A mosque in Abu Ghosh with its minarets towering above.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While much international and political discourse focused in the past few days on the “Outposts Bill,” another highly controversial bill was also moving forward in the Knesset, having obtained the approval of the Ministerial Legislative Committee, and may come up for a preliminary vote Wednesday. It too has attracted political, legal and international attention, but has also generated heated religious argument. I’m referring to the Muezzin Bill (a more appropriate name than its formal title: the “Bill Forbidding the use of Public Address Systems in Houses of Worship”).
This bill, which aims at banning the use by mosques of public address systems for the daily call to prayer, is a masquerade, which all participants are party to. Nobody really thinks that those who proposed this bill aren’t actually motivated by nationalistic and religious considerations (the bill’s explanatory note states its intention to forbid “the use of PA systems to call worshipers, to convey religious or nationalistic messages, and sometimes even words of incitement”). Likewise, some of the bill’s opponents disregard the real disturbance muezzins cause for non-Muslims and present the issue as an exclusively racist and anti-Muslim initiative and therefore not requiring reassessment.
A closer look at the matter reveals that restrictions on use of PA systems by mosques exist in many countries, including Arab states, and therefore it is clear that this bill is not simply the invention of fevered minds seeking to harm Islam and its followers in Israel. On the other hand, there seems to be no real and definitely no urgent need for new legislation relating to noise pollution, because current law prohibits unusual and unreasonable noise levels. Therefore one would assume that those concerned with noise pollution would first attempt to deal with the nuisance, such as it is, using the legal tools available to them rather than promoting a new law. Failure to do so rightly leads many to suspect ulterior motives.
On a personal note, I returned a few days ago from New York, and the apartment I stayed in there overlooks the largest mosque in the city. Many Muslim worshipers attend it, but the local residents do not hear loud calls from the top of its minaret. Clearly the local Muslim community understands and accepts the required norms of coexistence, as well as the concepts of mutual consideration and tolerance. At the same time, there is an ongoing debate concerning the Brooklyn mosque, whose neighbors strongly protest its high-volume loudspeakers.
Loudspeakers obviously did not exist in antiquity, indicating the use of powerful PA systems by mosques is not religiously mandated and other solutions can be considered, and compromises reached. These might include applications for smartphones and computers, which would allow those interested in hearing the muezzin to do so while at the same time feeling comfortable that they are not disturbing their neighbors. Such a development could bring peace between the warring parties, and the state should invest in developing something like this and implementing it in the Muslim public domain.
Instead, Israel’s masquerade continues, and the politicians on both sides of the issue continue to paint the matter in black and white.
While the Muezzin Bill was unanimously approved by the Ministerial Legislation Committee, its path to becoming law has now encountered an interesting entanglement. Objections have been expressed by Minister Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) with support from Minister Arye Deri (Shas). News of collaboration and dialogue between the ultra-Orthodox parties and the Arab political leadership was also reported, though not long-lived.
Lest one think the ultra-Orthodox intervention to derail the bill is grounded in a commitment to religious freedom, a radio interview with Minister Litzman revealed the truth. He expressed concern that a muffling of the muezzin’s call to prayer could jeopardize the use of citywide sirens heralding the coming of Shabbat, and possibly other Jewish religious high-volume public events. He was quite clear, stating that if the threat to the Shabbat sirens were removed, he would have no problem voting for the bill.
Of course, the bill’s proponents would not conceive of applying these measures to the weekly Shabbat sirens, regardless of what they preach concerning the nuisance of noise pollution. It is therefore no surprise that after hearing the concerns of the ultra-Orthodox politicians, it is already being reported that Shabbat sirens may be explicitly excluded from the bill.
Ultra-Orthodox circles have established a long record, both in Israel and overseas, of demanding respect for religious freedom whenever challenges to their privileges and rituals are involved. Examples include kosher butchering and circumcision (and metzitza) in countries where these customs have been challenged as inhumane and in conflict with public health and order. Similarly in Israel, claims of religious freedom have been widely made with regard to the mass exemption of yeshiva students from military service, refusal to implement core curricular studies in schools and demands for excessive state subsidies for tens of thousands of non-working yeshiva students. Needless to say, just as with the Muezzin Bill, these demands are not evidence of sincere commitment on their part to universal values of religious freedom and equality.
It is the Litzmans and Deris of the religious Jewish leadership that have never hesitated to deny these very freedoms to fellow Jews and non-Jews whenever they have had the political ability to do so. The recent battle over the Western Wall and the Ritual Bath Law, denying use and freedom of worship to fellow Jews, and Litzman’s quick clarification on the rationale for opposing the Muezzin Bill make it, once again, patently clear.The author, a rabbi, heads Hiddush – for Religious Freedom and Equality.
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