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, there was a new man at the till
“This is Israel, why are you speaking Arabic?” he said 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.”
Granted, at that moment I was on the Israeli side of the 1967 armistice line which snakes through the contested city of Jerusalem. But even on this side of the line in Israel around 20 per cent of the population – 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 foreign : for example street signs across Israel are written in Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Jerusalem itself is claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital and according to the United Nations it is still contested: the city’s 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 this week, when I posted about the incident, that 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 minority, the Druze (who are fiercely loyal to the state and do not identify themselves as Palestinians), being physically attacked. In February 2015 an Israeli Druze soldier was hospitalised after he had been beaten up by Israeli youth for speaking Arabic in a nightclub. 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. Increasingly right-wing governments have peddled anti-Arab, anti- Palestinian and scaremongering security agendas to curry favour with the Israeli public, who have lived through different peaks of violence.
And as the country goes to the polls on 9 April, that sentiment has bled into the election trail, with many individuals and parties using open racism as a way of winning votes.
“I am frequently ordered to speak Hebrew. Two months ago in a cafe, I made my order in Arabic and he wouldn’t serve me until I repeat it in Hebrew,” said Samir al-Sharif, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem who works as TV producer.
“I worry about my children who live in West Jerusalem – what if they accidentally speak Arabic? What could happen to them?”, he added.
Al-Sharif fears the upcoming elections will be the most racist yet, and ultimately impact a peace process in the future, because if being anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian is lauded by those in power, how could a peace agreement be reached?
“The right wing feels they have the power in the government in the street – they don’t care how racist they are. Especially the American government supporting it,” he added.
The campaign videos which have been flooding social media suggest he could be right.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking, a progressive Israel think tank, said that many of the videos are centred around competing over which candidate killed the most Palestinians.
“Every election season is a time where Israelis get a concentrated dose of racist incitement playing on TV, on social media even in texts,” she told me.
“I think what we are seeing in this campaign is the targeting of Palestinian minorities in Israeli. Israeli politics keeps shifting to the right. Now the main competition is among a multiple of right-wing parties,” she added.
She pointed to the campaign video for parliamentarian Anat Berko of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party, which is bizarre to watch. In it, her husband, dressed as a Palestinian, appears to kidnap Dr Berko. In the short clip, Berko lists her military credentials in fighting “foreign terrorists” (ie Palestinians) as the “kidnapping” plays out. She then mocks Arabic language and pronunciation as proof that the Palestinians never had a state of their own.
Another chilling video was released by the campaign team of Benny Gantz, Israel’s former chief of staff, who is supposed to be the “moderate” alternative to Netanyahu. Lieutenant-General Gantz, who oversaw the Gaza war in 2014, has soared in the polls this week to a very close second to the incumbent prime minister.
In his latest video, footage of funerals of fighters in Gaza is overlaid with a scrolling Palestinian death toll count from the 2014 conflict ,during which over 2100 Palestinians and 70 Israelis were killed. It concludes by saying that Lt-Gen Gantz was responsible for killing 1,364 Gaza militants in the seven-week military campaign. The problem is that militant body count is even higher than Israel’s agreed numbers and nearly double the United Nations figures.
If you break down the percentages, Gantz’s campaign have included the 935 Palestinians killed that Israel believes were fighters, as well as more than 420 males of fighting age (so aged between 16-50) who were killed in the war but whose status is unclear.
In short, the video effectively glorifies the killing of civilians.
Arab-Israeli politicians have also come under fire from their Jewish counterparts. The Likud’s popular MK Oren Hazan used a Facebook Live to call Palestinian members of the Knesset “terrorists” and repeatedly referred to Arab Israeli MK Jamal Zahalka as “Zahalkaka” which basically means “sh***y Zahalka”.
Ms Tsurkov says part of the problem is increasing American support for the ring-wing agenda in Israel in the age of Donald Trump, who controversially moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognising it as Israel’s capital in May. Last year he also slashed funding to the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, saying he disgreed with the UN’s refugee count.
Before, issues like racism were kept in check by the left in Israel and the Jewish diaspora in countries like the States, with many arguing that prejudice towards Arabs was only bad for Israel, isolating the country and making it tougher to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians.
But that backlash seems to have quietened. There was little to no reaction abroad when the Israeli parliament pushed through the Nation State law last year, which critics said was akin to apartheid legislation.
It downgraded the Arabic language from an official state language, promoted the creation of Jewish-only settlements and defined national self-determination as “the unique right of the Jewish people”. It was passed with little more than a whimper outside of Israel.
“Right now, [the] right is absolutely vindicated,” Ms Tsurkov concluded.
“Before, the left would say [Israel was] leading us into international isolation with [this racism] which was the only card that [they] kept playing. That is no longer true anymore,” she added.
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