Pragmatic, liberal Zionists have come to embrace the contextual, at times conflicting, nuances of the modern state of Israel. As unconditional supporters of Israel, we have little choice. We see and feel it as a liberal, pluralist democracy amongst a region of kings and autocratic governments. And we proudly tell of its Declaration of Independence, which vows to “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens” and “to safeguard the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions.”
However, this unconditional support is regularly confronted by the illiberal trends and actions of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At times compared to the menacing, Machiavellian character of Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards, Bibi mirrors the show’s fictional president perhaps most accurately in his ability to play both sides of a given situation to his political advantage. While savvy strategic maneuvering may be inherently engrained within political practice, the Israeli prime minister’s impressive career has been characterized by it. The currently-gridlocked “muezzin bill” offers a clear examination of this case in point.
The muezzin bill, whose core objective bans the nighttime and early morning Muslim call-to-prayer in an effort to improve the quality of life through a reduction in noise pollution, is just one example of the Netanyahu government’s efforts to steer Israel’s delicate status quo in illiberal, ultra-nationalist directions. Similar to how supporters of the also-contentious settlement legalization bill look to Turkish-Cypriot historical precedent in formulating their legislation to legalize West Bank outposts, backers of the muezzin bill point to similar laws existing in European countries as logical, legal backing. Nonetheless, critics say the bill- fiercely derided by the opposition’s Joint List as a populist measure that threatens the country’s freedom of religion, as well as by Turkey’s President Erdogan and Jordanian authorities and officials– attempts to isolate the Muslim community within Israel and Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam. The bill contains an exemption for the siren that welcomes the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays.
The issue of noise complaints from the call to prayer has been longstanding and steeped with controversy. To its many opponents, the bill is inextricable from the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is clearly written with the malicious intention of marginalizing and silencing the Muslim community. These opponents also have strongly objected to its references of the use of mosque loudspeakers as conduits for nationalist propaganda and incitement against Israel.
While Netanyahu’s usual detractors, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike, waste little time in ever criticizing his actions, it is important to contextualize the muezzin bill in the broader dynamics that more accurately portray today’s pluralist Israel – one in which Netanyahu’s Likud party and governing coalition have permitted and helped sustain positive shifts in Israel’s Arab and Muslim communities. More Arab students, particular Arab women, are attending Israeli universities than ever before. Under the leadership of the Israel Police and Likud’s Interior Security Minister Gilad Erdan, more Arab and Muslim citizens are being recruited to serve as police officers. And in late 2015, the government approved a five year plan to stimulate Arab social and economic integration, amounting to a historic NIS 15 billion.
This does not negate or justify the prime minister’s active support for this particular legislation, whose rather apparent discrimination does not sit well with liberal Zionists inside and outside of Israel. What it does portray is the methodological rule that Bibi employs regularly, particularly with regards to slight shifts of the existing status quo between the Jewish-Israeli majority and its Arab and Palestinian communities. On one hand, he appeases his voter base and fragile coalition’s right-wing flank with a bill favoring Jewish hegemony, buttressed by an array of avid supporters ranging from Jewish Home MKs to those in Kulanu. Surely this is not the same prime minister who boasts of rising tolerance and coexistence between his nation’s many tribes – yet at the same junction in time, this savvy, bilingual leader can reach a wide American audience and emphasize his government’s commitment to coexistence in an interview with 60 Minutes.
This is important and worth emphasizing because in the Middle East and Israel especially, any state-sanctioned action perceived to be against a single religion can produce a tumultuous public, political, and international response. Many link earlier terror attacks this year against innocent Israelis to rising tensions surrounding the Temple Mount, including the mere rumor that the Israeli government planned to threaten the status quo. A recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows that 87% of the Palestinian public believes the decision to ban the adhan would be an “indication of a war against Islam.”
The bill’s current delay is believed to be a result of ongoing interfaith efforts to resolve the disagreements without a need for a total ban on the adhan, including the options to synchronize the multiple calls to prayer within the same city or simply limit the volume of the loudspeakers, as is the case in certain cities in Saudi Arabia and around the world. As liberal Zionists who advocate for a stable and pluralist Jewish state, it is our hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu returns to the ideals of pragmatism and national unity by joining the voices of President Rivlin and Yair Lapid in opposing the muezzin bill – before it leads to an unforeseen nightmare response for all of Israel’s communities.