CNN fired its popular commentator, Temple University professor and public intellectual Marc Lamont Hill, in late November. Contrary to most reporting, Hill was not actually fired as a result of the speech he gave at the United Nations on November 28; he was fired because CNN panicked in the face of a backlash from powerful pro-Israel forces, most notably the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which condemned the speech as anti-Semitic.
Since that time, Hill has apologized for a phrase in the speech that some in the Jewish community found hurtful—a call for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea”—while reaffirming his commitment to his larger critique of Israeli policies. Hill’s many defenders have strongly asserted not only his First Amendment right to his opinion, but the historical and legal accuracy of his speech, and have demanded, appropriately, that CNN rehire him. However, with a few important exceptions—Noura Erakat’s piece in The Washington Post and David Palumbo-Liu’s in The Nation among them—the demand that CNN rehire Hill has obscured much of the actual content of his speech. Too many seem to have heard only the one phrase, taken out of context, that was the centerpiece of the ADL’s attack.
And Hill’s words are important: not only because he laid out a fiery, cogent argument for the need to end Israel’s policies of oppression against the Palestinians in the context of international law, but also—and this was especially fitting, given that he was addressing top UN officials and diplomats—because he shaped his presentation around the 70th anniversary of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1948, which saw 750,000 Palestinians displaced from their homes, expelled from their land, and dispossessed of their country with the creation of the state of Israel. In his speech, Hill stressed how Palestinians continue to be denied the very rights—political, civil, economic, social, and cultural—supposedly guaranteed to every human being under the Universal Declaration.
Hill’s comments were not anti-Semitic; they were anti-oppression, rooted in history and calling for the recognition of a common humanity grounded in the rights of all people, whether Palestinian or Jewish, African or European, black or Native American, Latinx or white.
Early in his speech, Hill noted that “while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that all people are ‘born free and equal in dignity and rights,’ the Israeli nation-state continues to restrict freedom and undermine equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel, as well as those in the West Bank and Gaza.” He then moved, chapter and verse, through the human rights guaranteed by the declaration for 70 years, but which have been denied Palestinians for exactly the same period. He identified the right to freedom and security; the right to protection against torture; the right to be free from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile; and the right to a fair trial, and he enumerated Israel’s long-standing violations of those rights. Crucially, given that Israel continues to imprison almost 2 million Palestinians in the impoverished and ravaged Gaza Strip, he reminded his audience at the UN that the declaration recognizes the “right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state, as well as the right to leave any country, including ‘[one’s] own’ and to return to said country.”
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Hill condemned his own government for its role in financing and enabling Israel’s attacks on Palestinian rights. And he made clear that the Trump administration “is not an exception to American policy. Rather, Donald Trump is a more transparent and aggressive iteration of it.” He described Israel’s theft of Palestinian land, such as the current demolition of the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, as a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
It is important to note that hill framed his arguments in the context of rights, not states. He talked about the state of people, not whether or how a nation-state should be divided.
Like many Palestinians, and like many in the global movement in solidarity with them, he spoke of the urgency of fighting for rights—for equality, for the realization of all globally recognized rights—rather than for any particular arrangement of states. In a later discussion online, Hill indicated his personal preference for the one-state solution—a single democratic state with equal rights for everyone—but even this was tempered with the recognition that “it is not my job as an outsider to decide for Palestinians or Israelis.”
Israel—specifically the Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—focuses instead on states, not on rights. The Likud Party’s original platform asserts that there will be a single state: “Between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” The platform was amended a few years after Israel signed the Oslo Agreement, which was supposed to pave the way for the much-heralded two-state solution. Instead, that 1999 iteration declared that “the Jordan river will be the permanent eastern border of the State of Israel…. The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.”
The acceptance of a single state—which today exists as an apartheid state with separate legal systems for the two different groups within the same territory, determined on the bases of race, religion, and language—is the official position of the Israeli government. It has been strengthened by the new nation-state law passed earlier this year. Despite the fact that more than 20 percent of Israeli citizens are Palestinian Christians, Druze, or Muslims, the new law asserts that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
The alternative to apartheid is to focus on rights, not states. This was Hill’s point. And this focus on the rights of people must be the starting point for any just resolution. The rights of people are fundamental; if anyone suggests that one cannot discuss human rights as they relate to Palestinians or to any other people who suffer oppression, then they are suggesting that those people are not equal partners in the human family.
The United Nations, in commemorating 70 years of both Palestinian suffering and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provides exactly the right time and place to ask, as Hill did, “What does justice require?” His answer: “To truly engage in acts of solidarity, we must make our words flesh. Our solidarity must be more than a noun. Our solidarity must become a verb.” It is that struggle for human rights and equality for all—for everyone living in that territory between the sea and the river—that still provides the best possibility of peace with justice in Israel and Palestine.