The chant “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free,” led by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC’s closing election rally on Saturday, was a call for the violent annihilation of Israel as a Jewish state alongside the ethnic cleansing of its Jewish population.

It is unprecedented for a sitting head of state in South Africa to use chants expressing genocidal intent. This incident clarifies that the ANC government’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is simply a ruse to delegitimise the Jewish State and represents a significant shift in ANC policy from ostensibly supporting a two-state solution to calling for the destruction of the world’s only Jewish State.

The SAZF is considering potential legal avenues in response to this hate speech. We are deeply concerned about the continued use of this dog whistle for antisemitism and the annihilation of Israel, to the extent that we recently made a submission to Facebook owner Meta’s oversight board, clearly explaining why the phrase constitutes hate speech and violates its community standards.

Calling for the annihilation of millions of people as part of a misguided attempt at electioneering is deeply destructive and hateful. It also violates the South African Constitution, which does not protect incitement to violence.

Such hatred toward Israel and a refusal to acknowledge its right to exist as a sovereign nation places South Africa at odds with its largest trading partners and much of the Middle East, including the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, who are normalising relations with Israel.

The “river” in the phrase refers to the Jordan River, and the “sea” refers to the Mediterranean Sea. The area between these two bodies of water encompasses the territory of present-day Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

It has no connection to a call for Palestinian statehood, as some people mistakenly claim, and is routinely used by extremists and terrorist groups such as Hamas as a dog whistle for the elimination of Israel and the massacre of Jews.

Hamas Leader Khaled Mashal made the meaning of the phrase clear when he stated: “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north.” He also declared that “There will be no concession on any inch of the land” and that “the Jewish state would be wiped away through ‘resistance,’ or military action.”

In its submission to Meta, the SAZF points out that this phrase is “an unambiguous call for the use of violence to eradicate the Jewish state and conquer its land from the river to the sea. It is understood as such by Jews throughout the world.”

The SAZF continues: “This phrase is clearly not a benign reference to a geographical area in Israel nor a human rights call for Palestinian freedom.”

The notion of a Palestinian state that is “free from the river to the sea” is incompatible with Israel’s right to self-determination and poses 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.

The SAZF calls on President Ramaphosa to immediately and unconditionally apologise to the South African Jewish Community, and all constitutionally-abiding South Africans, for his use of hate speech during the ANC’s closing election rally.