BERLIN (JTA) — German parliament passage of legislation to protect male circumcision for religious purposes occurred, coincidentally, during Chanukah. The holiday celebrates the Jewish uprising against the Syrian Greeks more than two millennia ago. It was a revolt triggered by religious persecution, including punishment by death for performing circumcisions.
By contrast, at no time in the 1,700-year history of Jews in Germany has the practice been forbidden — not even by Hitler — despite repeated attempts, particularly during the post-French revolution era of emancipation. What a shock, therefore, when a court in Cologne last May determined criminal liability for those who perform circumcisions without medical indication on children below the age of consent.
Following the ruling, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle affirmed religious circumcision in Germany. The German parliament vowed to pass legislation intended to quell the legal uncertainties stirred up by the Cologne ruling.
Despite this swift political response, public controversy ensued. Secular humanists, anti-abortionists, human rights activists, and medical and legal professionals vociferously demanded a ban on circumcision. Their well-financed campaign included newspaper ads, Op-Eds, letters to the editor and cartoons mocking practitioners of circumcision. Using a body of flawed evidence, opponents alleged that circumcision is a high-risk and irreversible procedure, intimating that Jews and Muslims cause irreparable harm to their children.
The depiction of Jews and Muslims as societal outcasts with primitive practices, not surprisingly, unleashed crude anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiments in hate mail, reader’s comments and the Internet. Parliamentarians were bombarded with anti-Semitic hate mail on circumcision.
Ostensibly respectable German groups devoted to public health, some of them doctors’ organizations, cited alleged clinical proof that circumcision endangers a boy’s health, interferes with his later sexual functioning and causes long-term psychological damage.
Interestingly, the anti-circumcision groups dismiss U.S. data, claiming that circumcision is an “industry” in which American pediatricians earning enormous profits by performing unnecessary circumcisions. Accusations behind closed doors are that American medicine is in the hands of profit-greedy Jews.
These and other spurious assertions were refuted categorically in an AJC Berlin Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations report that was praised by Merkel and numerous members of parliament and government.
In fact, there is ample evidence that circumcision has no deleterious effects and may even lessen the odds of contracting HIV and other diseases. Both the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend circumcision on health grounds. Israel, a country with well-documented records on circumcision, reported complication rates in 2011 of less than a tenth of 1 percent.
Given the overwhelming body of evidence, the question arises as to why Germany came so perilously close to becoming the first country to ban circumcision for religious purposes? What made German leaders and the German public susceptible to arguments of a small, vocal group of opponents?
The spread of secularism and anti-clericalism is one element. Another is that postwar Germany, whose historic identity is being challenged by a growing minority population, is searching for its role in an expanding Europe. Perceived threats within and without its borders prompt some to clamber to traditional German ways; anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes flourish in such discussions.
Although Jews have been part of German life for nearly 2,000 years, this debate revealed the degree to which the Jewish minority is understood by many as “the other,” with demands that Jewish rituals be reformed to an allegedly more modern era.
Interestingly, even though there are 4 million Muslims in Germany and approximately 250,000 Jews, the controversy focused mostly on Jews, revealing the continued discomfort with the subject of Jews in Germany nearly 70 years after the Holocaust. There were even twisted attempts to posit opposition to circumcision as a human rights issue based on the lessons of the Holocaust. Could it be an attempt to hide behind the discourse of human rights as a way to avoid confronting responsibility for the Holocaust?
In the end, the Bundestag remained true to democratic values and affirmed the religious rights of minorities — exactly the message of the Chanukah holiday. If there is a silver lining in this unfortunate debate, it was — as pointed out by several lawmakers during parliamentary deliberations — an opportunity to learn more about Jewish and Muslim practices.
Nonetheless, circumcision opponents are likely to challenge the legislation. A German parliamentarian has vowed to bring her fight against circumcision to the Council of Europe.
Countering fears and perceived threats to national and religious identity will remain a challenge on a continent facing historic challenges of expansion and integration. Debate over circumcision, a test of democracy and religious tolerance, is likely to continue in Europe.
(Deidre Berger is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations.)