Muezzin Law Undergoes Rewrite as Chareidi MKs Continue to Oppose It

YERUSHALAYIM -

After coalition members – particularly MKs from United Torah Judaism and Shas – expressed opposition to the Muezzin Law, MKs Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) and David Bitan (Likud), sponsors of the bill, have reworked it to ensure that it is not used to punish Jews who sound sirens to herald the coming of Shabbos. But chareidi MKs still need some convincing, sources in United Torah Judaism said.

The law, which would forbid the use of loudspeakers by imams calling the Muslim faithful to prayer, was to be presented to the Knesset for its first reading Tuesday. That version of the law included a compromise that would have banned the sounding of the call to prayer only at night, as preferred by chareidi MKs, but at the last minute Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the heads of the chareidi parties that the relaxed version was not acceptable. On Tuesday, Netanyahu told MK Rabbi Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) that he wanted the law to apply all day long, and not just between 11 PM and 7 AM, as the chareidi parties had been promised.

As a result, Yogev and Bitan will continue working on a version of the bill that will be acceptable to both Netanyahu and the chareidi parties. On Wednesday, Yogev said in a social media post that the law “is meant to enable citizens, both Jews and Arabs, to sleep in peace. We intend to bring the bill to a Knesset vote when we work out all the issues.” Muslims pray five times a day, including an early-morning service at dawn, which many Israelis living in mixed Jewish/Arab cities have complained to authorities about for years, saying that the loudspeakers that come on full blast at 4:30 AM interrupt their sleep.

“Hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the Galilee, Negev, Yerushalayim, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and other places in Israel suffer on a regular basis as a result of the muezzin’s call to prayers,” Yogev wrote in an introduction to the bill. “The excess noise is generated by sound systems which harm the sleep and rest of Israelis numerous times a day, especially in the early mornings and at night.” His proposal, wrote Yogev, “emphasizes the idea that freedom of religion does not have to harm quality of life, and recommends that the use of sound systems to call people to prayer or to send out other messages be banned.” According to the bill, violators will pay NIS 5,000-10,000 for each violation, depending on what time of the day the violation occurs.

But chareidi parties UTJ and Shas have been opposed to the law from when it was first proposed over a month ago. The main reason, according to MK Rabbi Litzman, is concern that the law could be used to prevent the sounding of the siren on Friday afternoon to announce the arrival of Shabbos. While the sirens are usually sounded only in areas with high concentrations of chareidi and observant Jews, the sound “slips out” to other areas, and far-left MKs have threatened at times to legislate against them. The concern, Rabbi Litzman told Netanyahu in a meeting several weeks ago, is that placing a limit on the religious rights of one group would violate the status quo for all groups, and by forcing changes in that status quo, it would open other groups to changes as well. Rabbi Litzman fears, among other things, that the High Court would require a law against the sirens to be legislated, if the Knesset succeeds in passing the Muezzin Law.

Muslims have been up in arms over the law, and in a Knesset discussion Monday night several got up and began ululating the call to prayer in the Knesset, in protest over the law – causing a near riot in the chamber. In a statement, PA chief Mahmoud Abbas said that approving the law for legislation was “an extremely serious one that will bring tragedy to the region. These laws are unacceptable, and we will refer our complaints to international institutions,” including the U.N. Security Council. Top PA cleric Yussuf Adais said that forcing mosques to give up loudspeakers “is racist and will bring upon us a religious war.”

Arab MK Ahmed Tibi called for a “civil rebellion” over the law. “This is an unworthy law and I call on the public to refuse to honor or observe it,” he said in an interview in Arab media. “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself stands behind this law and he is the chief spreader of Islamophobia and incitement against Muslims,” he said, later backing away from the notion.

“Netanyahu wants to turn the political dispute into a religious one and this could set off the entire region,” Tibi said. “There will not be a situation in which the Muezzin’s call will not be heard. Perhaps he supports this law because he can hear the call in his villa in Caesarea when it is sounded in Jisr a-Zarka [north of Caesarea], but he cannot be allowed to drive everyone crazy because of his personal preferences.”