The European circumcision battle
August 13, 2012 | Manfred Gerstenfeld
Until recently, the issue of prohibiting Jewish religious customs was mainly part of the political and public debate in Western Europe. In Germany, it has now become a legal matter. A decision by the state court in Cologne that circumcision causes bodily harm not only triggered major problems for the German Muslim and Jewish communities. The German government itself and many parliamentarians are unhappy with the international perception that their country leads the world in prohibiting circumcision. They are also embarrassed by the related associations with Hitler’s regime.
Andreas Michaelis, German Ambassador in Israel, appeared on July 9 before the Knesset’s Immigration Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee on this issue. He explained that in a lower German court, a doctor who had circumcised a four-year-old Muslim boy, was accused of having caused the child irreversible bodily injury. The court agreed, yet did not charge the doctor with any offence. The Cologne state court upheld the decision.
The ambassador explained at length that this judgment is not a precedent for other German courts. Only the country’s constitutional court may establish a nationwide legal ruling. He stressed that the government could not interfere with the courts’ rulings. Michaelis mentioned that finding a solution to legally establish the right of parents to have their children circumcised will take considerable time.
The ambassador quoted German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who stated that Germany doesn’t want to dispel its image of tolerance. Since then, Chancellor Angela Merkel and many other German politicians have come out in favour of allowing circumcision of boys. Merkel said that a prohibition would turn Germany into “a nation of jokers.” Opinion polls, however, indicate that a majority of Germans support the prohibition of circumcision.
German Christian, Muslim and Jewish authorities have all come out against the court’s decision. Dieter Graumann, head of the umbrella organization the Central Council of Jews in Germany, stated that a prohibition would make Jewish life in Germany impossible. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, Chief Rabbi of Moscow and president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said that this was the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, the Cologne court’s ruling has already had consequences beyond Germany’s borders. Not only the Jewish hospital in Berlin but also the Zurich children’s hospital has announced that it will not undertake religious circumcisions. Hospitals in several other Swiss cities are considering similar moves. In the Knesset Committee, experts mentioned that several Jewish circumcisers from abroad have stopped travelling to Germany to circumcise boys.
The debate on prohibition of circumcision is far from limited to Germany. In Norway, the issue is discussed frequently. Recently, the Center Party – which is part of the coalition government – came out in favour of prohibition. Norway’s leading paper Aftenposten spotlighted a Danish medical study, which found that circumcision negatively affects proper sexual functioning. In the Netherlands and the United Kingdom there is much media discussion on the circumcision issue.
Though presented as a purely medical matter, it is naïve to think that this is the sole motivation of all those in favour of prohibiting circumcision. Militant secularism and widespread anti-religious feelings play a major role. Are the “humanists” in the forefront of the prohibitionists, the neo-pagan reincarnation of the anti-circumcision Hellenists and Romans?
Many attacks on circumcision are also motivated by anti-Islam feelings. If this wasn’t true, the focus on parents’ behaviour towards their children would rest mainly on the many irreversible traumas they may cause them. Antisemitism may play some role, but the victimization of Jews is mainly collateral damage from a desire to hurt the Muslim population.
It would be wrong to regard the attacks on circumcision as standalone. Jewish religious rituals are under constant attack in Europe, often as fallout from attacks on Muslim rituals. Until now, the focus has been on ritual slaughter without prior stunning. Occasionally, there are also voices asking to prohibit eternal cemeteries. In the UK, a legal precedent forces Jewish schools to admit students they do not consider Jews according to Jewish law.
A lengthy parliamentary struggle in The Netherlands drew international attention to the unstunned ritual slaughter issue. Finally, the government reached a compromise with the Muslim and Jewish communities. However, in its election platform the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders – which defines Islam as an ideology and not a religion – proposes to prohibit all ritual slaughter.
Jews and Muslims may, however, have been fortunate that Germany is the first European country where prohibition of circumcision is in the legal sphere. The important influx into Germany of Jews during the past decades gives many Germans a feeling that, despite its war past, democracy is functioning. A partial Jewish exodus due to a possible prohibition of circumcision would therefore be far more problematic for Germany than for any other European country.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is chair of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and has published 20 books.