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.
According to Juliane Wetzel, senior researcher at the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism at Berlin’s Technical University, the Cologne decision accentuated a lack of tolerance for minorities in a society that views Jews and Muslims as outsiders. “Islam is seen as an archaic religion, and now Judaism is seen the same way,” she said during an interview at the university.
TNS Emnid, a German polling organization, found in a July survey that 56% of Germans agree with the Cologne ruling.
“The basic sentiment here is anti-religious,” said Sylke Tempel, editor-in-chief of Internationale Politik, an authoritative foreign policy journal published by the German Council of Foreign Affairs. In her view, the Cologne ruling was not a deliberate attack on Islam or Judaism, but showed a total misunderstanding in Germany’s highly secular society of how important circumcision is to both religions.
According to Berger, the Cologne ruling can be traced to a body of medical literature that has accumulated over the past decade.
This school of thought, based on little scientific evidence, holds that circumcision does irreversible physical damage and causes emotional trauma. The German Academy for Pediatric Medicine (BVKJ) subscribes to this view and has called for a two-year moratorium on circumcisions.
This is in sharp contrast to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, both of which endorse circumcision for its medical benefits, particularly in fighting the spread of HIV in Africa.
But for the Jewish and Muslim communities, this is not about medical issues — it’s about religious freedom.
At a September 9 rally held in Bebelplatz, the same square in Berlin where the Nazis burned more than 20,000 books they considered “un-German” — most by Jewish authors — Jewish and Muslim leaders denounced the Cologne ruling and asserted the right to freely practice their religion.
Many of the Jews wore T-shirts with various exclamations of Jewish pride.
“Do you still want us Jews?” asked 79-year old Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch, former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “For 60 years I have defended Germany as a survivor of the Shoah. Now I ask myself if that was right.”
Despite the concerns of Berger and others for its fate, the new proposal did seem to have strong support from some Bundestag members. Dietmar Nietan, a Social Democratic member of the Bundestag, told the Forward that the law must provide a balance between the right to freedom of religion and the rights of children. But the 48-year-old legislator from an area near Cologne said he would like to see the legislation pass with a large majority. In his view, that would validate Jewish life in Germany.
Philipp Missfelder, a Bundestag member who belongs to the Christian Democratic Union, said in an email that the draft legislation “is a good approach to resolve the current juridical dilemma regarding circumcision,” adding that “it ensures both practice of Jewish religious life in our country and the children’s welfare.” Missfelder said he expected the bill to pass the Bundestag “without substantial alterations.”
A 33-year-old rising star in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, Missfelder said during an earlier interview that his Jewish constituents ask how they can live in a Germany that does not permit a 4,000-year-old religious ritual.
Merkel herself has denounced the Cologne decision and has called for speedy enactment of a law that would be acceptable to Jews and Muslims.
Bundestag member Stefan Ruppert, who belongs to the small, pro-business Free Democratic Party, was confident during an interview prior to the proposal’s release that legislation satisfactory to the nation’s Jews would be enacted.
Acknowledging that some members of his party support the ban on circumcision, Ruppert said that it was likely that the more acceptable the legislation was to the Jewish community, the less likely it would be to pass.
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