In early November, Jewish activists armed with Israeli flags and boom boxes sounded the Muslim call to prayer outside the homes of Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat.
The activists — some of whom traveled from their East Jerusalem settlement — wanted the lawmakers to know what it was like to hear the sound of the Muslim prayer outside their windows so they would empathize with their cause to quiet mosques down.
They were agitating for the passage of the so-called “muezzin bill,” which would ban houses of worship from using loudspeakers. The bill, which passed a ministerial committee on November 14, does not specify just which houses of worship should be affected — but there is little doubt about which ones are the target.
“Of course this is the real intention,” said Amir Fuchs, the head of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Defending Democratic Values project, which issued a position paper against the bill.
“It’s not a secret that it is targeting the Arab community,” said Jafar Farah, the head of the Mossawa Center for Arab rights.
The bill was stalled at least temporarily by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers who fear it could be used to outlaw earsplitting sirens that signal the beginning of the Jewish sabbath in Hasidic neighborhoods.
The bill, which will now have to pass several Knesset readings before it is signed into law, has the support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Israel is committed to freedom of religion, but it must also protect citizens from the noise. This is how it is in European cities and I support similar enforcement and legislation in Israel,” he said.
The bill originated in 2011, when former Knesset Member Anastassia Michaeli of the right wing secular Yisrael Beiteinu party, first introduced it to the Knesset, but failed to advance it. Now that the ministerial committee approved similar legislation, it has a greater chance of being signed into law.
Fuchs said that the law was redundant, since there is a law against loud noises in the public sphere.
“We already have a law that deals with unreasonable sounds,” he said. “The police and the state didn’t enforce the former law, why would it enforce it now?”
While in Israel the bill has been criticized as trampling on Muslim and Arab civil liberties, a similar initiative was put forth in Egypt, which is a majority Muslim country.
Efforts to both standardize the call to prayer and to reduce the noise from mosque loudspeakers have largely failed in Egypt.
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.