A controversial bill that would silence the Islamic call to prayer inside Israel is moving forward in the country’s parliament, and has become the latest flashpoint in Jewish-Muslim relations throughout the country.
Strongly supported by the country’s growing right-wing conservative movement, the “Muezzin Bill,” which would forbid mosques from using loudspeakers to deliver the traditional five-times a-day announcement, has sparked international criticism and has many Muslim-Israelis feeling needlessly targeted.
The bill was first introduced by right-wing Knesset Members Moti Yogev and Robert Ilatov, but soon took on greater prominence when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced his public support. The Israeli Prime Minister said during a recent cabinet meeting that citizens have come to him from “all parts of Israeli society, from all religions, with complaints about the noise” broadcast from houses of worship.
Conversation surrounding the proposed bill has been particularly contentious in cities where Muslims and Jews live closely side-by-side. Israel’s Arab citizens make up roughly 20 percent of the country’s total population.
“Sometimes the call is really too loud,” Ksenia Svetlova, a Knesset Member for the Zionist Union party said. “Especially within the mixed cities, which combines Jewish and Arab populations. And also in many Jewish cities or kibbutzim or villages that reside next to the Arab cities.”
Yet advocates for Muslim-Israelis insist that the bill isn’t about noise reduction at all. Instead, they believe that Muslims are being specifically targeted, and that sirens and noises sounded by other religions aren’t facing similar scrutiny.
“The call for shabbat, which is done in every city all over the state, every Friday afternoon and every Saturday at the end of the Shabbat, is there, and it’s not something that anybody’s complaining about,” said Jafar Farah, director of the Mossawa Center, an Arab advocacy organization based in Haifa, a “mixed city” where Israelis and Arabs live side by side.
Farah said the proposed bill is part of a broader movement aimed at suppressing the rights of the Arab minority in Israel.
“It’s part of a trend against the Arab community led by the Prime Minister since his speech on election day,” said Farah. “It’s leading to nowhere.”
Protests against the “Muezzin bill” have taken place in various cities throughout Israel since the bill was first announced. Most notably on November 18 after Friday prayers, when thousands took to the streets of Arab-Israeli cities such as Tayibe and Rahat to wave banners and signs, chanting “The voice of the muezzin will not be stopped; such a law will not be followed,” Ynet News reported.
Fadi Sourikh, a 29 year-old accounting student living in Jerusalem said that if the bill was passed, it would dramatically change his daily life.
“It’s a very important part of my life as a Muslim,” said Sourikh.“I truly believe that the bill is only directed toward Muslims.”
The attempt to silence Islamic call to prayer is part of a larger existential dilemma where Israeli Jews on the right believe that they are losing influence over the country, said Dr. Yonatan Mendel, a Middle Eastern scholar. Mendel said he would rather see negotiations and dialogue to resolve the issue, and argues that the current bill will likely only do more to widen the already growing cultural and religious divide in the country.
“The feeling is that Israel is going into what I would call a slippery slope of anti-democratic law,” said Mendel. “And the Muezzin law, especially that it targets Arab citizens in Israel in Arab regions, only seems to me part of this slope.”
Opposition to the Muezzin bill had a unique, if temporary, partner in health minister Yaakov Litzman of the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism party, who initially objected because he feared the bill would apply to all noise from houses of worships, which would have included sirens sounded on the Sabbath for Jewish practice.
That illusionary alliance died last Tuesday, however, when lawmakers promised Litzman that a revised version of the bill would exclude any alteration of Jewish religious practice. The bill is back on the table and will likely continue to draw controversy until its fate is decided in parliament.