Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick defends 'river to the sea' chant used at pro-Palestine rally

9:27 am on 7 November 2023
Chloe Swarbrick

File photo of Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

ACT leader David Seymour has accused Chlöe Swarbrick of repeating a pro-Hamas statement, but the Green MP dismissed the criticism as a "purposeful distraction".

At a pro-Palestine rally in Auckland at the weekend, Swarbrick used the phrase "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free".

"From the river to the sea" refers to the River Jordan and the Mediterranean.

Palestinians in Aotearoa co-ordinating committee chair Ahmed Saadeh said it was a call for equality for all Palestinians.

"Whether they are in the West Bank, whether they live in Gaza, or whether they are in today's Israel. Freedom here, when we say Palestine will be free, refers to the fact that Palestinians have been denied the realisation of their right to self-determination since Britain granted the Jews the right to establish a national homeland in Palestine, through the Balfour Declaration of 1917."

While opponents to the phrase's use, such as Israel Institute of New Zealand president David Cumin, say it is in Hamas' constitution and calls for the destruction of Israel.

"They are saying that the entire land of Israel and Gaza and the West Bank is Palestine. They don't chant 'from the river to the sea, everyone shall be free'. They call the entire land Palestine, which means they don't see room for Israel."

Cumin said the phrase was upsetting to Jews.

"It is what it said it is, and we know what that means. Beyond just the erasure of Israel it means the slaughter of Jews."

He said Swarbrick should have known using the phrase would be upsetting.

"I would like to think that our elected members of Parliament are not completely stupid. I'd also like to think that they're not completely malicious. But it seems like one of those things is true."

The Human Rights Commissioner called on political leaders to be respectful of all communities when speaking about the Israeli-Gaza conflict.

Commissioner Paul Hunt said the commission had received numerous complaints about use of the phrase, and so would not comment on them directly yet.

But he said, generally speaking, all leaders should exercise their freedom of speech without inflaming the situation or generating fear.

ACT leader David Seymour accused Swarbrick of repeating statements from Hamas' charter, saying her words had "a dark meaning" and wanted her and the Greens to apologise.

"They understand very well what the meaning of this phrase is, they understand what it means to many people in the New Zealand Jewish community. And they don't just repeat it, they work crowds into hysteria, chanting it, it's totally unacceptable."


Swarbrick has not apologised for repeating the controversial statement, nor committed to stop using it.

She told RNZ's Morning Report she took her lead from both Jewish and Palestinian activists, and believed condemning the phrase was a distraction tactic.

"I recognise that there are different views on what this statement means, but I also think it is really important for us to point out that this is a purposeful distraction that is being used the world over to shut down peace activists from Jewish and Palestinian backgrounds."

Swarbrick said she abhorred and decried "barbarous death and destruction" and antisemitic notions.

"I believe that it is deeply antisemitic to conflate the actions of the Israeli government with Jewish people, not the least when Jewish peace activists world-wide are protesting these actions."

She said the only pathway for ongoing peace was an immediate ceasefire, returning hostages on both sides and recognising the humanitarian rights of Palestinians.

On Seymour's criticism, she said: "The most that we have heard from the so-called leaders of the incoming government on this issue of absolute destruction is condemnation of words used world-wide by peace activists... the question here should be for the incoming government to decry this genocidal behaviour."

Alternative Jewish Voices cofounder 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."

She 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."

However New Zealand Jewish Council spokesperson Juliet Moses told Morning Report that the vast majority of the Jewish community considered the phrase offensive.

She said Alternative Jewish Voices was a tiny minority of the Jewish community.

"I might add that there are many outside of the Jewish community who also have a problem with it.

"You can absolutely condemn Israel if you want to, you should be able to do so without using phrases that are very inflammatory and that the vast majority of the Jewish community consider to be calling for the annihilation of Israel."

NZ Jewish Council spokesperson Juliet Moses

Juliet Moses. Photo: Screengrab / YouTube

"There is one very important question that was not put to Chlöe, and is not put to anybody who uses that phrase: do you believe that Israel should exist, do you believe in a two-state solution? I'd like somebody who uses that chant to actually answer that question."

Moses said Swarbrick's use of the phrase was particularly irresponsible as a politician, and the council had written to the Green Party two years ago explaining the phrase was inflammatory.

She said when people used irresponsible or inflammatory terms the Jewish community in New Zealand and around the world got the impact.

Antisemitism had risen dramatically since the conflict escalated and Jewish people in New Zealand were receiving death threats, being bullied, and having their businesses targeted, Moses said.

Saadeh, who has family in Gaza, said people should instead be condemning the rhetoric used by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - who presented a map of the New Middle East without Palestine to the UN - and of his heritage minister Amihai Eliyahu, who floated openness to carrying out a nuclear strike on Gaza.

"The world is not getting outraged by this, but when Palestinian human rights [activists] chant for freedom, unfortunately, there's huge outrage about it."

He said the phrase did not call for the eradication of anyone.

"To be honest I find it a bit weird that some people object to this. I think those who support apartheid and Jewish supremacy will find this chant objectionable, but anyone who believes in freedom and equality of human beings won't find anything wrong with this chant."

The phrase has had political ramifications since the war's outbreak. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the phrase was offensive to many, while opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer suspended one of his own Labour MPs for using it.

In a statement, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said the party was calling on the international community to come together in support of a lasting peace for all the people of Israel and Palestine.

"We agree with global human rights experts that the actions of the Israeli Defence Force constitute serious breaches of international law. We also call for the safe and immediate release of all civilian hostages and prisoners, without condition."

Her statement did not address Swarbrick's remarks.

"The Green Party will continue to share the messages of justice, equality, and freedom we have heard of the last few weeks from Israeli and Palestinian peace activists in Aotearoa and around the world - and call on other politicians to do the same," Davidson said.

Last week, National leader Christopher Luxon told his third-ranked MP Chris Bishop to be a bit more careful about his language, after Bishop likened Hamas' actions to the Holocaust.

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