A mosque in Abu Ghosh with its minarets towering above.
Legislators throughout the world strive to enact laws to better govern their societies, with varying degrees of success. Amid the results of this earnest effort there are inevitably failures due to human frailty – laws are passed that are not enforceable, but linger on the books even though they were not needed in the first place.
Unfortunately, the Knesset members currently engaged with passing the so-called “Muezzin law” participated in this longstanding tradition, by sponsoring an unnecessary bill targeting Israel’s Muslims that has aroused furor both domestically and abroad.
The Muezzin bill, which passed its preliminary reading last week, seems destined to be added to the list. Despite the fact that municipal bylaws already ban noise pollution and set maximum tolerable decibel levels and impose fines for their violation, several MKs are promoting a national law under the camouflage of “noise pollution” that aims to restrict amplified calls to prayer from the country’s mosques.
Among other difficulties, this effort has aroused widespread condemnation by local Muslims as well as being characterized by Jordan as violating human rights such as freedom of religion and the peace treaty between the two countries. The two versions of the bill being debated range from a ban against mosque loudspeakers to a restriction on the times their calls to prayer would be permitted – with a proposed penalty of NIS 10,000 for violations.
A softer version sponsored by MK Moti Yogev (Bayit Yehudi) suggests forbidding the use of outdoor speakers to sound the call for prayer in residential areas from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. While this might sound reasonable to Israeli Jews, it would require our Muslim citizens to eliminate the dawn call to prayer.
Yogev said disingenuously that “many people all over the country suffer on a daily basis from the noise made by the call to prayer. This is a social bill that seeks to allow citizens to rest during sleeping hours and not to be awakened at 4:30 a.m.”
Amid catcalls from Muslim MKs who interrupted Yogev several times, the Joint List’s chairman Ayman Odeh and MK Masud Gnaim tore up copies of the legislation in front of the plenum and were ejected by the speaker. A more reasoned objection was voiced by the faction’s MK Ahmad Tibi, who pointed out that the call to prayer is an important Islamic ritual.
“We as Muslims never interfered with legislation in your Jewish spiritual rituals,” he declared. “This bill is a racist nuisance. You are touching the deepest nerve of Muslims and hurting the Islamic religion. “The azzan [call to prayer] was here before the racist lawmakers came.”
In a face-saving act for Israeli democracy, Likud MK Yehudah Glick voted according to his conscience and against the coalition.
“There are alternative solutions that do not demand forceful and legal coercion. It saddens me that political elements add fuel to the fire of the lack of trust between the Muslim public and the Jews of the State of Israel in order to win votes. Neither of the populations is going to disappear from this land,” Glick said.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit opposes the measure, saying existing noise laws are sufficient to deal with the situation. The Israel Police has stated that its passage could jeopardize attempts to increase law enforcement in the Arab community, and instead recommends stricter enforcement in areas of mixed populations that receive a high number of noise complaints.
One small success of this enlightened strategy was marked by residents of the capital’s Jewish neighborhood of Gilo and adjacent Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa. After four years of negotiation, they agreed that the call to prayer will be broadcast over smaller, less powerful loudspeakers that will be directed away from Gilo.
In addition to being simply unnecessary, this legislation undermines Israel’s efforts to explain to the world that it is not at war with Islam but just with radical Islamists, like Hamas and Hezbollah which call for the destruction of the Jewish state. It will also make it harder for Israel to continue making the claim that, unlike its neighbors, it is the only country in the region where all religions can pray freely.
We hope that the coalition comes to its senses and stops promoting this unnecessary legislation. Since its inception, Israel has been a democracy where freedom of religion is upheld. This bill does nothing but undermine that standing.
It is not too late to stop it.
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