Circumcision, Legislation, and Anti-Semitism

In a September 6th opinion piece published on the Huffington Post’s website, Harvard Law Professor Allan Dershowtiz asked,

Why do countries with long histories of anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry seem to care more about the so-called rights of young children not to be circumcised than do other countries in the world with far better histories of concern for human rights?”

His answer is that “It is because they care less about Jews.”

Image courtesy of Cheskel Dovid, © 2007, some rights reserved.

Proposed German Anti-Circumcision Law

Dershowitz was one among many Jewish advocates responding critically to a law proposed in Germany that would have banned the practice of circumcision of male children at birth. Circumcision of newborn children is an important ritual in both the Jewish and the Muslim faiths. Members of both religious groups saw the German law as a direct attack on their beliefs, thereby rekindling debates about lingering German anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Given Germany’s unfortunate history, these questions remain pertinent to contemporary society.

The anti-circumcision debate was sparked in June 2012, after a court in Cologne ruled to ban the practice in that city’s hospitals following complications resulting from the circumcision of a young Muslim boy. The court ruled that circumcision of children without their consent was tantamount to bodily harm. As a result, doctors across Germany immediately stopped performing the procedure, fearing that they could be prosecuted for doing so.

Serious debate both in Germany and abroad followed the ruling. Groups advocating religious freedom and opponents of the proposed law called it racist and Nazi-like, arguing that the law was a brazen attempt to get Jews and Muslims to leave Germany. Proponents of the law said it defended children’s rights to protection from bodily harm and would give children the chance to wait and make the choice on their own when they were older. Some proponents called for the law to prohibit circumcision until at least eighteen years of age.

The issue was resolved in October when Angela Merkel said the government would not prohibit the practice and would protect the rights of religious groups to perform ritual circumcision, putting an end to the debate in Germany for now.

Across Europe

The 2012 German circumcision debate is only the most recent in an ongoing fight between groups advocating for the protection of human and animal rights and religious groups who want to protect their traditions. In 2001, Sweden prohibited circumcision without anesthesia and required certification for those performing the surgery. Both Norway and the Netherlands have recently suggested that Jews and Muslims perform ritual, non-binding acts of devotion on children instead of circumcision. Similarly, in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Switzerland the ritual slaughter of animals according to Jewish and Muslim traditions is prohibited.

Evidence of Anti-Semitism?

Laws such as those discussed above are ostensibly proposed in the interest of protecting human and animal rights, but is there indeed an underlying Anti-Semitic or Islamophobic motive behind them? While not as blatantly racist or xenophobic as the 2009 Swiss minaret ban, the proposed German law raises important questions about Islamophobia and the legacy of anti-Semitism in Germany as well as in other countries.

What is the real need for an anti-circumcision law? “It’s not because Germans or Norwegians are better people and care more about children and animals than do Americans,” says Dershowitz in his article, “so let’s call a spade a spade and let’s call anti-Semitism by its true name.”

America is by far the most prolific circumcising secular country. Almost all American male children are circumcised at birth regardless of religious affiliation. This is done for health and hygienic reasons and to reduce the likelihood of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases. The surgery is elective and parents can opt to not have it performed. There is little opposition to circumcision in the USA. A rare instance of legal opposition came from the City of San Francisco where an attempt to ban the practice in 2011 was struck down in state federal court. In response, the state of California passed legislation prohibiting the outlawing of circumcision by any town or city government in that state.

Germany is by no means an anti-Semitic state, but in a European country where most people are not circumcised unless they are Jewish or Muslim, the attempt to outlaw the practice can easily be understood as bigoted; akin to preventing a minority group from speaking its native language, wearing traditional dress, or holding religious ceremonies.

Consider that many Christian faiths require baptism as necessary for salvation. Worldwide, thousands of Christian children are baptised as babies without their awareness or consent, without anyone seeming to be concerned that the children have not given their consent. If the inability to give consent lies at the root of the anti-circumcision debate then the law should also extend to baptism and other such initiation rituals. This does not seem to be the case, thus, revealing the flawed motives of its proponents.

Germany and its neighbors should remember what Hannah Arendt wrote at the end of her commentary on the trial of Adolf Eichmann:

            “Every Generation, by virtue of being born into a historical continuum, is burdened by the sins of the fathers as it is blessed with the deeds of the ancestors.