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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.

After the First World War, the struggle over Palestine grew more fierce. In 1929, the ever louder prayer escalated into a pogrom that left hundreds dead or injured. The Waqf, the Muslim administration of Jerusalem's holy sites, sparked outrage by installing a muezzin on top of the Wailing Wall to call Muslims to prayer over the Jews' heads. Then it ordered zikr ceremonies – which have believers spend hours reciting the 99 names of Allah and verses of the Koran – held in the immediate vicinity. The British held an inquiry and forbade the practice, as it was “primarily designed to annoy the Jews,” who in turn were ordered to stop blowing the ram's horn near the wall, as they had done for centuries.

Mr. Elkayam found the challenge irresistible: “The sound of the shofar,” he maintains, “symbolizes the deliverance of the people of Israel.” So on Yom Kippur, his female “accomplice” smuggled a small horn to the wall attached to her thigh and hidden under a long skirt. Once they were in position, the shofar was passed to him through the crowd and, at the sound of its primordial howl, all hell broke loose.

“The police clubbed everyone to disperse us and stop the shofar,” Mr. Elkayam recalls. “My prayer shawl was full of blood.”

He was arrested and, because Jordan conquered the Old City the following year, he went down in history as the last Jew to blow the shofar there until the chief rabbi of Israel's army restored the tradition soon after the recapture of the Wailing Wall in the Six Day War of 1967.

Islam and Judaism are the main combatants, but Christianity also has a stake in the dispute. For centuries under Ottoman rule, Christians were forced “to abstain from building new churches and from ringing church bells,” writes James Finn, the first British consul in Jerusalem (1846-1863).

During his tenure, “the sound of bells would have been unknown” to Jerusalem's inhabitants as it had not been heard there for 700 years, since the Crusades. The museum of the Franciscan Bible school in the Old City contains 13 crusader bells, including one brought from China.

By then the Orthodox Church had adopted the semantron, a long rod fashioned from wood or iron that makes a gong-like noise when struck with a hammer. This simple instrument was introduced in the sixth century, replacing the trumpets that may have reminded early Christians too much of the Jewish shofar. (In the Armenian quarter of the Old City, semantra are still in use, an acoustic reminder of the deep divide between the Orthodox East and Catholic West.)

Upon recapturing Jerusalem in 1187, Sultan Saladin had all the bells removed, and church towers would stay silent for centuries until the Crimean War, when Britain and France used their support of the Ottomans to have the policy rescinded.

This prompted a race among European powers to dominate Jerusalem's air waves, a race clearly won by Germany in 1911 when six oxen pulled the 6,120-kilogram Herrenmeisterglocke (master bell) up the steep slope of the Mount of Olives. It was so heavy that the Germans had to repair the road before it could be brought from the sea. Today, the mighty “master” still reigns supreme from the lofty bell tower of the Church of the Ascension.

Firas Qazaz has no need of big bells in his tower. Twice a day, the 24-year-old scion of an old Jerusalem family makes his way through the bustling Old City to the Haram as-Sharif, where he ascends a minaret to chant the call to prayer. It's perhaps no great surprise that he was chosen to be the youngest of the Al-Aqsa Mosque's four muezzins. “My family is known to have good voices – it has held the post of muezzin for the last 500 years,” he says, barely concealing his pride.

“The azan is one of Islam's oldest customs,” says Najeh Bqerat, director of the manuscript department of the Al-Aqsa library, and one Mohammed reportedly adopted to avoid using the shofar or the bell. One of his followers came up with the azan in a dream, and the text was taught to Bilal, the first muezzin.

“The melodies of the azan differ regionally,” Dr. Bqerat says, although he also insists that its wording “has never changed and is identical everywhere,” which seems to reflect wishful thinking more than reality. Shiites have added two sentences to theirs that Sunni Muslims consider a sacrilege – the central bone of contention between the two.

Hip-hop Hasids

Sound also betrays the divisions in Jewish society. For example, some young members of the ultra-Orthodox community can be heard before they are seen. Their vans are equipped with huge loudspeakers that emit a unique blend of hip hop and Hassidic music. They also irritate other drivers because, at every red light, ecstatic youth leap into the intersection and demonstrate how much fun it is to be devout with a brief dancing frenzy.

Jews also differ over how best to inaugurate the Sabbath. For millennia, the occasion has been marked by blowing the shofar or a trumpet to remind men to stop working and women to light candles. In largely secular Tel Aviv, this task was traditionally done by volunteers or trumpeters paid by the rabbinate until September, 1938, when they were replaced by the blare of air-raid sirens.

In the early 1950s, however, so many residents had been traumatized by war that the rabbis hired cab drivers to cruise around and honk their horns instead.

Now 84, Moshe Bendet still has the large board he used to place on the roof of his Coronado to show when the Sabbath was to begin. His divine mission lasted 20 years and he recalls it as “real fun – the women would run to the balconies to know when to light their candles.”

Eight other drivers performed this job until, in 1992, the left-wing government of Yitzhak Rabin ruled that cars could honk only to indicate danger, thus launching a culture war between those eager to begin the Sabbath with a bang and those who want a day of rest to begin quietly.

Just this week, citizen protests silenced the Belz Synagogue in central Tel Aviv, which several months ago began marking the occasion with a brief blast of a 16th-century Sabbath song from its rooftop speakers. Elsewhere in the city, clandestine “patrol cars” still cruise the street with the same song blaring.

As extremists on all sides try to drown each other out, others see the battle to dominate the soundscape of the Holy Land as little more than background noise.

“I never had a problem with Jews or Christians,” says Firas Qazaz, the soft-spoken muezzin. He admits that some of his colleagues “actually sing horribly off-key,” would not object if azans were regulated and says he quite likes both the shofar's lament and the clear sound of church bells.

All of which will be clearly audible throughout the holiday season because, fearing an emotional backlash and international opprobrium, the government has shelved Anastasia Michaeli's controversial bill for at least the next two weeks.

Gil Yaron is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv.

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