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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths blow on rams' horns during prayer in Jerusalem. (YONATHAN WEITZMAN/REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish youths blow on rams' horns during prayer in Jerusalem. (YONATHAN WEITZMAN/REUTERS)

AURAL HISTORY

A holy racket rages on in Jerusalem Add to ...

Anastasia Michaeli says people need their rest. As a result, the 36-year-old former beauty queen, television host and now sitting member of the Israeli Knesset stands accused of “an assault on Islam and Christianity.”

Calling noise pollution a serious health hazard, Ms. Michaeli has proposed banning public-address systems and loudspeakers from all “houses of prayer.” In the process, she has reignited hostilities in a battle that has raged for the past 2,000 years, because the main target of her proposed legislation is Israel's 400 mosques.

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She denies that she is trying to silence Muslims, but the Russian-born Ms. Michaeli (once crowned Miss St. Petersburg), who emigrated and converted to Judaism after marrying an Israeli, also contends that the mosques' use of powerful loudspeakers to call the faithful to prayer five times a day (starting well before dawn) unnecess-arily disturbs the peace of others.

“It is not a question of religion or nation,” the mother of eight says, “but a matter of environmental policy and quality of life.”

Still she can't deny that the ramifications of her proposal go far beyond noise pollution, especially because ground zero in the dispute is the holy city of Jerusalem, hallowed ground to Arabs and Jews. They have fought over it for millennia, and the fight has always had an audible dimension, but recently modern technology has changed the weaponry.

Ahmed Tibi, a Knesset delegate for the Arab Taal party, calls the proposed ban, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “delusional and ridiculous.”

He also points out some Jewish traditions that “disturb the equanimity of Arabs,” from “blowing the shofar” (sacred ram's horn) to something more on a par with the loudspeakers: synagogues' use of air-raid sirens to mark the beginning and end of every Sabbath.

The din has grown so great that it's driving the neighbours crazy.

“It is unbearable sometimes,” says Rev. David Pileggi of Christ Church, which is by the Old City's Jaffa Gate. Next door is a mosque with four shiny new loudspeakers that he says can blare out the azan, the Muslim call to prayer, with such force that “one can hardly hear oneself think.”

Mr. Pileggi, who is one of few Christians willing to speak openly on the subject, confirms that there is a trend for “the prayers to get louder and for loudspeakers to become more numerous.”

Without fail, he is rung out of bed at dawn with the words “Prayer is better than sleep,” a line in the first azan that he feels speaks to a political dimension in the escalating noise level. “It could be a sign of Muslim insecurity. They may feel that they are losing hold of this country. Or it is a result of the rise of the Islamic movement all over the region.”

A ban on the ram

Not that long ago, the tables were turned. Abraham Elkayam remembers the day in 1947 when he risked his life to sound the ram's horn at the Wailing Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

The city was under British control, he says, and “the Brits had forbidden us to blow the shofar because the Arabs wanted to prevent our prayers.”

Jewish prayers had long been a source of conflict. The wall abuts the Temple Mount, holy to Jews because it is where Solomon's Temple is believed to have stood 2,000 years ago. To Muslims, the place is Haram as-Sharif, where the Prophet Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven and now the site of the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque.

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