Washington — The Obama administration’s anti-Semitism monitor has added an issue to his office’s portfolio: defending circumcision in Europe.
Circumcision has become a top focus for Ira Forman, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. He has been using the pulpit his office provides to warn European governments that moves to ban ritual circumcision could lead to the demise of their countries’ Jewish communities.
“Because circumcision is essentially universal among Jews, this can shut down a community, especially a small vulnerable community,” Forman said.
No European country has outright banned the practice, but there is increasing pressure to do so, and some countries have imposed restrictions such as requiring medical supervision. Forman is the State Department’s third anti-Semitism monitor. While he has maintained his predecessors’ focus on anti-Semitic acts and rhetoric worldwide, he said that protecting circumcision has become urgent because calls for bans are gaining legitimacy, particularly in Northern Europe.
In the past six months, Forman has raised the issue in meetings with ambassadors to Washington from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. He says he plans to raise it with envoys from other Northern European countries, where pressures to ban circumcision are most acute.
He also has asked the relevant desks at the State Department to have U.S. diplomats raise the issue in their meetings in their host countries.
Forman, who is Jewish, contrasted efforts to prohibit circumcision with bans on ritual animal slaughter — in place in some countries for decades — which at least have workarounds, for instance by importing frozen kosher meat.
“Circumcision, if you ban it, you have three choices: You do it underground illegally, you take a little 8-day-old baby across state lines — and if you have contiguous states [with bans], doing that becomes harder and harder — or three, you emigrate,” he said.
A comprehensive 2012 survey of European Jews by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found substantial majorities of Jews classifying a hypothetical ban on circumcision as a “big problem.”
“I will wait for the developments concerning a statutory regulation on the Brit Mila,” the survey quoted a German respondent as saying, using the Hebrew phrase for ritual circumcision. “This will be crucial for my decision on whether or not to leave Germany.”
Leaders of Jewish communities in countries that are contending with public pressure to ban the practice similarly warn that such a move could spur an exodus of Jews. “I have said that a country which saved the Jews during the Second World War, if they would establish any law against circumcision, they would have done what Hitler wanted to do,” said Rabbi Bent Lexner, chief rabbi to Denmark’s Jewish community of 7,500.
European officials say their countries have instituted protections for circumcision in response to public pressures.
“A ban on circumcision is not in question for the Norwegian government,” Frode Overland Andersen, a spokesman for his country’s Foreign Ministry, told JTA. German and Danish officials have issued similar assurances.