My Word: Noise, no noise and good noise

The early calls to prayers by muezzins in not-solocal mosques are often impossible to ignore in my Jerusalem neighborhood.

A man stands near a mosque opposite to a neighborhood in east Jerusalem November 13, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man stands near a mosque opposite to a neighborhood in east Jerusalem November 13, 2016.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s an issue that has literally prevented me from sleeping. In the early hours of the morning, just after 4:30 at this time of year, it wakes me up and keeps me awake.
The early calls to prayers by muezzins in not-solocal mosques are often impossible to ignore in my Jerusalem neighborhood.
Like most matters in Israel, let alone a subject that combines both religion and Arab-Israeli relations, the topic is political and sensitive.
Proposed legislation that would ban loudspeakers on mosques, or severely limit the volume and times of their use, has created its own sound waves.
Following its approval in the Ministerial Legislative Committee last week and ahead of the expected preliminary reading in the Knesset, headlines and social media postings with sound bites like “Muffling the muezzin” quickly made their way around the world.
Arab MKs and Palestinian activists charged that their religion was being gagged. MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List), who loves the sound of his own voice at least as much as he loves the voice of the muezzin, described the bill as “Islamophobic” and called for acts of civil disobedience against it if passes.
“Israel’s Muezzin Bill seeks ‘Judaization of Jerusalem,’” screamed the headline of an Al Jazeera story.
“The bill shows Israel’s growing intolerance towards its non-Jewish citizens, say Palestinian activists.”
When I’ve had enough sleep to think clearly, I’m not in favor of the proposed legislation.
The problem isn’t the lack of a law, but the lack of enforcement of existing noise pollution laws and municipal bylaws.
I can imagine the decibels being deliberately raised following the passage of a new law; cameras readied as prayer-goers and activists wait to clash with police and municipal inspectors tasked with maintaining quiet even amid a painfully absent peace.
As The Jerusalem Post’s Ben Lynfield noted earlier this week, when the Lod Municipality fined a mosque muezzin for issuing calls to prayer that violate bylaws against excessive noise, Arab city councilor Abed el-Karim Azbarga responded that the step was unwarranted and part of a “political agenda” directed against symbols of the Muslim and Arab presence in the mixed city.
The Arab League, along with religious authorities in Jordan and Egypt, has condemned the bill, ignoring legislation that restricts the use of loudspeakers in several Muslim-majority countries and cities, including in Saudi Arabia and Iran – a case of double standards coming across loud and clear.
And it isn’t Israel that banned minarets on mosques – that would be Switzerland.
While news of Israel’s proposed legislation made noise, the sound of an explosion was muffled. A suicide bomber killed more than 30 people, including many children, at a Shi’ite mosque in Kabul, the Afghani capital, on November 21. Somehow the ongoing attacks by radical Sunnis on Shi’ites, and vice versa, are barely heard by the larger world.
BY DEFINITION, the earliest call of the Muslim five daily prayers comes before dawn. If I can hear it in my bedroom in my Jewish neighborhood, I wonder how the Arab residents who live closer to the loudspeakers feel. I can at least complain about it; they are silenced by their own community.
Apart from the call to prayer, some mosques loudly broadcast sermons that are disturbing in more senses than one. Listening to a call to “jihad” menacingly emanating from a mosque a few kilometers down the road should make any reasonable person shout: “There should be a law against it.” It should also serve as a literal wake-up call.
In Jerusalem and elsewhere, the muezzins serve as a barometer of the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
When the situation heats up, the calls grow louder in a form of an intifada in which, at least, nobody gets hurt by the blasts.
Palestinians consider the so-called Muezzin Law to be a form of political warfare; most Jewish Israelis who live within the range of mosques know that the volume is an indication of the security situation.
The more terrorist attacks, the louder the muezzins’ calls, particularly just before dawn and dusk.
In times of war, the abbreviation “PA” for public address system can be confused with “PA” for Palestinian Authority.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas reportedly warned that if approved, the law would “drag the region to disaster.” It was an ugly threat and a promise, or self-fulfilling prophesy. But I wonder if Abbas is really so detached from the true disaster in places like Aleppo, not exactly an oasis of peace and quiet. Perhaps the noise of his local muezzin is too loud to let him think rationally.
In one extraordinary case of religious rivalry at full volume, the sound of the pope’s mass delivered at Manger Square in Bethlehem during his May 2014 visit was drowned out by the muezzin’s calls of “Allahu akbar,” heralding afternoon prayers at the Mosque of Omar across from the Church of the Nativity. The message, like the sound, was not subtle.
LAST WEEK, Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism Party effectively blocked the planned vote on the muezzin bill, out of concern that it would ban the siren announcing the beginning of Shabbat.
A compromise seems to be in the making that would alter the legislation to outlaw the use of loudspeakers only at certain times, so the muezzin’s call can be played during regular waking hours, though at a limited decibel level.
The Shabbat siren might be one casualty of the legislation in its original form. It could also limit the loud music that accompanies a Torah scroll being feted through the streets like a bride to a dedication ceremony in a synagogue.
There are other peculiarly Israeli sounds: The noise made by Breslov Hassidim living out the commandment “to be joyous at all times,” blasting religious music from vans to make sure they’re not only seen but heard.
And there is the only-in-Israel noise of a vehicle equipped with loudspeakers announcing the death and funeral arrangements of particularly prominent rabbis, a sound familiar to anyone who lives or works in a neighborhood with a large ultra-Orthodox population. The public address system is both very public and very loud.
As I often say, we don’t need more legislation; we need more common sense. And less sleep deprivation.
The siren welcoming the Sabbath, the muezzin’s expressions of faith and church bells ringing are part of what makes my Jerusalem neighborhood so special. The sounds of people living and praying alongside each other is music to my ears – in moderation, of course.