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.
Jewish communal officials appreciate the assurances that circumcision will not be banned. Nonetheless, Jewish communal officials warn that the danger of circumcision bans in Europe has not substantially diminished.
“The trend is really moving against us in one considerable way, and that’s in terms of general European public opinion in Northern and Western Europe, particularly Scandinavia,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, the American Jewish Committee’s director of international Jewish affairs.
Calls to ban circumcision gained momentum after the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution last October that called for a public debate on the “rights of children to protection against violations of their physical integrity.” It lumped male circumcision with female genital mutilation and corporal punishment.
The assembly, however, lacks power. In April, the council’s leadership advised members that male circumcision was “by no means comparable” to female genital mutilation and recommended against further attempts to target the practice.
Nonetheless, children’s ombudsmen in a number of Northern European countries have called in recent years for restrictions on the practice, as have medical professionals’ groups. Jewish leaders say that as Northern Europe becomes increasingly secularized, its populace tends to place more value on freedom from religious coercion than on freedom to practice religion.
“These are post-religious and post-ritual countries,” said Rabbi Michael Melchior, the Israel-based chief rabbi to Norway’s 800 Jews. “And the vast majority of the population don’t have a clue what ritual is. They see ritual in general as something which belongs to some dark evil — they have medieval conceptions [of rituals] which have nothing to do with modern society.”
In one way, some Scandinavian governments have nodded toward circumcision opponents by including in their laws requirements that circumcision take place under medical supervision. Norway’s parliament passed such a law last month. Norwegian Jewish leaders applauded the measure because it allowed the rite to be carried out under a physician’s supervision.
In Sweden, said Lena Posner-Korosi, president of the country’s 20,000-strong Jewish community, circumcision is permitted until two months, which effectively shuts out the Muslim community, in which boys are often circumcised as toddlers.
Anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe helps drive the anti-circumcision clamor, Jewish communal leaders say. If anything, sensitivities in Northern Europe about the 20th-century record on Jews are what has led governments to protect circumcision.
“One of the important parliamentarians told me it is convenient for us to put the Jews at the front of this issue,” Melchior said. “Because in the public in Norway still, it is much more difficult to go out against the Jews than the Muslims.”
Jewish officials said that anti-Semitism, while a concern in other areas, is not a factor in the debate, although Jewish stereotypes have emerged in its wake. When pro-circumcision activists in Germany cited American studies showing that the practice was practically harmless and had possible medical benefits, opponents suggested that American Jewish doctors had skewed the studies.
The key to preserving circumcision, according to Ervin Kohn, president of Norway’s Jewish community, is lobbying the political class, which is sensitive to international image.
“For most of the Norwegian people it is strange, so they believe all sorts of things and don’t know too much and are easily impressionable,” he said, regarding views on circumcision. “Those who know are the politicians — they made the right decision.”
Jewish communal leaders in the Scandinavian countries said that blunt intervention from abroad could backfire, noting the hackles that were raised when Israel’s government issued dire warnings against banning circumcision after last year’s Council of Europe vote.
However, they welcome Forman’s more subtle overtures, saying that the Obama administration’s signaling of its interest in ensuring a future for European Jewish communities has proven salutary.
“I’m still on a high from presenting President Obama to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah,” said Posner-Korosi, describing a visit to Stockholm last year during which Obama also honored Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who risked his life to save tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. “It conveyed such a strong message, not just about Raoul Wallenberg but about anti-Semitism, about recognizing minorities.”
Looking out for minorities is the point, Forman said.
“Our priority is to make sure these communities don’t go out of existence,” he said. “It would be a tragedy not just for the communities. It would be a tragedy for Europe, for these cultures.”