PROTESTERS AGAINST a law that would lower the volume of mosque loudspeakers hold a sign in Umm el-Fahm that reads, 'You will not silence the muezzin.'.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The climax of the inauguration ceremony for the 19th Knesset came with the singing of “Hatikva,” the Israeli national anthem. As we stood up to sing, I noticed all of the Knesset members from the Arab parties walking out. I looked around and saw that one Arab MK, Esawi Frej of the Meretz party, stayed in the chambers and stood respectfully for the song. I went over to Esawi immediately afterward, introduced myself, and asked him why they walked out and why he remained.
We decided to meet for coffee a few days later so he could explain it to me. That meeting opened my eyes and helped me look at the Israeli Arab population through a completely different lens. MK Frej told me that he would rather live in the State of Israel than in any other country in the Middle East; that he accepts living in a country which defines itself as a Jewish state, and in which all of the state symbols are Jewish; and that he stands for the national anthem which describes 2,000 years of Jewish yearning for this land.
But, he emphasized, that does not mean that it’s easy to be an Arab Muslim in a Jewish state. It’s not always comfortable. But MK Frej chooses to respect the state by standing for a Jewish national anthem. The other Arab Knesset members, sadly, do not. So they walk out.
That conversation led to my doing extensive learning about life for Israeli Arabs. Through my conversations and visits to their villages, I discovered that MK Frej is not unique, and that a high percentage of the Arab population hold a similar perspective. Sadly, they live in fear of the very loud and news-making extremist Israeli Arabs, and are very much overshadowed by them. But they are not looking to go elsewhere or even to change the nature of Israel. They fully accept the reality that they live in a Jewish state which provides them with their rights – even though it’s not always comfortable for them.
This realization led me to reflect about my childhood. I pictured myself at ball games proudly removing my cap to join in the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Would I have been able to stand so tall and sing with pride if the anthem referred to Christian yearning and tradition? I, of course, would have still respected the anthem, but it would not have been easy. I grew up as a minority in a country which was not officially Christian, and that enabled me to feel completely at home. Israeli Arabs – even the most moderate who live as committed Israel citizens – don’t feel that comfort.
That does not mean we should not define ourselves as a Jewish state. It does not mean that we should change our national anthem. And it does not mean we should alter the state symbols.
It also does not mean that we shouldn’t crack down on the extremists, and do everything possible to punish those who incite violence and antistate activity, and squelch the power of the extremist leadership. But it does mean that we should go overboard – 120% – in making sure that Arabs who want to live here as model citizens are made to feel comfortable and welcome, as captured by the words in our Declaration of Independence – that the state “will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or gender; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions.”
And this bring me to the Muezzin law, which is scheduled to be voted on by the Knesset this coming Monday. A Jewish state which is truly sensitive to the challenges and possible discomfort of 20% of its citizens does not pass a law outlawing part of that minority’s religious practice at certain hours. The noise is disturbing the peace? Then let’s enforce the existing noise laws which already outlaw excessive noise at certain times. But the Muezzin law only serves to strengthen the extremist elements in the Israeli Arab population, silences the moderate voices in the community, and drives those moderates who fully accept living as Muslim citizens in a Jewish state into further discomfort.
I hope the Knesset will reject the legislation on Monday, or better yet – choose not to even bring the law to the Knesset floor. I believe that doing so will reflect the spirit and values that the Jewish state’s founding fathers envisioned.