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Are foreigners welcome in Israel?

Shoshana Kordova
November 19, 2010
(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)
(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

Israelispeak is the way Israelis and the Israeli media use Hebrew. Behind the literal meaning, there’s an additional web of suggestion, doublespeak, and cultural innuendo that too often gets lost in translation. Every Friday, we reveal what is really being said. To view all the entries in this series, click here.

There are so many illegal African immigrants living in Tel Aviv, MK Yaakov Katz of the right-wing National Union party said last week, that Tel Avivians will soon be moving to the West Bank as their city “becomes African.”

The word Katz used to describe the immigrants was “mistanenim,” or “infiltrators.” It is a word that seems particularly well-suited to scaremongering, since it conjures the other kind of mistanenim: Palestinians from the West Bank who lack permits but sneak into Israel to work—assuming, the fear goes, that a job search is indeed their real reason for entering the country.

The 10,000 illegal immigrants who have come to Israel since the beginning of the year arrived on foot. According to the African Refugee Development Center, an Israeli advocacy group, about 27,000 migrants are from Africa and are seeking asylum as refugees, or plitim. While the English word focuses on what refugees are looking for (haven in another country), the Hebrew word emphasizes what made them refugees in the first place: They were “spewed out” (nifletu) of their homelands. The root of plitim is used in a wide variety of disgorgement-related contexts, including baby spit-up, environmental emissions, and plitot peh, or slips of the tongue.

(Hebrew is excellent for unappealing yet vivid anthropomorphic land metaphors: The Biblical spies derided ancient Israel as a land that consumes its inhabitants; the Torah states elsewhere that the land will vomit out its inhabitants if they defile it.)

Hebrew’s focus on how people become refugees—the push factor of being unable to remain rather than the pull factor of seeking safe harbor—may hint at Israeli willingness to tolerate foreigners, whether they are called plitim, mistanenim, or ovdim zarim (foreign workers). But, actually, though some secular leftists want to allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country, such willingness is often not in evidence.

“And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Exodus tells us. In modern Israel, though, that injunction often collides with the goal of retaining the state’s Jewish character, causing religious public figures to advocate kicking the strangers out. Such arguments sometimes come across less as reasoned pleas and more as classic race-baiting, as with a recent statement by a Tel Aviv rabbi who accused African men of harassing “our girls” in the streets of Tel Aviv. But maybe that was just a slip of the tongue?

Shoshana Kordova is an editor and translator at the English edition of Haaretz. She grew up in New Jersey and has lived in Israel since 2001.

Shoshana Kordova is an editor and translator at the English edition of Haaretz. She grew up in New Jersey and has been living in Israel since 2001.