Attacks on Jewish religious customs in Europe are becoming increasingly frequent. Last month in the Netherlands, The Royal Association for the Advancement of Medicine, a medical doctors’ organization, described male circumcision as “a painful and damaging ritual” and called for public campaigns against it. The Association did not propose prohibition, fearful that the practice would go underground.
A few weeks earlier, the Norwegian Ombudsman responsible for children proposed to prohibit male circumcision under the age of 15 or 16. This was the first time that an official figure proposed such a prohibition. Previous debates focused on inherent health and hygiene issues. In April, the Ministry of Health proposed that circumcision could only be done under the supervision of a doctor or nurse. This proposal has been brought into Parliament, but has not been discussed there yet.
In Denmark, the same topic also comes up from time to time. The Social Democrats – who have recently come into power – along with other left-wing parties, have in the past come out in favor of prohibiting the circumcision of boys. Denmark’s Chief Rabbi Bent Lexner said at the time: “If the law forbidding circumcision is ever passed in Denmark, Jews will have to leave the place they have been living in for hundreds of years.”
There is a great difference on this issue compared with the United States. In the past few days, a Californian state law was signed that makes it impossible for local governments to ban male circumcision. It was proposed to protect “parental rights and liberties,” after attempts in San Francisco and Santa Monica to try to obtain a vote on a prohibition of circumcision.
Circumcision is just one among several rituals under attack. The debate in the Netherlands during the first half of this year on religious slaughter of animals without stunning the animal first was intense. It also generated strong criticism of the Netherlands from leading Jewish organizations on various continents.
A private law to prohibit religious slaughter without stunning passed the Lower Chamber in the Netherlands in June by a great majority. It will be brought up for approval in the Senate in the coming months. In Switzerland, Norway and Sweden, religious slaughter without stunning has already been forbidden for many decades; the main motive for these prohibitions was anti-Semitism.
Hidden motivesFrom time to time, there have been verbal attacks on religious schools in the Netherlands. Henri Markens, a former chairman of the CJO, the umbrella organization of Dutch Jewry said, “I do not exclude the possibility that in the future there will be political attempts to abolish religious schools, or at least put major limitations on them.”
In the UK in 2009, the Supreme Court decided that the Jewish Free School in London had broken the 1976 Race Relations Act by refusing to admit a boy who had converted to Judaism through the auspices of the Conservative Movement. The number of candidates is larger than the number of places available and the school preferred to accept halachic Jews.
In 2009, a referendum in Switzerland banned the construction of additional minarets. This led to another proposal for the restriction of religious practices. Graves in regular cemeteries are emptied after a number of years. In Jewish and Muslim cemeteries, graves are eternal. Shortly after the referendum, Christophe Darbellay the leader of the CVP, a Christian center party, proposed a ban on new Muslim and Jewish cemeteries. After many protests, including within his own party, he apologized.
While these attacks come from different directions and their official rationale is varied, many have hidden common motives. In a xenophobic Europe, everything Muslim is viewed negatively by many. This has been enhanced by aggression from certain Muslim circles and abuses as far as circumcision and ritual slaughter are concerned. Muslim schools in some countries also fall very short of national requirements. Another important reason is the development of an increasingly intolerant secularism in Europe.
It is doubtful that without the major Muslim immigration to Europe these prohibitions of rituals would have even been proposed. Jews are rarely the prime targets of the attacks, though in the Dutch ritual slaughter debate, anti-Semitic motifs came up. Yet as Islam copied many Jewish customs with some changes, Jews by default become victims of this general trend.
It is mistaken to treat all of these cases only as alarming incidents. Rather, they are indications that the uncomfortable outsider status of the Jewish communities - which have lived in Europe for centuries - is once again on the rise.
Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld has published 20 books. Several of these address anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism