City Council Candidate Endorsed by Teachers’ Union Asks It to Stop Using Phrase “From the River to the Sea”

“I understand that that phrase can have many meanings, and is often used to incite violence and express a desire to exterminate all Jews.”

A 2023 march for Gaza, led by a banner reading, "From the River to the Sea." (Allison Barr)

Days after being endorsed by the Portland Association of Teachers, District 3 City Council candidate Jesse Cornett emailed the union’s president, Angela Bonilla, asking her to remove controversial pro-Palestine lesson plans from the union’s website and to ban the phrase “From the River to the Sea” in official union settings.

Cornett wrote he was troubled by the PAT distributing shirts emblazoned with the phrase “From the River to the Sea,” at a union event the day after it announced City Council endorsements.

“I understand that that phrase can have many meanings, and is often used to incite violence and express a desire to exterminate all Jews,” he wrote to Bonilla in a June 13 email with the subject line, “Lesson plans and perception of antisemitism.”

The contentious phrase is widely used at pro-Palestine protests—and by Hamas, which launched the Oct. 7 attack on Israelis. It refers to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. (Often, it is part of a rhyming couplet: “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.”) Some regard it as simply a call for Palestinian liberation while others say it’s antisemitic hate speech that calls for genocide against Jewish people.

The union did not respond to WW’s request for a response to Cornett. Cornett says that Bonilla did respond to his email, but he declined to share a copy of it. He did, however say, that it made him feel “hopeful.”

Cornett took a stronger position against using the phrase in a separate email that went out to supporters today: “It is surely a teeny fraction of Portland teachers clinging to this disgusting phrase. I do not assume any of them are using it in a hateful way,” he wrote. “But simply by using the phrase, they are causing fear amongst students, parents, colleagues, neighbors and community members. It has to stop.”

“I have been surprised that many folks seem unaware this is a rally cry for Hamas and that others have been open to other interpretations of the phrase,” Cornett told WW.

An assertion of teachers’ right to wear the slogan was part of a handbook the PAT distributed earlier this month, as first reported by WW. The handbook claimed that the school district was, “Censoring staff members across multiple buildings and unions for wearing clothing with the phrase ‘From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free,’ claiming the phrase constituted hate speech and threatening to write up staff for insubordination if worn again.”

Cornett’s request comes as the teachers’ union is under fire for linking controversial pro-Palestine materials to its website, WW and other news organizations reported in early June. It included activities that asked students to write prayers to Allah, write letters to President Joe Biden telling him to stop funding Israel, and a 100-page lesson plan titled “Palestine and Settler Colonialism.”

Cornett also referenced those guides in his email, specifically calling out a lesson that addresses “how sex can be taught in a way that is compatible with Arab Culture.”

“This and other other lessons bring a frame that do not seem critical for Portland students, yet seems to be creating a deep divide in our community,” he wrote.

Bob Horenstein, director of community relations at the Jewish Federation of Portland, said the lesson plans were posted after Bonilla met with Jewish community members last December. “She has heard from numerous Jewish teachers and students,” he told WW in early June. “Our concerns have been ignored. She came to our offices, she took a lot of notes. And in the end, nothing changed.”

Cornett concluded his email to supporters by calling on Bonilla to take action. “Having spoken up against bigotry and antisemitism, I have every faith that PAT President, Angela Bonilla, will rise to the occasion.”

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