Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not known for making nuanced statements. Both he and his staff are, however, exceedingly aware of how his comments may be received domestically, as well as internationally, and are acting accordingly.
As journalist Michael Omer-Man pointed out in an article for 972mag.com, Netanyahu’s English-language statements to foreign media about the refugee crisis are very different from his Hebrew-language statements. This very strategic mistranslation has allowed Netanyahu to achieve two things at once. On the one hand, the Hebrew statements have a sharper edge that effectively instill fear of the refugees within Israel and secure support for Netanyahu’s policy of keeping borders closed. On the other hand, his English language statements are slightly less barbed and more palatable to foreign audiences, in the hope of preventing international criticism of Netanyahu’s policies.
In this instance, Netanyahu’s English-language statement to foreign reporters asserted that Israel would not be opening its borders to refugees because of its small size. The statement described the refugees as “illegal migrants” and “terrorists,” and characterized them as a demographic threat to Israel.
While the statement to foreign media demonstrates a deplorable lack of compassion and humanity, it was toned down and whitewashed compared to the original Hebrew statement. In that statement, Netanyahu described the refugees as “infiltrators,” a word curiously—and likely intentionally—omitted in translation. As Omer-Man argued,
The message here is clear. In Hebrew there is no such thing as a Syrian refugee who might find shelter in Israel; instead, there are infiltrators, work migrants and terrorists. All of those words are meant to scare the average Israeli into rejecting the possibility of taking in refugees. That the English version omits the word infiltrator, opting instead to describe displaced Syrians as illegal migrants, we can see that Netanyahu understands his government’s rhetoric doesn’t go over very well with the rest of the Western world.
Rather than welcoming the refugees, as some other countries have done, Netanyahu is building a heavily secured fence along the country’s eastern border, reinforcing the border from Timna in the south to the occupied Golan Heights on the border with Syria. Israel’s callous attitude toward asylum seekers is not limited just to Syrians, however. Israel routinely denies asylum to African refugees, arguing that they are economic migrants. Similarly, the Israeli government has a well-established record of mistreating African asylum-seekers already in Israel, including subjecting members of this vulnerable group to prolonged detention or deportation back to totalitarian regimes.
These attitudes and policies are symptoms of Israel’s ethnic-based division of rights, which has created a bare-faced system of apartheid in the country. As independent analyst Adam Simpson wrote for Muftah, “Because of a blind, outdated allegiance to ethnocracy, the Israeli state views the presence of these non-Jews [African immigrants and refugees] with fear, as yet another threat to its demographics. The Jewish diaspora’s long history with exile and alienation should have yielded a different result, one in which victims of oppressive state policies are treated with empathy, not repression.”