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‘River to sea’ chant under scrutiny in Metaverse



The controversial anti-Israel chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, which has surged in usage since the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel, is under scrutiny in the metaverse.

This follows complaints by users of Facebook and Instagram.

Thousands of people and organisations, including those from South Africa, have submitted comments to Facebook and Instagram’s independent Oversight Board about whether the apps should continue to allow the hurtful and hateful phrase to be used.

The submissions were made in response to the Meta oversight board’s call on 7 May 2024 for public comment about whether social-media posts that include the phrase violate its community standards.

The board, which functions as a quasi-appeals court for content moderation on the Meta-owned apps, recently agreed to consider whether the phrase qualifies as hate speech because some interpret it as an antisemitic call for the elimination of Israel.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) are among the many organisations worldwide to have made submissions.

The phrase refers to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, an area that includes both the Palestinian territories (the West Bank and Gaza) and all of sovereign Israeli territory.

Some interpret it as a general appeal to Palestinian nationalism, while others, including terrorist organisation Hamas, have used it to call for a Palestinian state over the entire area, meaning that Israel wouldn’t exist as an independent state.

Many users don’t even know which river or sea the phrase refers to.

President Cyril Ramaphosa chanted the phrase at the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) final election rally on 25 May.

Jewish advocacy group the Anti-Defamation League submitted a comment calling the phrase antisemitic hate speech because it implies “the dismantling of the Jewish state”. It has the effect of making members of the Jewish and pro-Israel community feel unsafe and ostracised, according to ADL Chief Executive Jonathan Greenblatt.

“This is a slogan that delegitimises the world’s sole Jewish state and calls for its eradication. It has come to encapsulate an ideology that categorically denies the legitimacy of a sovereign Jewish presence in any part of what is today the state of Israel, the ancestral Jewish homeland,” said SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn, in the Board’s submission.

“Its proponents are for the most part those who overtly seek the destruction of any such independent Jewish entity, and to that end, engage in and/or support unceasing acts of violence against it,” said Kahn, who represents South Africa on the World Jewish Congress Online Hate Working Group, which addresses global antisemitism especially in relation to cyber hate.

A spokesperson for the Oversight Board said, “Conflicts create unique content-moderation challenges for social-media platforms where these situations are heavily debated, protested, and reported on. The board is deliberating three cases regarding this phrase because of the resurgence in its use after 7 October and controversies around its meaning. The board will issue its decisions and may, as is typical in its cases, provide additional recommendations to Meta.”

The Oversight Board, created in 2019 by Meta Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, has members from around the world.

It’s evaluating three instances in which people on Facebook used the phrase “From the river to the sea”. In all three, Facebook left the phrase up after users reported it. The users who opposed the phrase then filed appeals.

Kahn said in the Board’s submission that South African Jewry had experienced increased threats and intimidation in the wake of the 7 October attacks, including comments from “highly placed politicians”.

“At the ruling party, the ANC, rally at the Israeli embassy, days after 7 October, senior members of the ANC were chanting, ‘From the river to the sea’ on the same platforms that they were calling not just for the Israeli embassy to be expelled, but for the democratically elected representative body of the South African Jewish community also to be kicked out of the country.

“The term has become mainstream in South Africa, parallel to the many other types of attacks and threats on the Jewish community, including boycotts of Jewish business. What’s tagged on all of these antisemitic initiatives is this slogan. It has become the rallying cry of Jew hatred in South Africa,” she said.

The Board and the SAZF have called on the Oversight Board to direct Meta to remove posts containing the phrase from its platforms.

The SAZF said the phrase violated Meta’s community standards. The phrase “alludes to genocidal intentions of the terrorist organisations who have adopted the phrase as their mantra against Jewish people residing inside and outside of Israel”, it said in its submission.

It was “universally understood” by its Jewish or Israeli audience as an antisemitic call for the violent eradication of Israel and its inhabitants, who are perceived as an obstacle to a free Palestine.

“The notion of a Palestine free from the river to the sea is incompatible with the Jewish right to continued self-determination, and a threat to continued Jewish existence. The chanting of this phrase or its use in social-media posts therefore contains an embedded message to Jews that their very existence as a nation is threatened,” said SAZF spokesperson Rolene Marks.

The SAZF pointed out that the phrase had gained traction since 7 October as the main chant heard at any Pro-Palestinian rally during increasingly violent protests directed against Israel and its inhabitants, including on college campuses.

“Meta has acknowledged the complaint, and said the Oversight Board would take a few weeks to evaluate it,” Marks said. “A decision will be posted on the Oversight Board’s website once the process is complete.”

“While all of our policies are developed with safety in mind, we know they come with global challenges and we regularly seek input from experts outside Meta, including the Oversight Board,” the company said in a recent statement.

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