Word for Word: By Renaming Migrants 'Infiltrators,' Israel Is Forging a New Reality

As they juggle terminology, Israeli politicians can paint migrants as a menace - not unlike Palestinian refugees.

Once upon a time, before the Israel Police "lost it" while trying to cope with the renewal of the social protest of yesteryear, we were all very worried about what erupted - seemingly suddenly, though these things rarely are - in the south of Tel Aviv, where the Israeli locals (feeling discriminated by fate as it is) protested, loudly and somewhat violently, against the influx of African migrants and foreign workers into their neighborhoods. Some Knesset members were spotted in the region and contributed their bit of xenophobic incitement. Racism was definitely in the air.

The story had been enfolding for some years, combining several plots. One concerns a stream of foreign workers - some brought here legally by the State of Israel and various agencies who profit from the practice - who had stayed over after their work permit and visas had expired; the other is a steady and sizable trickle of foreign migrants stealing across the border from Egypt on their way from African countries in search of a place to work and earn some money; and the last are refugees fleeing for their lives, from African countries plagued by civil wars, hunger and other terrible things.

This is not the place, nor am I the writer, to sum up and elucidate the intricacies of the situation for all involved. The powers that be are not doing much apart from worrying, warning, frightening the locals, demonizing the newcomers and shifting the blame around. What piqued my curiosity was the fact that suddenly, about a couple of months ago, the rhetoric changed. The 70-odd thousand foreigners originating from several African countries, hitherto referred to by Israeli official spokesman as "economic migrants" (mainly illegal) and "refugees" (their rights to that status doubted by various politicians, but not really looked into in detail) became "infiltrators."

We Israelis should know better than all people that words forge our relations with reality. After all, it was by uttering words that God created the world we live in. And we know from our bloody recent past and present that one side's "terrorist" is another side's "freedom fighter." Similarly, the seemingly objective term "foreign worker" (subject to existing rules and regulations in each country) differs vastly from the term "refugee," which refers to someone who deserves compassion and mercy and possibly asylum, and that is, in its turn, diametrically opposed to "infiltrator," which denotes something sinister and downright dangerous.

The first definition in the Oxford English Dictionary of the verb "to infiltrate" is "[to] enter or gain access to (an organization, place, etc.) surreptitiously and gradually, especially in order to acquire secret information." The first definitions of the verb by Merriam-Webster site steer us toward the etymology: "to cause (as a liquid) to permeate something by penetrating its pores or interstices; to pass into or through (a substance) by filtering or permeating."

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the "physical" meaning of the word dates to the second half of the 18th century. The "adversary," or "military" meaning appears much later, in the 1930s. The core of the word "infiltrate" is "filter," from the Latin "filtrum," referring to a porous substance - originally it was probably a piece of felt - that lets something (usually liquid ) pass through, while blocking some other ingredients or substances (presumably dangerous or unnecessary, and therefore unwanted ).

The principle is of a sieve. Usually, when we "filter" something, it is with the express aim of separating the desired wheat, so to speak, from the superfluous chaff, for instance when we are straining the noodles over the kitchen sink. In its "adversary" context, "to infiltrate" means to get through the "filter" - enemy lines, checkpoints or borders - in spite of it. In this specific sense the African refugees and illegal migrants are indeed "infiltrators."

But words, apart from their sway over our perception of reality, have a memory as well, which can permeate the discourse even when the speakers are not aware of it.

The Hebrew word for "infiltrators" is "mistanenim." Its etymology (from the Arabic) is similar to that of its English equivalent. It is based on the Hebrew root "S-N-N," out of which the Hebrew words for both "filter" (masnen) and "sieve" (mesanenet) are formed. The Hebrew word is loaded with very specific historical meaning. It brings us back to the 1950s, the first years of the recently established State of Israel following the bloody period of the War of Independence, one of whose results was the flight or expulsion of many Palestinian Arabs from territories that were now Israeli; what is referred today by the Palestinians as the "Nakba" (catastrophe).

In the early 50s, there were quite a few attacks from the Egyptian and Jordanian sides on Israeli settlements in the south, with 56 Israeli casualties in 1953 and 46 more in the first months of 1954. Those attacks were allegedly carried out by "fedayeen" (in Arabic, literally, "those who sacrifice," in a way comparable to what we know today as "shuhadaa"), armed militias largely based within the refugee communities living in the Gaza Strip. The broader context of those incidents were the efforts of the Palestinian refugees to return to the places they had left - voluntarily or unwillingly - within the borders of Israel, or in other words to realize their "right of return." The young State of Israel was adamant about thwarting any such attempt, even in the case of Palestinians who remained within the country's borders - i.e., not "infiltrators" - and wanted to return to the villages they had left during the war. That is also thought by the Palestinians to be part of their ongoing "Nakba".

To address the issue, beyond military actions by the IDF against fedayeen bases and Palestinian refugee camps, the Knesset enacted, in 1954, the "Prevention of Infiltration Law," defining as infiltrators, punishable by law, citizens of Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Yemen who had entered the territories of Israel unlawfully. The harshest punishments were meted out to those who had infiltrated into Israel with arms, had committed crimes against people or property, and to those who were formerly expelled or those who intended to remain in Israel unlawfully.

Referring to the African migrants of today as "infiltrators," or "mistanenim," allows Israeli politicians to wield a double-edged sword: to make the African migrants, at least figuratively, as dangerous and menacing as the Palestinian fedayeen of the 1950s (who were, even if Israel does not acknowledge the fact, "refugees" to begin with), or even Palestinians of today demanding their "right of return," turning this, therefore, into, a national security issue and a clear and present danger, on top of being a social issue.

At the same time, as the Africans are in fact "infiltrators," it allows use of the existing "Prevention of Infiltration Law," that has been amended recently to refer to all who have entered the country illegally, to create a legal framework that allows addressing potential asylum seekers as criminals, by the vice of their infiltration, and based on that to apprehend them, and penalize them harshly. The quality of mercy - to borrow from Portia's monologue in "The Merchant of Venice" - the one African refugees clamor for from Israel, is, therefore, rather strained.

Hadar Cohen