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 has created major problems beyond 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 forbidding circumcision. They are also embarrassed by the related associations with Hitler’s regime.
Andreas Michaelis, the German ambassador in Israel, appeared on July 9th 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 offense. The Cologne state court upheld the decision.
The ambassador explained at length that this judgment is no precedent for other German courts. Only the country’s constitutional court can establish a nationwide legal ruling. He stressed that the government could not interfere with court rulings. Michaelis also noted 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 favor of allowing circumcision of boys. Merkel said that a prohibition would turn Germany into a nation of jokers. However, opinion polls indicate that a majority of Germans support prohibition of circumcision.
German Christian, Muslim and Jewish authorities have all come out against the court’s decision. The head of umbrella organization Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, 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 it was the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust.
In the meantime, the Cologne court’s judgment 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. At the Knesset committee, experts noted that several Jewish circumcisers from abroad have stopped traveling 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 favor 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 also 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 favor 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’ behavior toward their children would rest mainly on the many irreversible traumas they may cause them. Anti-Semitism 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 see the attacks on circumcision as stand-alone. Jewish religious rituals are under constant attack in Europe, often as fallout from attacks on Muslim rituals. So far, the focus has been on ritual slaughter without prior stunning. Occasionally there are also voices requesting 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.
However, Jews and Muslims may 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 the war past, democracy is functioning. A partial Jewish exodus because of a possible prohibition of circumcision is therefore far more problematic for Germany than for any other European country.