Should schools suspend students for chanting ‘From the river to the sea’? A federal investigation in Minnesota will test the issue.
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Should schools suspend students for chanting ‘From the river to the sea’? A federal investigation in Minnesota will test the issue.

The case is the latest in an expanding list of Title VI investigations relating to the Israel-Hamas war by the U.S. Department of Education.

Protesters at a pro-Palestinian rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, push the state to divest from Israel in the wake of the war in Gaza, Nov. 19, 2023. (Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Protesters at a pro-Palestinian rally in St. Paul, Minnesota, push the state to divest from Israel in the wake of the war in Gaza, Nov. 19, 2023. (Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

(JTA) – A suburban Minneapolis school district is facing a federal investigation for Islamophobic discrimination after suspending two Muslim students who chanted “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

The case at Edina Public Schools has divided local Jews and Muslims and is the latest in an expanding list of Title VI investigations relating to the Israel-Hamas war by the U.S. Department of Education. Investigations of two other educational institutions were also announced on Wednesday. 

“From the river to the sea” is a common chant at pro-Palestinian rallies and has sparked debate. Some Jewish groups say the phrase is antisemitic for endorsing the elimination of the state of Israel, while pro-Palestinian groups say it is a peaceful call for coexistence. 

One member of Congress, Democrat Rashida Tlaib, was censured for using it. Another, Republican Elise Stefanik, said it was a call for genocide at a congressional hearing that led to the resignations of two elite university presidents

The investigation in Edina will pit those dueling perceptions against each other. Other Title VI complaints, filed on behalf of Jewish students, have argued that schools and universities must take disciplinary action against students who use phrases like it. 

Taken together, the cases may compel the federal government to determine whether such phrases create a hostile environment for Jewish students — or whether disciplining students who use it constitutes anti-Muslim discrimination.

The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy group, filed the complaint in November after two high school students were suspended for chanting the phrase during an Oct. 25 pro-Palestinian walkout. CAIR-MN’s director, Jaylani Hussein, confirmed to JTA that the investigation was in response to the organization’s complaint. 

CAIR-MN said it filed the complaint because the students were disciplined “for participating in protests and speaking up for Palestine.” It alleged that other students who have “expressed similar sentiments” were not suspended.

“For those of us who are using that phrase, it is contextualized in the way we see it: 75 years of occupation,” Hussein told TC Jewfolk, a local Jewish publication. Hussein also organized a protest of an Edina school board meeting in December to push back against the suspensions; the protesters chanted the phrase at the meeting.

“Anyone who believes that this is a way to have a violent approach to the freedom of Palestinians, that’s not what we’re calling for, not chanting for,” he said. “But everyone has the right to interpret things on their own.” 

In a statement to JTA, the Edina school district said it has “unwavering support” for students’ rights to free speech and assembly. The district added that it also has “strong policies prohibiting any type of discrimination” for categories of people protected by state law.

“Our core beliefs in Edina Public Schools are grounded in the inherent dignity of all people,” the statement said. “We value and appreciate the diversity of all of our students. Edina Public Schools deeply condemns islamophobia and antisemitism. We will not tolerate hateful or inappropriate comments or behaviors and will work diligently to provide a safe and inclusive environment for our students and staff.”

The district has said it considers the phrase “From the river to the sea” to be antisemitic, and that it disciplined the students on those grounds after repeatedly warning them not to use the phrase. The walkout was reportedly preceded by an Instagram post saying Israel’s war in Gaza constituted ethnic cleansing and genocide. The post reportedly read, “Not speaking up is giving the green light to the Zionists.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas says it did not push the district to suspend the students. But its director, Steve Hunegs, told JTA in a statement, “We appreciate that the school district upheld their code of conduct and protected their Jewish students from antisemitism.”

Another JCRC staffer told TC Jewfolk he also considers the phrase antisemitic and “a Hamas chant with genocidal consequences.”

The Department of Education does not comment on ongoing investigations but has said that it opens investigations for every qualifying complaint it receives and that opening an investigation does not mean the complaint has merit.

The other Title VI investigations announced this week both involve allegations of antisemitic speech during pro-Palestinian rallies, and in statements. Both complaints — regarding the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Binghamton University in New York — were filed by the same person: Jewish conservative activist Zachary Marschall, editor-in-chief of the right-wing college watchdog website Campus Reform. He has no personal connection to either school.

These investigations are the fifth and sixth to be prompted by Marschall, who has filed 21 complaints against universities alleging antisemitic discrimination since Oct. 7. Excerpts of the Wisconsin and Binghamton complaints published on his own website indicate that they both relate to activism by campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine.

The Wisconsin complaint concerns student activists who chanted “Glory to the martyrs” and “Liberate the land by any means necessary” in the days after the attacks. It also refers to a statement from the school’s SJP chapter that cast doubt on reports of Hamas terrorists raping Israelis. The statement added, “It is the right of any colonized and oppressed people to pursue liberation from their oppressors, including through armed resistance.”

By failing to take more decisive action against the students who used this language, Marschall wrote in his complaint, the university had failed to protect Jewish students. 

“‘Martyrs’ in this context are terrorists who were killed attempting to murder Jews and it is obvious that ‘by any means necessary’ includes brutality such as the murder, torture, and rape that occurred on October 7,” he wrote in the complaint, as related by Campus Reform. (Marschall has declined to make the full text of his complaints available to JTA.)

In response, a UW-Madison spokesperson told JTA that the university “condemns antisemitism in all its forms.”

The spokesperson added, “The complaint against UW–Madison was not filed by a member of our community but instead by an outside organization that has filed complaints against several other institutions of higher education.”

Marschall’s Binghamton complaint, similarly, cites what he calls “very clear threats to Jewish students” and names an Oct. 25, 2023, SJP-led “Walk out for Palestine” protest where one student was recorded saying, “Israel is worse than Nazi Germany.”

A Binghamton spokesperson told JTA the school is cooperating with the investigation and “does not tolerate antisemitism or discriminatory acts directed at any individual based on their race, religion, national origin or other protected categories.” PJC

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