German Circumcision Ruling Raises Outcry

Jews and Muslims Unite in Opposing Court Decision

Threat to Culture? A recent ruling by a regional appeals court in Germany prohibits non-medical circumcision of children. It has sparked new debate on the place of Jews and Muslims in German society.
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Threat to Culture? A recent ruling by a regional appeals court in Germany prohibits non-medical circumcision of children. It has sparked new debate on the place of Jews and Muslims in German society.

By A.J. Goldmann

Published July 12, 2012, issue of July 20, 2012.
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Sacks, the British chief rabbi, placed the ruling in the context of a backlash taking place against Muslims, with the Jewish community suffering “collateral damage” — and not just in Cologne. He cited a ban in Netherlands — since reversed — against ritual slaughter.

Germany is home to roughly 4 million Muslims, and about 200,000 Jews.

In the past several years, public discourse in Germany has turned notably xenophobic. “Germany Does Away With Itself,” a bestselling 2010 book by Thilo Sarrazin, a former Socialist Party politician and executive officer of the German Central Bank, decried the increasing presence of Muslims in the country. The book was followed by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s controversial statement that multiculturalism in Germany had “utterly failed.”

A new central mosque in Cologne, which has been under construction since 2006, has been the subject of intense debate about its size, symbolism and the role it may play in either integrating or segregating Cologne’s 120,000 Muslims. Last year, the German state of Hesse banned the full Islamic face veil for public sector workers.

For all this, Mazyek, the chairman of the Central Committee of Muslims in Germany, said, “This isn’t primarily about Islam.” He instead portrayed it as part of a larger contemporary debate about all faiths. “One finds that there is a certain reservation about religion, even hostility to religion,” he said. “We see also this attempt coming from a ever-growing group of people in Germany, and in Europe, to tame religion, either by using jurisdiction, laws or cultural restrictions.”

Michael Berenbaum, a prominent scholar of the Holocaust at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, predicted that the court ruling would ultimately “unite Jews and Muslims” in Germany.

Tsvi Blanchard, Meyer Struckmann Professor of Law at the Humboldt University, said that anti-Semitism and Islamophobia do not necessarily stand behind the verdict. Blanchard, who is also an Orthodox rabbi, said that the judges’ attitude towards circumcision appeared to stem from a “fundamentally different conception of how the body works.”

“There are many Germans who, like the Ancient Greeks, think of the body as created perfect, born perfect, and any change to that body becomes problematic,” he said. “The Jewish tradition, and perhaps the Muslim one as well, doesn’t see the body as born perfect; it sees the male body born in need of change in order to get better.”

The court’s suggestion to postpone circumcision until the child is able to give his consent, said Blanchard, shows how out of touch the judges were. Citing the greater physical and psychological trauma that circumcision imposes on older males, he said, “There’s something remarkably naive about the idea of telling someone ‘well, when you’re 18 you’ll decide if you want to be circumcised or not.’ The idea that that becomes a fair choice really suggests that they just hadn’t really thought it through very carefully,” he explained.

Blanchard felt confident that a higher court’s decision would also be informed by social realities. “It will be very difficult for Germany and for Europe to come to the conclusion that — forget the Jews — millions and millions of Muslims are in violation of fundamental constitutional rights,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the Cologne ruling is unlikely to deter mohels, or Jewish ritual circumcisers, from doing their job, said Blanchard. In fact, he suggested, a mohel who confronts prosecution for performing a circumcision could become a champion for overturning the verdict. “A mohel could say: ‘Go ahead, arrest me, that’s what I want, because we’ll work this case up to the constitutional court and you’ll lose in the constitutional court.’”

Assistant managing editor Larry Cohler-Esses contributed to this story.

Contact A.J. Goldmann at feedback@forward.com


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