Knesset to advance bid to muffle Muslim call to prayer

Committee will prepare two versions of controversial ‘muezzin bill,’ which has provoked indignation among Arabs

View of the a mosque in the  Old City of Acre, in Northern Israel on October 24, 2016.  (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
View of the a mosque in the Old City of Acre, in Northern Israel on October 24, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Members of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee are set to discuss next week two controversial bills proposing a limit on the use of loudspeakers for religious purposes. The initiative, which is seen as an attempt to muffle the Muslim call to prayer, sparked condemnation in the Arab world when it cleared its first hurdle last March.

The so-called “muezzin bill” would limit the time of day and volume that Israeli mosques can use for their traditional calls to prayer, addressing a longstanding complaint of some who live near Arab locales.

Critics say the bill unfairly clamps down on religious freedom for Israel’s Muslims. Proponents say it will ensure Israelis can sleep through the night undisturbed, and that similar limitations are imposed in numerous European and Arab countries.

The bill was approved in a preliminary reading in March after a heated Knesset discussion that included shouting matches between ruling coalition members and Arab lawmakers, some of whom tore up copies of the legislation and were ejected from the chamber.

Joint (Arab) List MK Ayman Odeh tearing up a copy of the so-called ‘Muezzin Bill’ during a Knesset plenum reading on March 8, 2017. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Arab Israelis staged demonstrations in protest of the law after it passed the first reading. “The call to prayer existed long before the right-wing politicians who have no connection to this land,” an imam in the town of Kabul in northern Israel said at one of the protests. “We will continue to sound our calls to prayer. We’ll even increase the volume of our muezzins.”

Jordan also decried the bill, saying it is “discriminatory” and “violates Israel’s obligations under international human rights” as well as various charters and international conventions, including the peace treaty signed between the two countries.

The bill needs to clear three more Knesset readings in order to become law. Two versions of the legislation are to be discussed before they come up for a vote in the Knesset plenum.

Arab Israelis march in the northern Arab town of Kabul, near Acre, during a demonstration against planned Israeli legislation to silence mosque loudspeakers, on March 11, 2017. The writing in Arabic reads: ‘Our mosques won’t be silenced.’ (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

The first, spearheaded by Yisrael Beytenu MKs Robert Ilatov and Oded Forer, would amend the 1961 Prevention of Public Disturbance law to include places of worship. Under the proposal, public speaker systems used by houses of prayer would be defined as “unreasonably loud and likely to cause disturbance” and therefore be prohibited at all times. The bill would give the ministers of environmental protection and public security the authority to make exceptions.

The second version of the bill, proposed by Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev and Likud MK Yoav Kisch, would ban all public places of worship from using speaker systems between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.. Under Yogev and Kisch’s version, places of worship could be fined up to NIS 10,000 ($2,700) for using a speaker system.

Yogev and Kisch’s version was designed to address concern voiced by ultra-Orthodox parties who feared a blanket ban on loudspeakers would outlaw the Shabbat siren, which is heard in cities with large Jewish populations late Friday afternoons or early evenings to mark the start of Judaism’s day of rest.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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