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Op-Ed: Brit Mila and Secular Intolerance in Germany

The Cologne court's decision, though being countered by a German government resolution, made it clear that traditional Judaism is not welcome in the country that once exterminated millions of European Jews.
Published: Friday, July 20, 2012 10:17 AM



The decision by a local German court in Cologne which two weeks ago ruled that circumcision constitutes a case of “bodily harm” and, therefore, has to be considered a criminal offense, sent shock waves through the Jewish and Muslim community in Germany.

In order to understand the decision, one first has to look at the circumstances. The case on which the court based its decision was indeed quite severe. Two days after a circumcision, a 4-year old Muslim boy was brought to an emergency room with heavy after-circumcision bleeding. He had to undergo further surgery under general anesthetic and had to stay in the hospital for ten more days.

But based on this quite unusual case, the local court neither convicted the parents nor the physician because the legal situation, according to the court, had been unclear. Yet the court also stated that the circumcision constitutes a case of “bodily harm”.

Not only that, a most significant part of the decision can be found in the court’s explanation: “This [bodily] alteration is against the interest of the child to decide later in its life for itself about its religious affiliation. The parents’ right to educate their child, on the other hand, is not unreasonably affected by having to wait until the boy has reached the age of consent and opts for a circumcision as a visible sign of belonging to Islam.”

Clearly, the decision was not the result of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the decision itself is the most anti-Jewish sanction in Germany in the last 70 years. In its decision the court was mainly led by a deeply anti-religious bias, by an unwillingness to understand religion, its rituals and its workings. This can be seen by the explanation just quoted. To assume that it would be irrelevant at what point of a child’s life it is initiated into a religious community and that this would have no effect on the parents’ right to decide what is best for their child, is simply ludicrous.

Still, it is startling how an individual case such as the one brought before the court could lead to a quasi-ban of every circumcision performed in Germany. A badly performed circumcision or insufficient aftercare of the wound decides the fate of a religious practice that has been performed for thousands of years.

This is another sign of the disrespect for religion so common in today’s Europe.

But, of course, there is an ethnic and anti-Semitic component as well. Looking at the public debate about the ruling, one will often find statements that identify circumcision with barbarism, genital mutilation or even child abuse. Judaism, and in that case Islam, are portrayed as something foreign to German culture and contrary to so-called ideals of enlightenment.


And not for a minute did it occur to most of those anti-circumcision crusaders, who claim to be enlightened, that once again Germany is basically outlawing Judaism,
And it is interesting that in those public discussions, even some pro-Israeli activists zealously condemn the traditional performance of Brit Mila. Instead of understanding its significance for Judaism and putting it into context, they cite “humanistic values” as overriding religious tradition, they claim that circumcision of minors is going against the well-being of the child - despite the fact that the parents involved clearly are concerned with that well-being. They talk about traumatization, although the overwhelming majority of circumcised Jewish men can’t even remember the act of circumcision, and frequently some fringe groups like the “Jews against circumcision” are presented by these activists as alibi Jews.

The debate shows the limits of tolerance of German secularism. This type of secularism is not willing to grant religions different from Christianity, the right to exercise rituals which have played a fundamental role for millennia. Even worse, they claim the moral authority to decide on behalf of religions how they should practice their faith.

Instead of protecting the freedom of religion, the ruling and public opinion in Germany mark its end. And not for a minute did it occur to most of those anti-circumcision crusaders, who claim to be enlightened, that once again Germany is basically outlawing Judaism.

Whereas the public obviously hasn’t understood or is unwilling to understand what is at stake, all of the major political parties were quick to announce a legal solution to the current situation and pledged to protect circumcision. German chancellor Merkel warned that a criminalization of circumcision would make Germany a “laughing stock”.

This Thursday all German parties, with the exception of the far-left Die Linke, passed a non-binding resolution in the German parliament demanding that the German government present a law which legalizes circumcision.

This means that German law will be amended and circumcision in one way or another will be allowed. But this will take at least three to six months, meaning Jewish parents in Germany who are currently planning for Brit Mila have to do it somewhere else.

Another fundamental problem is that is not clear whether a law that is meant to allow a specific religious practice can be constitutional. “Humanist” groups are already lining up in order to appeal to the German Supreme Court.

But whether there will be a legal solution or not, the controversy surrounding the decision made it clear that traditional Judaism is not welcome in the country that once exterminated millions of European Jews.

Today, anti-Jewish language is only in part racist, while the overwhelming majority is fueled by a secularism that considers Judaism a backward religion in need of correction. The question, then, is what will happen to Jews who refuse to abandon their tradition?