A bill to ban mosques from using loudspeakers for the Muslim call to prayer won support from the coalition government in Israel last night, after the controversial measure was backed by right-wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The prayer calls, traditionally announced through minarets five times a day, have been a frequent target of the Israeli right, but previous attempts to silence them through legislation have failed to garner large-scale support.
But after gaining the support of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the measure will now have coalition support as it moves to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, the Times of Israel reports.
Following the announcement that the bill had passed, Jewish Home Knesset Member (MK) Moti Yogev, who instigated the legislation, thanked Netanyahu, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (also of Jewish Home), and the rest of the Government. "We have no intention to harm freedom of religion but rather to prevent the harming of people's sleep," he said.
Netanyahu pointed to similar restrictions in European and even some Muslim countries as justification for the move, and claimed that Muslims were among those "suffering" as a result of the prayer calls. "The Muslims, the Jews, and the Christian are all suffering from this," he said. "I can't tell you how many times people have approached me, from all walks of Israeli society, who are crying out about the suffering that is caused by excessive noise reaching them from prayer house announcements.
"Israel is a country that respects freedom of religion for all. Israel is committed to protect anyone who suffers from the excessively loud calls. That is the custom in many European cities. That is the custom also in various places in the Muslim world, where they limited the volume of the calls out of consideration for the general public."
However, Arab lawmakers attacked the proposal. Joint (Arab) List leader MK Aymen Odeh called it "another bill, in a series of populist bills, whose objective is to create an atmosphere of hate and incitement against the Arab population."
He added: "There are noise laws and regulations that also apply to mosques, so it's clear that the sole purpose of the bill is to mark the mosques as a problem source. It is a clear attack on Muslim freedom of religion and the continuation of a wave of persecution that the prime minister is leading."
His fellow party MK Hanin Zoabi suggested that those who are disturbed by the calls to prayer should live elsewhere – including Europe.
"Those who suffer from the sounds of the muezzins are specifically those who chose to settle near the the mosques, and... they are invited to leave if they are suffering so much," she said. "This isn't Europe here. Anyone who feels like he is in Europe, and thinks this is Europe, should consider going there."
The bill aims to prevent calls to prayer from "conveying religious or nationalist messages, or even words of incitement," and seeks to ban sound systems at all houses of prayer in the country, not just in mosques.
"Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens — in the Galilee, Negev, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv-Jaffa and other places in central Israel — suffer regularly and daily from the noise caused by the call of the muezzin from mosques," reads the legislation.
"The noise made by these public calls disturbs the rest of the citizens several times a day, including in the early mornings and at nighttime," it says.
Some 20 per cent of Israel's population are Arab – most of them Muslim – and the calls to prayer are a familiar sound in many parts of the country.
Jerusalem is revered as a centre for all three monotheistic religions.