Berlin — A proposal to enshrine circumcision of male children as a protected procedure that Jews and Muslims could continue without fear of sanction faces an uncertain fate in Germany’s Bundestag, say close observers of German politics.
The proposal heading to the parliament aims to calm a storm that erupted last May after a Cologne court ruled that a botched circumcision violated the child’s rights because it constituted “illegal bodily harm” even with parental consent. Though strictly local in its jurisdiction, the ruling’s novel application of child rights law set off a furor of concern about the future legal status of circumcision nationwide.
The proposal, issued on September 25 by the Ministry of Justice, seeks to reassure Jews and Muslims that they can continue to practice a ritual central to their respective faiths in Germany without interference — a concern that some Jewish leaders pointedly raised after the May ruling.
The proposal has been sent to state governments and other experts for further input and is expected to reach parliament for debate by the end of the year. But despite the positive initial reception that Jewish leaders have given the proposal, some question its prospects of becoming law due to the politics of secularism in Germany. They even express concern that these public expressions of concern for children’s welfare hide an underlying anti-Semitism.
“The draft law presented in Germany is a major step forward,” said Deidre Berger, executive director of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, in an email to the Forward. But she added: “We are extremely concerned as to whether the German Parliament will adopt the proposed law. Public opinion seems to be against circumcision, and many parliamentary delegates from all parties are ambivalent. In addition, major medical associations in Germany are anti-circumcision and are likely to oppose the draft law.”
Citing well-financed billboard posters and campaigns against the proposed law, Berger sees Germany’s ability to give legal protection to circumcision as “a litmus test for Jewish life in Germany.” Key elements of this draft bill, according to Berger, are that it affirms the right of religious freedom; treats circumcision as a matter of family law, not criminal law, and allows mohels to perform circumcisions.
The judicial ruling from May, according to which circumcision constitutes “bodily harm” and “assault,” effectively criminalized and banned circumcision in the Cologne district. The ruling, triggered by the circumcision of a 4-year old Muslim boy who was hospitalized with medical complications following the procedure, soon led doctors elsewhere in Germany to decline to do circumcisions.
In the view of Berlin-based Rabbi Joshua Spinner, executive vice president and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, “The Germans are not protecting the child from circumcision. Rather, they are protecting themselves from the circumcised.”
Spinner emphasized the “otherness” of Jews and Muslims in German culture. Jews and Turks can be Germans, he said, as long as they don’t retain their separate ethnicity. Germany currently is home to at least 100,000 Jews and some 4 million Muslims.
Despite concerns for its ultimate fate, initial reaction from Germany’s official Jewish body to the proposal was appreciative. “From my perspective, this is a step in the right direction,” said Dieter Graumann, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.