REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM -- The latest installment in a series of controversial legislative efforts in Israel is a proposal to restrict use of loudspeakers in houses of worship, which really means mosques as the other main religions don't use them.
Lawmaker Anastassia Michaeli insists her proposal isn't aimed at silencing the Muslim call to prayer for religious or political reasons but for environmental reasons: it's too loud.
Michaeli -- whose bill doesn't have sufficient ministerial support at this point to become law -- complained that she's wrongfully accused of being politically motivated because she's a member of Yisrael Beitenu, the right-wing party of foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
"I don't want the issue to become a religious-national-cultural symposium, it's purely an environmental matter," she wrote in the preamble.
But Israel already upgraded its anti-noise legislation last year, when the Ministry of Environmental Protection took on leaf-blowers, parties, car alarms and even piano lessons during certain hours, in an effort to give citizens some relief in the dense country where quiet residential life is becoming increasingly rare.
"Michaeli's bill doesn't solve a problem but creates one, by proposing a sweeping ban that undermines freedom of religious worship even in cases where the noise level is perfectly reasonable," he said, noting Michaeli's overlooked wording about restricting use of loudspeakers for "religious and national content."
Politics and religion aside, a problem does exist.
Israel's a small, crowded place and more Jews hear the Muslim call to prayer meant for the country's 20% Arab population than don't, including the one before dawn. Loud music, fire-crackers and occasional festive shooting from late-night weddings and celebrations in Arab communities don't discriminate between Jewish and Arab ears either and in recent years, the noise level is straining relations between neighboring or mixed towns.
In this battle over the airwaves, Jewish communities occasionally fight back. The northern community of Kfar Vradim enlisted Bach and Mozart to blow away the Arab neighbors' nightly loud music during the summer wedding season.
The affluent Caesarea is considering an acoustic barrier to block the noise from the adjacent Arab town of Jisser A-Zarka (although the neighbors call it a racist fence meant to hide them entirely).
A Caesarean resident told local media recently that they've given up on pleading with the neighbors to keep it down, and they too are buying a sound system to blast classical music at the Arab neighbors at double the decibels. Sleep deprivation could drive them to violence, she warned, saying one day someone would pick up a machine gun and shoot the loudspeakers.
In Hebron, an overwhelmingly Palestinian city on the West Bank, veteran right-wing Israeli activist Baruch Marzel rented a sound system to blast Hasidic music around the clock from the Jewish settlement inside Hebron. Marzel said Palestinians were using mosque loudspeakers "just to make us miserable."
If law enforcement is lax on noise, efforts have been made to make religious practices more friendly to neighbors and the environment. In recent years, several towns -- including the mixed area of Tel Aviv-Jaffa -- have connected their mosques to one system in an attempt to control the sound level and to synchronize the call to prayer. However, synchronizing a handful of mosques is an easier feat than similar efforts being made in some Arab countries, where synchronizing thousands of mosques is proving more complicated and expensive.
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: A ramp leads from a plaza near the Western Wall to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the old city of Jerusalem. Credit: Gali Tibbon / Getty Images