I've known now-former CNN commentator Marc Lamont Hill for years. I've interviewed him many times on a variety of subjects from politics to hip hop, and I have always found him to be a scholarly, thoughtful person.
We haven't always agreed on issues, but I've watched him defend the basic human rights of all people. I don't believe he's anti-Semitic.
So, when I heard that Hill, a former Daily News columnist, had been dismissed from his longtime gig at CNN for controversial remarks he made at the United Nations concerning Israel and the Palestinians, I immediately reached out to see what he had to say. Given the way he's getting slammed on social media, I didn't expect him to respond, but he called me back. I began by asking about his firing from CNN.
"Someone called me and told me that based on my speech, they could no longer have me on the air as a contributor," he told me on Friday. "As of now, I am no longer under contract with them."
Beyond that, Hill said, the only explanation provided for his termination was "that the speech didn't reflect their values. That was it. That's exactly what they said. They didn't go into greater detail. It was disappointing."
Hill's troubles with the Atlanta-based cable network began Wednesday following his appearance at an event for the International Day of Solidarity With the Palestinian People. During his remarks, among other things, he called for a "free Palestine from the river to the sea."
Critics immediately pounced, claiming he was calling for the destruction of Israel. He fought back on Twitter, maintaining that he's being unfairly maligned and that his comments were misconstrued.
I asked Hill, a tenured professor of media studies at Temple University, what he meant by the "river to the sea" remark.
" 'From the river to the sea' refers to the entire region … from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. It's a phrase that's been used at least since the 1930s to describe different movements," he told me. "Both Palestinians and the Israelis have used the phrase 'from the river to the sea' to describe their political aspirations. People have said to me, 'Hamas says that.' Hamas has said that, sure, and so have moderate groups … so have religious organizations."
"The river to the sea … is not a dog whistle to a particular organization or orientation. … So when people say 'from the river to the sea,' it doesn't necessarily communicate anything in particular, anymore than in America when we say 'from sea to shining sea..' "
Hill, the author of four books, likened his use of the phrase to saying "black power" and then having people assume that he was associated with the Black Panther Party.
"It's simply not analogous," Hill said. "For me, when I said 'a free Palestine from the river to the sea,' I was specifically reflecting on everything I said in the previous 24 minutes of the speech, where I talked about full citizenship rights in Israel for Arab citizens. I talked about redrawing the 1967 borders. If I'm talking about redrawing borders, then I'm not talking about getting rid of Israel. … So this idea that I was calling to destroy Israel is bizarre to me, and disappointing. I have no desire to destroy Israel…. I believe that Jewish people everywhere in the world … deserve to live in peace and safety and security, and with self-determination.
"I also think Palestinians should have the exact same rights inside of that space. I believe in equal rights for everybody."