The Solution Is Negotiation, Not Legislation

The rationale behind Israel’s proposed Muezzin Law is obvious. Five times a day, an announcement is broadcast over a loudspeaker summoning Muslims to prayer. If the volume were kept to a reasonable level, such that the announcement wasn’t heard by Jews in neighboring towns, no one would even think to propose laws to ban it. The problem is that the volume is set at full blast, with no consideration for the neighbors or their need to sleep past the crack of dawn.

“I can’t tell you how many times people have approached me, from all walks of Israeli society, who are crying out about the suffering that is caused by excessive noise reaching them from prayer house announcements,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said last week, in support of the law.

As expected, the Arabs — in Israel, PA-controlled territories, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere — are crying holy war and trying to turn a matter of common courtesy into a case for religious discrimination. Just as there are laws that regulate noise coming from wedding halls to prevent neighbors from being kept up at night, there should be laws to regulate sound coming from mosques to keep neighbors from being woken up before dawn.

There are laws to this effect in Europe, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be applied in Israel.

But the law proposed last week, as worded, could inadvertently undermine shemiras Shabbos. It’s not inconceivable that anti-religious forces would petition the Israeli High Court against the sirens that go off to announce Shabbos candle-lighting time, claiming that it would be discriminatory to ban muezzin calls but not Shabbos sirens.

And, tragically, it’s not inconceivable that the High Court would accept such an argument, even though Israel is a Jewish state, where nothing could be more natural than a public reminder that Shabbos is coming, and even though the siren is sounded when no one’s sleep would be disturbed.

Health Minister Rabbi Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism objected to the law and had it sent back to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation for reconsideration.

“We understand that there is a problem with the noise level,” Rabbi Litzman told Hamodia this week. “But if we’re not careful, this could boomerang. That’s why we want to see it worded in a way that prevents the Shabbos siren from being banned. It’s not that we need the siren for our voters, to tell them to light Shabbos candles. But we’re worried about the public at large, who need to be reminded that Shabbos is coming in. This is about preserving kedushas Shabbos.”

The irony is that there is already a law on the books that bans excessive noise, but it isn’t enforced. That’s why Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked does not support the Muezzin Law and abstained when it came up for discussion in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation (even though her Jewish Home Party and the nationalist camp strongly support it).

“There is already a law against excessive noise which is not being enforced,” her office said in a statement. “The interior minister, the internal security minister, and the environment minister all agreed that the existing regulations [cover the issue of the muezzin], but they have to be enforced.”

Such a statement, coming out of the Justice Ministry, is a badge of shame. It acknowledges that there are laws, but that they aren’t enforced when it comes to one sector of the population. It’s reverse discrimination.

Had it not been for Rabbi Litzman’s intervention, we might have had a situation whereby the anti-noise law would be enforced only against the Jews, banning the Erev Shabbos siren, and not against the Arabs. That’s because the police are afraid to enter Arab villages and enforce the law, and the courts are afraid to rule against them.

Though it’s doubtful that the Muezzin Law, in any form, will be enforced any more stringently than the current anti-noise law, Rabbi Litzman is meeting with legal teams to word it in a way that it can’t be use to harm Shabbos.

Ideally, the problem should be resolved through negotiation, not legislation. Religious and political leaders from both sides need to engage in dialogue and find ways to compromise. Legislation that even appears to restrict religious expression can be a slippery slope, affecting Jews everywhere.

This week marked the anniversary of Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel, which led to the breakthrough peace treaty with Egypt. Surely if agreements can be reached between warring nations, involving huge land swaps and recognition of Israel’s right to exist, much less ambitious deals on an acceptable decibel level for calls to prayer can be worked out.

What’s needed is for both sides to climb down from their high trees and show some goodwill.

Compromise isn’t impossible, and it would give both sides a good night’s sleep.