Adapted by the author from http://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/1.1594846 published Dec. 19, 2011, as a reaction to KM Anastassia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu) who has presented a bill to silence the muezzins. The bill has not passed, at least for the time being. Ruth HaCohen’s The Music Libel Against the Jews was published by Yale University Press last December.
Noise accusations against minorities are nothing new. Such an accusation was made against the Jews who lived among Christian communities in the Middle Ages, and in modern times it remains as fresh as ever. The Nazis sophistically used it to justify the expulsion of the Jews from Germany.
Like the Jews in Europe and the Muslims in Israel, every ethnic, cultural, or religious minority is suspected of embodying and inducing disharmony from the start. From the “point of hearing” of the hegemonic community, the sounds of the minority grate, they are grotesque, threatening. According to the Christians, by comparison with the harmony in their churches, what prevailed in the Ashkenazi synagogue was nothing but chaotic shouting. Sometimes they used images from the animal kingdom to describe what they heard.
The noises, which sounded strident to them, served as the basis for an accusation: the Jews hated “our” harmony so much – so said the Christians throughout Europe – that when they heard an innocent and pure Christian boy singing hymns to the Virgin Mary, they would slit his throat mercilessly. Later on, when they found that Jews, when given the opportunity, marched in the vanguard of the “decent” musical camp, they attributed this success to forgery and imitation. Therefore they prevented the advancement of Jewish composers and performers years before the Nazis came to power. A long time passed before they began to listen to the sounds of the Jews and to find beauty in them, though this was partially “exotic.” The Jews themselves sometimes rejected their own heritage in embarrassment and adopted the dominant Christian sound.
Particularly in the Arab world a dialogue was created between Jews and Muslims. They borrowed from one another without raising a fuss. When composers who had been nurtured in European conservatories arrived in the Land of Israel, they tried to adopt the local sound. What began as an “orientalist” approach developed into moments of mutual attentiveness. Examples of joint creativity emerged here and there, and in some places in Israel, such as the Holy precincts of Jerusalem, the tolling of church bells still mingle with the chants of the muezzins, and, on certain days of the year, with the sounding of the shofar as well.
Thus a miniature Utopian area has been created – not harmonious, not organized, but still possessing beauty and uniqueness. Each religion has its own sounds. Over centuries and millennia, every religion created its own forms for itself, each different from the others, and each bearing worlds of meaning for its believers. Clearly a blow to those sounds is regarded by the injured party as desecration of sanctity and profanation of the sublime. However, the suppression of the sounds of another religion – Islam in this case – is a loss for non-Muslims as well.
True, sounds can be disturbing. High decibels are shocking and deafening. During my stay in Zurich, Switzerland, a few years ago, at first the church bells disturbed me with their harsh reverberations four times every hour. I soon became used to it: I understood that people have been living that way in Switzerland for hundreds of years, and one has to adapt. Unfortunately, a law forbidding Muezzins’ calls in the public sphere is in practice in that ringing country, since 2009.
MK Anastasia Michaeli defines herself as the defender of “noise victims.” However, her record and that of her party testify to the intention of undermining the legitimacy of the sonic presence of the other religion that dwells beside us. If it is a question of disturbing the peace of one’s neighbors, those, including some Muslims, who suffer from the early rising of Muezzins, might be able to engage in dialogue with neighbors who are not deaf to one another. The residents of Caesaria, for example, neighbors of the Prime Minister (who actually was enthusiastic about Michaeli’s proposal) spoke to the residents of Jesr a-Zarka (“Netanyahu expresses support for the Mosque Law,” Barak Ravid and Jackie Huri, Haaretz, Dec. 12, 2011), and this led to a reduction of volume in a demonstration of good will without much ado.
Meanwhile, in my office on Mount Scopus, I open my window in the afternoon. While Jerusalem is bathed in golden splendor, the chants of the Muezzins pour into the Kidron Valley from one minaret after the other, bearing with them a melody of sorrow and longing, and enveloping me.