Norwegian Jews hoping new circumcision rules head off ban

(JTA) — News that Norway is planning unspecified new regulations on ritual circumcision could not have come at a more sensitive time.

The announcement last week that Norway intends to introduce a bill to “regulate ritual circumcision” comes just over a month after an overwhelming majority of Council of Europe assembly members passed a landmark resolution against non-medical circumcision of boys.

The resolution, which states that circumcision is a “violation of the physical integrity of children,” is unprecedented among an organization of the caliber of the council. While the intergovernmental organization is not part of the European Union and cannot pass binding legislation, it is widely influential.

Also last month, government advisers on child welfare from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland issued a joint resolution in favor of banning the ritual circumcision of minors. All the advisers have adopted the position individually in recent years, but had never before cooperated to promote it regionally.

Taken together, the resolutions have stoked fear that individual countries may now feel empowered to enact legislation outlawing circumcision.

“Individual states may now make binding legislation based on the resolution — that is, after all, what the Council of Europe was designed for,” said Joel Rubinfeld, co-chair of the European Jewish Parliament. “This is likeliest to happen in Scandinavia.”

The developments in northern Europe have alarmed the continent’s Jewish leaders, who already have devoted much energy to fending off another growing challenge to Jewish ritual life: the budding movement to outlaw kosher slaughter.

Late last month, the European Jewish Congress announced the formation of an international working group to tackle anti-circumcision efforts.

“The enemies of Jewish tradition are becoming more united and coordinated,” said Moshe Kantor, the EJC president.

Despite the moves, Scandinavian Jews said they were optimistic a compromise solution could be found. Ervin Kohn, the leader of Norway’s Jewish community of 700, said he expected legislation to be similar to a Swedish law from 2001 that allows circumcision to be performed by licensed professionals.

“I don’t know what the new regulations will say precisely, but I am pretty confident there will be no ban,” Kohn told JTA.

In Sweden, Jewish circumcisers are licensed by the Swedish health board and required to have a nurse or doctor present when the cut is made. Despite the limitations, the country’s Jews were satisfied, confident they would not be subject to further anti-circumcision initiatives.

“With so many doctors in the community, there is hardly a problem,” said Lena Posner-Korosi, president of the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities. “It’s not a bad compromise and we had to fight hard to get it.”

In Norway, Kohn has lobbied for a similar arrangement and says he has reason to believe the new regulations planned by the health ministry will bring his community closer to that goal. Yoav Melchior, Norway’s chief rabbi, also is optimistic.

“I’m not really concerned,” Melchior told the Israeli daily Maariv last week.

In France, the Council of Europe resolution galvanized the Jewish community, which sent a letter to President Francois Hollande urging him to reject the resolution. A petition gained more than 8,000 signatures, among them leading politicians, artists and celebrities.

On Oct. 30, Hollande replied with a letter eschewing the resolution and assuring the community the practice is protected under French law.

“Because of this resolution, the issue was raised, we confronted it and removed the question mark,” said Roger Cukierman, the president of the CRIF umbrella body of French Jewish communities.

Others are not so confident, citing major progress by activists and politicians seeking to ban the practice.
 Rubinfeld says he sees the movement to ban circumcision growing across Europe.

“Perhaps it can also lead to international solutions,” he said, “but I am not too optimistic just yet.”

The trigger for the recent resolutions was a German court ruling that said non-medical circumcision of a minor amounted to a criminal act. The ruling has been overturned, but resulted in brief bans in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

In Scandinavia, home to some of the world’s most secular societies, three parties have officially come out in support of a ban since the ruling in Germany, including one conservative anti-immigration party in Finland and another left-leaning party in Denmark.

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