Tel Aviv Riot

Infiltrated by History

Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images

Israeli right-wingers have it rough. After last week’s Tel Aviv riot against African immigrants, likudniks like MKs Danny Danon (who said, “The infiltrators are a national plague”) and Miri Regev (who called immigrants “a cancer” and then backed off… sort of) came under fire for their inflammatory rhetoric.

As well they should—but they’re hardly the only ones guilty. The same Jerusalem Post article that contains Danon’s “national plague” remark itself refers to the Africans, repeatedly and casually, as “infiltrators.” Nor it just the Post—"infiltrator" is also used by the Israeli news site Ynet and by the Religious Zionist Arutz Sheva.

The term, of course, is highly prejudicial. The first use of “infiltrator” to describe people was in World War II, in reference to military enemies; after the war, it was often accompanied by the adjective “Communist.” It suggests concealed hostile intent and the attempt to destroy from within. So why is it now mainstream among Israeli politicians and media outlets?

As it turns out, mistanenim (Hebrew for “infiltrators”) has its own checkered history. It was used throughout the 1950’s to refer to Palestinians illegally entering Israel from Egypt and Jordan (for instance, in a 1954 law imposing harsh criminal penalties for “infiltrators”). These entrances, chronicled brilliantly by Benny Morris in his book, Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War (there’s that word again!) were pretty morally complicated. Some were incursions by genuine infiltrators, called fedayeen, who launched violent attacks against Israelis. But the overwhelming majority, Morris argues, were Palestinians refugees from 1948 attempting to return to their homes, or Arab migrants for other social or economic reasons. Israeli military responses were sometimes proportionate, sometimes brutal (Ariel Sharon’s infamous raid on Qibya in 1953, for instance).

I don’t want to judge morally the border struggles of the fifties: that’s a historical and political quagmire better left to others. Rather, I think knowing that history makes sense of Israeli fears about immigrants: Israelis talk about “infiltrators” because migration was part and parcel of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. When Israelis talk about African refugees and other migrants, they’re using language that evokes old wars.

But if the history explains the term's ubiquity, it should also help us get past it. This is not 1954, Israelis are not living in the immediate wake of the ’48 war, and Africans in Tel Aviv just aren’t connected to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mostly, Sudanese refugees come to Israel to escape a country ridden by long-standing, fierce ethnic conflict: little did they know they’d end up stuck in the middle of another one.