Muezzin Law Passes First Reading Among Shouts, Recriminations

A Muezzin is seen next to a mosque in the northern city of Acre (Akko). (Flash90)

The Knesset on Wednesday passed on its first reading a reworked version of the Muezzin Law, eliciting a tidal wave of condemnations, protests, and threats by Arab MKs, who called it a “declaration of war” against their community. “It is a war between the forces of light and darkness, of the enlightened versus the benighted,” said MK Osama Sa’adi (United Arab List), while MK Ahmad Tibi got himself thrown out of the plenum after he shouted during speeches by supporters of the law.

Votes on the legislation, which has been ready for months, was delayed because of opposition by Arabs, leftist parties and chareidi parties, who feared that it 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 observant Jews, the sound “slips out” to other areas, and far-left MKs have threatened at times to legislate against them. The modified version of the law proposed by MKs Moti Yogev (Jewish Home) and David Bitan (Likud), sponsors of the bill, prevent calls to prayer by muezzins only during the late-night hours, between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Yogev said 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 a.m. 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.

Added to the vote was a second measure, proposed by MKs Robert Elituv (Yisrael Beytenu) and Oded Forer (Yesh Atid), which recommends that the Environment Minister be empowered to decide what constitutes “harm to quality of life,” but does not recommend any specific times for turning off the loudspeakers.

Muslims have been up in arms over the law, and that was reflected in Wednesday’s Knesset discussion prior to the vote. Tibi attempted to persuade chareidi MKs to vote against the bill, saying that the call to prayer “was never seen as an environmental ‘hazard.’ This is a religious Muslim act, and in this parliament we have taken great care never to intervene in religious affairs, neither Muslim nor Jewish. This is a racist law, harming something that is very dear to Muslims. These laws are among the most ridiculous and racist ever proposed here.”

MK Zouhar Bahloul (Zionist Camp) said that this was not an issue of Jew vs. Muslim, as “there is no shortage of Jews opposed to this horrible law. What it is is a Mark of Cain against a parliament that time after time declares war against Israel’s Arab minority.” UAL chairman MK Ayman Odeh said that the law was “persecution of the Arabs, an attempt to push Arabs out, and a declaration of war against Arabic. The Jewish sages said that one cannot institute a law that the public is incapable of adhering to, and this is something we are unable to adhere to. This, like other laws including the one that prevents us from teaching the Nakba, the one that calls for demolition of Arab houses, and the one against our serving in the IDF, is a racist law.”

Speaking on behalf of the government, Environment Minister Zeev Elkin said that opponents of the bill “were contradicting themselves. On the one hand they say that preventing the sounding of the call to prayer cannot be allowed, but on the other hand they say the law is not necessary because there are already laws against excessive late-night noise. It is true that such laws have been on the books for 25 years, so it is not clear why this law is being seen as it has been portrayed by some. MKs are loudly condemning a law to prevent something that is already illegal. The previous law was enacted by a Labor government, however, and no one had a problem with it then.”