Much sound, but few results, at interfaith summit over mosque-muffling bill

Muslim, Jewish, Druze and Christian religious leaders gathered in the Knesset on Monday to urge the government to shelve a bill that would prohibit mosques in Israel from using loudspeakers to summon worshipers to prayers early in the morning.

The interfaith meeting, organized by Likud MK Yehudah Glick and Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul, ended with a joint proclamation calling on the coalition to nix the so-called muezzin bill — which is set to be brought to a preliminary reading in the plenum on Wednesday — and create a joint Jewish-Muslim task force that would deal with complaints about the noise levels from residents, primarily those in mixed Israeli cities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has backed the bill, which, if approved, would apply across Israel and in East Jerusalem where more than 300,000 Palestinians live.

Netanyahu has said that the noise made by the call to prayer disturbs Israelis of all faiths and that similar laws exist in many European and some Muslim countries.

President Reuven Rivlin has criticized the bill, which has also sparked condemnation from Israeli Arabs and the broader Arab and Muslim world.

While the bill applies to all religious institutions, it has been seen as mostly targeting the Muslim prayer centers, which issue the call to prayer — or azzan — five times daily.

The meeting saw repeated calls for negotiated solutions and dialogue, furious condemnations of the bill, near-consensus that the bill would erode the fragile ties between Israel’s Arab and Jewish communities, and gestures of goodwill between Israel’s various religious communities — but offered few practical alternatives, though it was scheduled to draft an alternate proposal to the legislation.

“We are really angry,” said Sheikh Muhammad Kiwan, chairman of the Council of Muslim Leaders. Kiwan, who lost three children in the Second Lebanon war and affirmed that “our fate is shared,” said the 400 imams that he oversees are “at my throat” over the proposed legislation.

“In no way will I agree that this bill be passed,” he added.

Kiwan also maintained that the bill must be shelved altogether before any efforts to reach a solution through dialogue convened.

Speaking on behalf of Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif, who was unable to attend, a representative of the Druze community also urged dialogue. “We all pray to one God — and we are all brothers,” he said. At the same time, he noted that in “Israel today, there is no shortage of problems” and argued the legislation was forging another social divide.

‘God is the legislator of all the religions’

Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a former member of Knesset, told the participants the morning call to prayer at dawn “really does disturb” residents. “There is no intention here to infuriate, or provoke or cause suffering to the Muslims over the muezzin,” he said. There are technological alternatives, Amsalem said, briefly suggesting WhatsApp messages, for example.

Oded Wiener, an adviser to the Chief Rabbinate, told those present there is “real pain” in the Muslim community among those who feel their religious freedoms are being curbed.

“We have a delicate [social] fabric, and it’s very, very sensitive” and must be upheld, he said.

Sheik Muhammad Sharif Ouda, who leads the Ahmadi community in Haifa, said his local mosque does not use a loudspeaker for the early morning calls, out of consideration to the local residents. He maintained there was no religious imperative to use the loudspeaker per se, but merely to chant the call.

Ouda also served as a translator for the Christian representative at the meeting, who maintained he was not “surprised” that this government would introduce the legislation, citing its “reneging on the agreement” signed in 1980 on Christian schools.

“God is the legislator of all the religions,” he declared in his criticism of the bill, according to Ouda’s translation.

Consideration or demonization?

The meeting began in high spirits, with good-natured sparring between the Jewish MK and Muslim MK running the show.

“If you speak to the sheikhs in Arabic, I’ll speak to the rabbis in Yiddish,” Glick warned Bahloul. “You assume I don”t speak Yiddish,” replied the Arab MK.

“Why can’t we say that on the one hand, we want to hear the muezzin, and on the other hand, consideration for others, this is a religious obligation,” Glick said in his opening remarks. “There is no reality in which my God commands me to disturb you. He commands us to live together.”

Bahloul characterized the legislation as “antagonistic.” He also took issue with describing the call to prayer as “noise,” terming it a “demonization” of Muslim religious practice.

But while stressing that the meeting should be centered on offering the government a concrete alternative to the so-called muezzin bill, the ideas were in short supply, drowned out by calls for dialogue and condemnations. Bahloul, however, read out a declaration at the end of the meeting urging the government to drop the bill while Glick urged the formation of a mixed-faith committee to field noise complaints from Israeli residents.

Rabbi Israel Samet of the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod cast doubt during the meeting that dialogue alone would be sufficient.

“The attempts at dialogue have not been successful,” he said of his own experience to lower the volume on the prayer calls in the central Israel city. “We hit a wall on this matter.”

“Everyone, everyone, suffers from this,” he said of the morning calls to prayer in his city.

While praising the initiative and efforts for interfaith agreements, Samet said the legislation was designed for those who refuse to compromise. How will the agreements reached here apply to them? he asked.

Also representing residents of Lod was a woman identified as Tova, who complained loudly about the noise pollution, earning a rebuke from Bahloul.

“It’s not the high decibel that is the most convincing one,” the soft-spoken lawmaker admonished her. “A quiet voice is what convinces others.”

“So tell that to the muezzin,” she replied.