'For more than a decade in Cairo I have used the same well-worn phrase in Arabic to order a packet of cigarettes. And so, on Wednesday it slipped out, when I was at one of my local newsagents in West Jerusalem, where the usual Palestinian staffers nickname me “Egyptian girl” due to my heavy Cairo accent.
But that day, the man at the till stopped and stared.
“This is Israel, why are you speaking Arabic?” he replied sharply, causing many in the store to turn around.
“If you’re in a country you should speak the language – if I was in the UK I would never dream of talking anything but English. Speak Hebrew.”
At that moment I was on the Israeli side of the 1967 armistice line which snakes through the contested city of Jerusalem, but over 20 per cent of Israel – 1.8 million people – are Arab Israeli. There are also Jewish native Arabic speakers in the country.
Arabic was, until the ratification of the controversial “nation state” law last year, an official state language. Right now, it has special status, and is certainly not a foreign language: for example street signs across Israel are written in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Jerusalem itself remains contested according to the United Nations as it is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital. Its final status and borders are supposed to be laid out in a final peace deal.
Sadly my terse exchange is not an isolated incident. Many Palestinians – whether East-Jerusalemites, West Bank residents or Arab Israelis – told me they are often ordered to speak Hebrew by Israelis or are afraid of speaking Arabic for fear of backlash and even violence.
Over the years there have also been several instances of people from Israel’s Arabic-speaking minorities like the Druze, being physically attacked. In 2015 a serving Israeli Druze soldier was hospitalised because he had been beaten up by Israeli youth after they overheard him speaking Arabic. It marked the second such attack that week.
Racism has soared in Israel over the years, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has surged and ebbed, fuelled by increasingly right-wing governments peddling anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian agendas.
And as the country goes to the polls on 9 April, that sentiment has bled into the elections trail, with many individuals and parties using open racism as a way of winning votes.'
Read more: Racism against Arab Israelis will reach unprecedented levels by Israel’s April elections – and the world won’t care
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