Berlin — A controversial court ruling in Cologne that effectively prohibits most circumcisions in that city has touched a nerve worldwide, and sparked an outcry in Germany that has united Jews and Muslims in a rare common protest.
The judgment, delivered on May 5 but only published on June 26, found that the circumcision of a four-year-old Muslim boy who suffered from post-operative bleeding had violated the child’s fundamental right to be protected from bodily harm.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany lost no time in denouncing the ruling as an “unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination” and “an outrageous and insensitive act.”
Aiman A. Mazyek, chairman of the Central Committee of Muslims in Germany, said he considered the Cologne ruling part of an ongoing debate about how much cultural difference is acceptable in Germany: “Certain elements of society see a threat in the other, in people who look and think differently,” he told the Forward.
Many mainstream political leaders also condemned the ruling. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement that the legal debate “must not lead to doubts arising internationally about religious tolerance in Germany.” And in an interview with a German newspaper, Serkan Tören, integration expert for the Free Democratic Party, a junior partner in the government coalition, warned that “a ban on circumcision would be the clearest signal to the Muslims in our country that they aren’t part of Germany, that they aren’t even welcome.”
For all the intensity of the domestic debate, reaction from key figures outside Germany has gone further. Jonathan Sacks, Great Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, noted in the Jerusalem Post that a ban on circumcision “was the route chosen by two of the worst enemies the Jewish people ever had, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV and the Roman emperor Hadrian, both of whom set out to extinguish not only Jews but also Judaism.”
“Do judges in Cologne today really not know what happened the last time Germany went down that road?” Sacks asked.
For both Jews and Muslims, circumcision of sons during childhood is considered a fundamental religious rite for membership in the community. It is a rite that took place without government interference even during the Nazi era. But in 2010, a child of Muslim parents in Cologne developed minor bleeding after a Muslim doctor circumcised him for religious reasons at the parents’ request. Though a local hospital addressed the issue and the child’s health was not endangered, a local prosecutor pressed charges against the doctor. A trial court dismissed the case, but the prosecutor appealed the ruling to a higher court, which reversed the dismissal and barred the practice when done for non-medical reasons.
The Cologne judges weighed two separate issues — the right to religious freedom and the right to bodily integrity — and concluded that circumcision, “even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered bodily harm if it is performed on a boy who is unable to give his own consent.” In the words of the decision, circumcision went “against the interests of a child to decide later for himself what religion he wishes to belong to.”
While the verdict only applies to the Cologne area, the ruling could set a precedent for other parts of Germany. On July 3, Berlin’s Jewish Hospital — a 250-year-old institution — changed its circumcision policy out of fear that its doctors could face prosecution. Gerhard Nerlich, a spokesperson for the hospital, said that the decision had been made to stop circumcising males below 14 years of age whose parents seek the procedure simply for religious or ethnic reasons — hospital circumcisions being an option chosen by many secular Jews in Germany for their sons out of a sense of tradition, even if they have no interest in the actual religious ritual.
Nerlich added that the hospital would continue to perform the procedure for medical and hygienic reasons; it’s possible that Jews might continue to obtain circumcisions there under this rubric.