Ariel Schalit/AP/File
The minaret of a mosque is seen in Lod, a mixed Jewish Muslim and Christian city in central Israel, in November 2016. On Wedneday, Israel's parliament passed an initial reading of a bill that would make mosques lower the volume of their call to prayer, amid protests by Arab lawmakers.

Would Israeli bill squelching mosque calls violate freedom of religion?

Israel's parliament is considering two bills that would silence mosque loudspeakers, at least during night hours, on the grounds that they cause an unnecessary noise disturbance.

Shortly before noon, the Muslim call to prayer rang out from the imposing al-Omari mosque across this mixed Jewish-Arab town, wafting over a crowded market.

No one seemed to pay heed, aside from a small group of men who assembled for the noon prayer. But the call blaring from the loudspeakers is now on the front line of another culture conflict in Israel.

Israel's parliament, the Knesset, is considering two bills that would silence mosque loudspeakers, at least during night hours, on the grounds that they cause an unnecessary noise disturbance.

The issue has caused heated debate about the place of religion in the public space in Israel.

Sponsors of the bill say it is designed to prevent noise pollution.

Motti Yogev, a rightist parliament member who has sponsored one of the bills, told the legislature that the proposed law expressed "the simple principle according to which freedom of religion should not harm the sleep and quality of life of citizens."

Talal Abu Arar, a member of the Joint Arab List, the Arab party in parliament, calls the bill "anti-democratic and designed to harm Muslim freedom of religion."

"For hundreds of years the call to prayer did not bother anyone, and now suddenly it does? This is part of the incitement against Arabs and Muslims in general. We will not honor this law, and continue calling to prayer as usual," he says.

During a stormy debate when the bills passed a preliminary vote, Ayman Odeh, the Joint List leader, tore up a copy of the bill as others Arab lawmakers shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is great). Palestinian Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, make up about 20 percent of Israel's citizens.

The controversial bills have been backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said Israel was trying to strike a balance. "Israel is committed to freedom for all religions, but is also responsible for protecting citizens from noise," he said recently.

Yedidia Stern, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent think-tank, says Israel already has noise regulations in place that could be enforced against unduly loud calls of the muezzin, the Arabic term for the caller to prayer.

The new legislation, Mr. Stern says, was introduced by "some parliament members pushing a nationalist agenda, which is not necessarily anti-Islamic, but trying to establish that the public sphere in Israel is Jewish and not otherwise, and trying to minimize interference with its Jewish character."

Stern compared the bill with a recent ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union, which decided that a private business in Belgium had the right to dismiss a Muslim woman because her hijab, or headscarf, violated the business's ban on religious garb at the workplace. The Luxembourg-based court ruled that the move was not discriminatory.

In Israel, there are customary restrictions in force that show deference to observant Jews. Roads through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem are closed on the Sabbath, and on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, traffic across the country comes to a halt.

'There can be coexistence'

The bill to silence the call to prayer has drawn condemnation from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, and still needs to pass three more votes in the Knesset to become law. But for the men gathered for mosque prayer in Ramla, it remains a threat to longstanding custom.

"The bill is unnecessary. We've been living in a mixed city for decades with everyone respecting the rites of the other," says the imam of the mosque, Suleiman Abu Swis. "This has been part of the prayer service for 1,400 years, five times a day all over the world."

Mr. Abu Swis says that noise-level problems had been resolved quietly with city officials. "If there is a will, there can be coexistence," he adds, noting that Arabs in Ramla refrain from using their cars out of respect for Yom Kippur.

Sitting in his grocery store nearby, Shlomo Houtta, a Jew of Moroccan origin, says he enjoys the melodies of the recitation of the Koran, but mosque speakers appear to have been turned up of late as a show of religious assertion.

"There's religious extremism on both sides, and I think it's being done to annoy us," he says. "I don't mind if it's at a reasonable volume."

Badri Yosfan, a Jewish immigrant from Iraq, says the pre-dawn call to prayer sometimes interrupts the sleep of his grandchildren, though it does not disturb him during the day.

Emerging after prayers at the mosque, Musa Abu Hilwa says that every house of prayer has its cacophony of sounds.

"The Christians have their church bells," he says. "Everyone should respect the other's freedom of religion."

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