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Volume Control

Binyamin Rose

While legislators are considering banning muezzin loudspeakers, Jewish and Arab leaders in one neighborhood have reached their own compromise to drown out the noise

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

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LOUD AND CLEAR As a new day dawns, the wail of a loudspeaker pierces the air. It’s the Muslim call to prayer, and if you’re within earshot, chances are it wakes you up long before your alarm does (Photos: Lior Mizrachi)

F our years ago, Yom Kippur turned unbearable for the 40,000 Jewish residents of Gilo, Jerusalem’s southernmost neighborhood, but not because of the day’s five afflictions.

Their Arab neighbors from Beit Safafa, the Arab village in the valley below, added a sixth affliction. For six consecutive hours, they ramped up the volume from the loudspeakers atop their mosques, blasting the adhan (call to prayer) and an unending series of khutbah (formal sermons). “It was a major nuisance. They did it on purpose,” says Ofer Ayoubey, chairman of Gilo’s neighborhood council and a member of the Likud Party.

Instead of getting mad or getting even, Ayoubey spent the next four years in dialogue with his Arab counterparts in Beit Safafa to reduce the noise — and the tensions — between the two communities. The two sides recently announced a negotiated settlement, and are awaiting word on their request for 250,000 NIS in government funding to implement their agreed-upon solution. The conflict is not confined to Gilo and Beit Safafa. Almost every major Jewish population center in Israel, including Jerusalem, Haifa, the Galilee, and communities in Yehudah and Shomron are within earshot of the muezzin, the man who chants the call to prayer five times a day. But it is the early morning call, when most people are still asleep and it is otherwise quiet outside, which seems tailor-made to annoy.

Many people think the call to prayer is a recording. It’s not. It’s almost always live, or a live “feed,” and in many towns, it’s financed by the Israeli government.

Israel covers the salaries of over 300 imams and muezzins who work in the country’s 400-plus mosques, in much the same manner as local neighborhood rabbis receive state salaries. While Gilo and Beit Safafa were concluding their agreement, the Knesset took up a measure of its own. Lawmakers scheduled a December 7 vote on the measure the media has nicknamed the “Muezzin Law” that would prohibit all places of worship from using loudspeakers to summon people to prayer, or to deliver religious or jingoistic messages.

The Muezzin Law, first introduced to the Knesset in 2011, is a one-paragraph amendment to Israel’s 1961 public nuisance law, which generally prohibits outdoor disturbances, including construction work, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“The problem with the current law is that until now, nobody has applied it to the morning call for prayer,” says one of the amendment’s co-sponsors, Knesset member Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu) at a news conference for the foreign press in Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset caucus room. “My bill is designed to correct that deficiency.”

Chareidi parties generally frown upon government intrusion in religious affairs, but in a parliamentary democracy, must often follow the dictates of coalition discipline or risk toppling the government. Rabbi Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) originally opposed the amendment, fearing it would apply to the siren sounded at candle-lighting time on Erev Shabbos, but when told it was applicable only to places of worship, he dropped his objection.

Yet a yes vote from UTJ, as well as other coalition partners is far from assured.

The vote on the Muezzin law was originally set for last Wednesday, along with a vote on a more controversial measure, known as the Arrangements Law. That law would stop the Supreme Court-ordered demolition of the small outpost of Amona and retroactively legalize Jewish communities in Yehudah and Shomron, which some legal experts see as the first step toward Israeli annexation of a wide swath of the West Bank.

These votes were delayed a week after the government failed to nail down a majority, as various coalition partners linked their yes votes to the fulfillment of other political and budgetary demands.

 

If the Knesset waited five years to tinker with the noise ordinance, they can wait another week or two. But with religious tensions rising throughout the Middle East, and patience thin on all sides, whether the measure passes or not, the Muslim call to prayer — a Middle East fixture for centuries — will continue to grate on Jewish nerves.

Ahmad Tibi, one of the 13 members of the Knesset’s Arab Joint List, told the foreign press that the new law is merely one more manifestation of Islamophobia.

“Most Arabs feel the law is aimed at humiliating them and violating their religious beliefs,” Tibi said. “We will never accept any agreement or understanding between Jewish parties about Muslim prayer.”

Ilatov dismissed Tibi’s allegations out of hand, and accuses him of incitement: “Anyone who says that we are trying to disrupt Muslim prayer is trying to turn this into a religious war and is lying. Tibi has called for civil disobedience if this law passes, and he chose to deliver that message to a media outlet that broadcasts to Hezbollah.”

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