In yet another antagonizing statement, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, seeks to silence Israeli-Arabs through an attack on religious freedom, specifically on the Muslim call to prayer, under the guise of improving the quality of life of all Israeli citizens.
“[We] are committed to freedom for all religions, but also responsible for protecting […] citizens from noise,” declared Netanyahu in a recent statement, which was deemed offensive by those opposing the government’s efforts to mute the call for prayer from 11pm till 7am.
Israel’s contentious draft law dubbed the ‘Muezzin bill’ uses a thin veil of ‘protecting’ the citizens of the state from ‘noise’ and thereby equating religious expression to noise pollution.
Since his comments, two versions of the bill passed through the Knesset and will go through the House Committee for final approval. The law, which has received initial parliamentary approval, will affect East Jerusalem (with the exception of al-Aqsa Mosque), the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel. This has been frightening for many in the Knesset, where even the ultra-orthodox Jewish community voted against the bill in fear that the government would silence the siren that is sounded on Shabbat.
Israeli-Arab members of Knesset (MK), namely the Joint List coalition, have vehemently opposed the bill. Ayman Odeh, chairman of the group, describes the bill as racist and rooted in populist politics, “there are already noise laws that apply to mosques and it is clear that the whole purpose of the bill is to label mosques as problematic. It is a clear harm to freedom of religion for Muslims and the continuation of the persecution led by the prime minister.”
The bill seems a strange matter to focus on as Israel continues to defend itself against mounting pressures from the international community over its occupation of Palestinian territories.
An attempt to mute the calls for prayers has, once again, brought the character of the Israeli state into question. It questions Israeli’s continued struggle with the existence of the Palestinian people; Muslims and Christians alike.
Jamal Zahalka, an MK and member of the Joint List raises a valid point saying, “What disturbs the supporters of this legislation is not the noise, but rather that the sound of the muezzin reminds them of the true identity of this land.”
Israel has long suffered an identity crisis; it relentlessly prides itself as being the only true democracy in the Middle East and simultaneously, paradoxically, a Jewish state. Does a Jewish democracy solely mean a democracy for Jews? The latest bill seems to indicate as much.
But if one is to assess the foundation of the state, an identity crisis that has affected Israeli political rule since its inception becomes apparent.
Israel operates under an un-codified constitution using the basis of Basic Laws, leaving many issues, such as that of religious freedom, looming and unaddressed. Despite this, the declaration of independence, announced in 1948, states that the nation will be open to receiving all Jewish exiles and will be based on democratic principles as imagined by the “prophets of Israel.”
In addition, “it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions.”
But the declaration also states that a constitution should be formed no later than October 1, 1948. Almost 70 years later, a constitution is yet to be laid down with Israel’s commitments to political and religious freedoms increasingly ignored.
The only discussion of human rights is held in the ‘Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty’ of 1992. While it identifies and seeks to preserve certain human rights – a visible gap remains. This, almost typically, includes blurry or non-existent stances on equal rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of religious expression, amongst others.
To reign in on the perpetual confusion, a proposal of a Basic Law was put forth in 2014 titled “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” which does more to prevent the possibility of a binational state than seek to bring Israelis, Israeli-Arabs, and Palestinians together. It seems that the only thing on Netanyahu's agenda this year is to occupy and control. Despite international criticism the pace of settlement construction has increased. These actions completely negate the notion of a democratic binational state and in its stead suggests another reality - an apartheid regime.
The proposal has been used as a political tool by Netanyahu to garner support from centrists, right, and far right parties. The bill essentially changes the character of the state from the ambiguous fusion of “Jewish and democratic” to a clearer, albeit less inclusive notion that Israel is the “national homeland of the Jewish people.”
While this bill seems to have gone by without formal enforcement, this year another attempt at changing the character of the state is being put forward. An amendment to the Basic Law on the Knesset to change the oath of office from swearing loyalty to the state of Israel to vowing to preserve Israel “as a Jewish and democratic state, in accordance with the spirit of the Declaration of Independence, to preserve and to respect it symbols.”
This again excludes the Arab minority as well as Israeli atheists seeking to separate religion from state, with Jewish supremacy remaining central to the principles of the state. The aggravated situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories are taking a heavy toll on both populations and without substantial changes, the psychological frustrations will eventually lead to further conflict.
For peaceful coexistence it is imperative that the state explicitly describes and respects the rights of all citizens equally. Freedom to practice religion, particularly in this context and region, is an essential part of existence to many; without acknowledging this Israel will continue to be nothing more than a discriminatory, oppressive and, frankly, racist state.