Israel’s “Muezzin Bill” and the Everyday Politics of Sound

Protests in Kafr Qasim against Israeli attempts to silence the Muslim call to prayer. (Photo: Ido Erez)

Not to be outdone by the Islamophobia of Trump and Bannon, the Israeli Knesset has once again advanced a so-called “muezzin bill,” which would ban mosque loudspeakers from broadcasting the call to prayer (adhan) at certain times of day. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frames the matter as one of noise pollution. Some Israeli liberals frame it as a matter of getting religion out of the public sphere. Yet Palestinians are well aware that the bill targets them as Muslims and as Palestinians.

Student activist Abed Abu Shehadeh suggests that the bill is part of a wider effort to symbolically exclude Palestinian citizens of Israel from public life – a potential prelude, he believes, to further expulsion or “transfer.” He also situates the bill within the growing trend of Israelis moving into Palestinian areas such as Jaffa, where many speak of coexistence, only to then complain about the mosques attended by the very people they say they want to coexist with. Palestinian Member of Knesset Haneen Zoabi makes the connection to the process of settlement even clearer: it is the Israelis who have chosen to live near Palestinians who seem most bothered by the adhan.

Indeed, the immediate pretext for the bill was a rash of complaints about the volume of the adhan from the illegal settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, where international law does not recognize the right of Israel to settle its civilians or to regulate anything at all, much less the volume.

Courtesy of Jeremy Siegman.

As Abu Shehadeh and Zoabi both indicate, the politics of sound can help show some of the contradictions of Zionist settlement and the uncomfortable proximity it generates between populations. After all, settlement often involves this inherently tricky prospect: Israelis move quite close to Palestinians, even into the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods, as in East Jerusalem and Hebron. Then, it seems, they only want to feel that Palestinians are present in very particular ways—as quaint parts of the landscape, for example, rather than real, living residents with equal rights to movement, development, and self-determination. From the first Zionist representations of Palestine, the idea was to erase whatever forms of Palestinian presence did not fit this Orientalist vision. As opening scenes from the old Zionist film Land of Promise (1935) show, the adhan can fit into this pastoral fantasy as the thing that Zionist modernism supersedes—but evidently not if it stays around too long, gets too loud or comes too close. And the thing about sound is that it carries, especially in close urban quarters. It does not always cooperate with the minute forms of segregation the Israeli occupation has engineered.

When I first heard about this loudspeaker ban, it reminded me of another, more intimate context in which I had witnessed Israeli settlers trying to suppress Palestinian sounds that carried: the Israeli settlement supermarkets where I recently conducted my doctoral research.

Most of the cashiers, deli-slicers and stockers in these stores are West Bank Palestinians, who are asked to provide polite customer service to their occupiers. My research investigated how this everyday commercial contact might help to normalize Israeli settlement and annexation in everyday life. That is, if Brand Israel normalizes Israeli settlements in the public arena, this would be an everyday form of normalization that stages Israeli-Palestinian encounters as sites of coexistence and uncontested Israeli dominance. The main audience would not be Euro-American taxpayers, but settlers themselves. Here would be a form of Palestinian presence that Jewish-Israelis could enjoy, where Palestinians are ostensibly kept from making the “wrong” kinds of noise.

Specifically, West Bank Palestinians depend on permits issued by the Israeli Civil Administration for these jobs in Israeli areas. So they are in a highly precarious position. They can lose their permits for refusing to collaborate with the Shin Bet, for organizing in the workplace, or merely for looking “suspicious” to customers. And if they do lose their permits, they return to much lower-paying jobs in a Palestinian economy suffocated by occupation.

Yet what I thought would be everyday normalization in the marketplace turned out to be an everyday struggle over the extent to which Israeli settlement became normalized there. Tensions abounded, from shouting matches at the deli counter to heated political debates during coffee breaks. And sound was a crucial – if subtle – battleground here.

Consider this recurrent scene from the deli counter of the store I researched, which I call Super-Israel in order to protect the anonymity of the workers:

Yaser and Yusuf were moving fast, slicing and wrapping cheese, while maybe ten settler-customers stood in line, impatiently watching the workers’ every move. Elevator music was playing in the background, punctuated by Hebrew advertisements.

Suddenly there came a brief call of “Allahu akbar, allahu akbar,” its notes climbing upward and then cutting out almost as soon as they’d begun. In the silence, a few customers’ eyes would dart around—unsure where the sound was coming from, and visibly uncomfortable. Then, just as the customers were turning their heads back to the cheese, the recorded Saudi voice would come back in full force.

Now a few of the customers saw that the voice was coming from the tiny but powerful loudspeaker on Yaser’s smartphone as it lay charging on the counter. In the meantime, another call to prayer — the same familiar recording from the same app – chimed in from another worker’s phone at the next counter over, creating an enveloping effect. Muhammad, the de facto religious and political leader of these non-unionized workers, swung by from the warehouse and called, “Yaser! Yusuf! Salah! [prayer!]”

This mini-adhan from a mini-loudspeaker was just one aspect of a Palestinian soundscape that cropped up inside and around the settlements I researched, creating subtle, everyday challenges to Israeli occupation on an improvised sonic battlefield.

Muhammad would chant Qur’an loudly in the aisles, sometimes to himself and sometimes as a more deliberate performance. Other workers would play Muhammad Assaf hits like “ali al-kuffiyeh(“raise the kuffiyeh”) from their phones, or–more daringly–sing the aghani al-muqawama (resistance songs) that blared from Palestinian radios during the Gaza war. On some nights, the sound of Muhammad leading the workers in prayer would waft into the customer areas from the workers’ makeshift prayer area out back.

As with the Knesset’s loudspeaker ban, Jewish-Israelis tried to regulate and suppress this Palestinian sound too, albeit in a more informal register. Israeli managers and co-workers would sometimes tell Palestinians to turn off the Qur’an playing from their phones – which could led to heated arguments. Managers even tried to force Palestinian workers to clock out before praying, a demand never made of Jewish workers. The Palestinians staunchly refused to clock out, union or no union.

In these everyday scenes of intimate contact, we can see how Israeli objections to the adhan are far more than noise complaints. Rather, they are part of a sweeping—and contested—project to erase and regulate the presence of the indigenous people whom they are displacing.

We can also see here how futile the Israeli regulation of Palestinian sound is—though the “muezzin law” may work well to rally the Jewish-Israeli electorate. Not only does Palestinian sound evade regulation in everyday life; the “muezzin law” has sparked more organized protest as well, from the Knesset itself to rallies in Jaffa and Nablus. Indeed, Israeli leaders must be well aware that targeting Palestinian mosques is not likely to end peacefully or quietly: they have previous experience in this matter from October 2000 and October 2015.

This article is based on research funded by the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad program, and the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Jeremy thanks Husam al-Abed for his invaluable assistance with interviews, and Kareem Rabie and Paul Kohlbry for their comments.

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About Jeremy Siegman 1 Article
Jeremy Siegman is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Political Science at the University of Chicago.

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