expert academics consider Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick’s use of a contentious slogan during a pro-Palestine rally in Auckland to be unhelpful, divisive and inflammatory.
The Human Rights Commission has warned political and community leaders not to inflame the situation or generate fear when speaking about the conflict, while Swarbrick has apologised for causing offence but has not ruled out using the chant in the future.
The recently re-elected Auckland Central MP took to the stage in front of hundreds at the Auckland Domain on Saturday and during her speech supporting the freedom of Palestine, she used the phrase, “From the river to the sea”, to which the crowd chanted back, “Palestine will be free”.
The slogan, which refers to the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, has been used by politicians and advocates for the freedom of Palestine since the 1960s.
It has different interpretations. Some believe it to support the freedom of Palestinians within that area. Others, including members from the Jewish community, believe it to advocate for the annihilation of Israel.
The phrase was mentioned in the 2017 charter of Hamas, the Palestinian terror group which launched an assault on Israel from the Gaza Strip on October 7.
According to the BBC, Hamas killed more than 1400 people and took more than 200 hostages. Since then, Israel has been carrying out strikes on Gaza in response, killing more than 10,000 people, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.
Swarbrick and other Green Party MPs have used or shown support for the slogan several times, while global political leaders have condemned its use amid a surge in antisemitic hate crimes across Europe and the US. In the UK, Labour MP Andy McDonald was suspended from the party after using the same six words in his speech at a protest in London.
“I apologise to those who have felt as though it has offended them,” Swarbrick told Newstalk ZB this afternoon.
“But the point remains,” she said. “That’s what our focus needs to be on, is the atrocities that are unfolding in Gaza.”
Labour Party leader Chris Hipkins said the phrase was a “very loaded statement” and “it’s certainly not a statement I would use.”
“It can be interpreted [as parroting Hamas],” he said. “I don’t expect to see any [Labour MPs] use [the phrase].”
Labour MP Phil Twyford was booed off the stage by the crowd at Saturday’s rally after saying he condemned violence against civilians by both Hamas and Israeli Defence Forces.
Otago University senior lecturer of Middle East and comparative politics Dr Leon Goldsmith said the phrase Swarbrick repeated was more commonly used by “extremist fringes”, which triggered insecurities on both sides of the conflict.
“I don’t think it’s helpful to be honest and I don’t think it really reflects any kind of reality for any side,” Goldsmith told the Herald.
“I think there are other ways of expressing strong opinions about the humanitarian situation and the need for a solution to the crisis without anything that insinuates genocidal kind of consequences and that’s the way people are taking it unfortunately.”
He acknowledged how pro-Palestine protests were “very well-intended and much-needed”, but urged caution regarding the use of such language given the “genuine, serious insecurities”.
Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt told RNZ many communities aren’t feeling safe at the moment.
“I think that our social cohesion is being severely tested at the moment and I really urge political leaders to demonstrate leadership and to keep in mind all communities,” Hunt said.
“Of course they’ve got the right to protest, but without making others feel unsafe.”
Hunt said, when asked about Swarbrick’s comments, that the commission had received “numerous” complaints over the weekend.
“You can protest, you can make your views known, but without inflaming the situation, without generating fear amongst our neighbours, colleagues and constituents. People are protesting for peace, so let’s protest peacefully.”
Act Party leader David Seymour yesterday said in a statement Swarbrick “must explain” why she used a phrase that was also in Hamas’ charter.
“While Chlöe Swarbrick has the right to say what she likes, people also have the right to question what she meant when she is repeating such inflammatory statements,” Seymour said.
“She needs to explain to New Zealand’s Jewish community, and to New Zealanders more broadly, why she thought it was appropriate to lead a crowd chanting a phrase that has such a dark meaning for so many people.”
Otago University’s Goldsmith didn’t believe Seymour’s comments were useful either, saying they appeared “opportunistic”.
“We’re getting dragged into the same kind of discourses that frame the conflict over there,” he said.
“I think we have to be more aware, we need to be more objective and we need to be a bit more cautious because it is becoming quite inflammatory and quite dangerous at all levels.”
Seymour had no comment regarding Goldsmith’s claim.
Stephen Hoadley, a retired University of Auckland associate professor affiliated with politics and international relations, believed Seymour had a right to question Swarbrick, but did echo Goldsmith in his view of the Green MP’s decision to use the phrase.
Swarbrick told the Herald she thought the phrase concerned peaceful Palestinian freedom and believed interpretations that assumed violence were informed by “a racist trope”.
She said it would be an “ongoing conversation” regarding her future use of the phrase and would be informed by pro-peace members of the Palestinian and Jewish communities.
Swarbrick said she seriously considered what language she used when speaking on such fraught topics as war.
She said she had had conversations with the Green co-leaders and the wider party about the use of the phrase. Without stating the party’s position, Swarbrick said her view of its use hadn’t changed following those conversations.
A Green Party statement yesterday said it would continue to share “messages of justice, equality and freedom” but it did not reference the phrase.
New Zealand Jewish Council spokeswoman Juliet Moses said the council wrote to the Green Party after the phrase was used by MP Ricardo Menéndez March on social media in 2021 to express its concerns.
“[Green Party MPs] know very clearly what we believe it to mean and what it is widely understood to mean so using it in a highly charged environment was highly inflammatory and irresponsible,” Moses said.
Moses believed it made Jewish people feel unsafe in what she described as a time of “rapidly increasing anti-Semitism”.
London’s Metropolitan Police reported on October 20 that they had seen an 1,353 per cent increase in antisemitic offences and and 140 per cent increase in Islamophobic offences when compared to the same time last year.
In France, the home of Europe’s largest Jewish population, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said antisemitic incidents have “exploded” with more than 400 arrests and 800 acts, including an attack on Saturday that saw a Jewish woman in Lyon stabbed and a swastika graffitied on her home.
FBI Director Christopher Wray also said the American-Jewish population, which makes up 2.4 per cent of the total US population, are the targets of about 60 per cent of religious-based hate crimes.
“That should be jarring to everyone,” he said earlier this month.
Moses said the council was considering whether to make contact with Swarbrick or the party following the incident during the weekend.
Alternative Jewish Voices co-founder Marilyn Garson said the phrase was not a threat, but a call from the disempowered, dispossessed and oppressed for the regime of power to change.
“I do think it’s good to look back over the history of politics and understand that it has always involved uncomfortably nudging language. So I do understand that it is uncomfortable for some. I hear that phrase, and I think it’s an accurate description of the land. And it’s an accurate description of the extent of the change that is needed.”
Garson believed the condemnation of Swarbrick’s words was a distraction.
“I think the longer we can keep the focus on the speaker, in this case, Chlöe Swarbrick, the longer we spend not talking about the fact that people are dropping bombs on the community of Gaza.”
Adam Pearse is a political reporter in the NZ Herald Press Gallery team, based at Parliament. He has worked for NZME since 2018, covering sport and health for the Northern Advocate in Whangārei before moving to the Herald in Auckland, covering Covid-19 and crime.