Israel wants mosques to turn the volume way down

Jerusalem -- When the call to prayer begins in the Palestinian neighborhoods here, the Muslim faithful hear a song beautiful and sublime. Hour by hour, five times a day, it is the soundtrack of their lives. And it stirs deep emotions.

Across the walls, across the lines that separate Arabs from Jews, the Muslims’ call to prayer means something very different.

The Jews hear noise, they say. And worse.

During periods of heightened violence, when the Jews who live near Palestinians hear the Arabs proclaim that “God is great!” in a broadcast that travels far from the mosque’s loudspeakers, they say they do not think of God.

They hear a threat.

Israeli lawmakers now are pushing legislation to ban mosques in Israel and East Jerusalem from using loudspeakers to issue the call to prayer, especially in the early morning, when the summons begins as early as 4. The bill is being debated, and its sponsors hope to pass it in coming weeks.

One might think that after centuries of Jews and Muslims living side by side, in war and peace, these issues would be settled — but that would be naive.

The bill’s proponents describe the so-called “muezzin law” as necessary, not to clip religious freedom but to muzzle excessive noise. The sponsors say their goal is to safeguard quality of life.

As might be expected, a proposed ban on amplified calls to prayer has touched a raw nerve .

The Muslims say their sacred tradition cannot be compared to a rowdy party to be shut down by police.

In Pisgat Zeev, a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, Yael Antebi lives in a sunny apartment with a terrace overlooking a dry desert riverbed. In the distance is a refugee camp for Palestinians in Shuafat, which today does not resemble the “camp” it was generations ago but rather a city with high-rise apartments, a mall and narrow, twisting streets.

“In tense times, the call feels threatening,” said Antebi, who sits on the Jerusalem city council and is a deputy mayor.

To her visiting grandchildren, who do not live near Arab villages, “the sound is frightening.”

Antebi said the mosques crank up the volume during conflicts. The prayer calls were especially loud in the summer of 2014, during the Gaza war.

“It’s like they’re trying to get inside your head,” she said.

Motti Yogev, a member of parliament from the pro-settler Jewish Home party, introduced the bill after hearing from frustrated Jewish residents who live in so-called mixed cities of Arabs and Jews in Lod, Acre, Haifa, Ramle and Jerusalem.

“People came to me to complain about the sound from the muezzin all day, but especially in the early morning,” he said. “The mosques would put their speakers right up near the homes of Jewish people and wake them up.”

He said some of those grumbling were Muslims, too. Arabs make up about 20 percent of the Israeli population, and most are Muslim.

Yogev said that years ago when there were no public-address systems or electricity, Muslims would knock on doors to let people know it was time for prayer. Or they would sing from the minaret without amplification. That was old-school.

“Now they can put it on the phone or an alarm clock,” he said. “They don’t need to broadcast it on speakers.”

In the Palestinian neighborhoods, residents see the threats, too. In Shuafat, locals said the muezzin bill is nothing more than power politics, the strong against the weak.

“This call doesn’t hurt anybody,” said Kamal Abdul Khader, a former boxer who works as a bus dispatcher in Shuafat.

“You know what the call is? The call is to come and pray to God,” he said. “The Jews don’t want to hear this? Tell me why.”

Told it wakes people up, Khader laughed and pointed at the chaotic street scene with its cacophony of honking horns, cellphone rings and pop music blasting from shops.

“Listen, this is Jerusalem. We Muslims don’t complain when the Christians ring their church bells. We don’t complain about the Jews with their ram horns. This is religion,” he said. “No one should interfere.”

Men attending Shuafat’s main mosque agreed. One recalled that he had heard the muezzin bill was changed to protect Jewish customs. In the deeply Orthodox communities of Israel, sirens often wail on Friday afternoons to mark the beginning of the Sabbath. Sometimes a trumpet or ram’s horn is sounded.

After the bill was first introduced, it was criticized by ultra-Orthodox Jewish lawmakers worried that it could apply to the customs of their constituents.

Proponents agreed to amend the bill to protect the Sabbath sirens.

The bill has broad support in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. “I cannot tell you how many times people of all faiths are bothered by this,” Netanyahu said recently.

The prime minister pointed to ordinances in Europe and the Middle East that control the volume or hours of the muezzin’s call. “Israel is committed to freedom of religion, but it must also protect citizens from the noise,” he said.

There are some who ask why such a divisive topic needs the blunt force of legislation and a ban.

In the ancient port city of Jaffa, the mosques in a mixed neighborhood of Jews and Muslims in the Tel Aviv municipality agreed to reduce the volume.

In two neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, members of the Jewish settlement of Gilo and their Palestinian counterparts in Beit Safafa were brought together by police to seek a compromise. There is a preliminary agreement to experiment with the placement of loudspeakers.

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, hosted a meeting of Muslim and Jewish clerics last month to seek a middle way, without a new law.

“I am the son of someone who translated the Koran and observed the Jewish commandments, and I recognize the need to tread a fine line,” the president said.

In Pisgat Zeev, the deputy mayor said she thought the legislation was a political stunt designed to do nothing more than incite the public. “It’s cheap populism,” Antebi said. “There are already laws on the books to control noise between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. They can enforce them.”

At the mosque in Shuafat, the muezzin, who asked to be referred to as Abu Mohammad, said he has sung the call to prayer for 35 years. He was sorry to hear about all the complaints. He said he thought there was nothing more moving than hearing the call in the quiet of the dawn as it echoes across the desert where the prophets walked.

“If there is a more beautiful voice than mine?” he said. “They can do the call.”