In a ruling that will affect Muslims as much as Jews, a district court in Cologne, Germany, has ruled that circumcision is illegal. The case, which stemmed from a botched circumcision of a Muslim child, is just the latest instance in which the religious practice has been attacked. But though the legal implications of the ruling are not yet entirely clear as it may violate the European Union’s Convention on Human Rights, it raises the possibility that a ritual integral to Jewish identity as well as required by Muslim religious law will be banned.
For the growing Jewish community, the court may have created a serious logistical problem, as this may deter doctors or other persons from performing circumcisions because of a fear of prosecution or lawsuits. But just as important is the symbolism of the ban coming from a country where open expressions of anti-Semitism were driven underground by the reaction to the Nazi era. If a judge can attack Judaism as well as Islam head on in this manner without fear of the consequences, then perhaps a tipping point may have been reached in German society that may have serious consequences for the long-term viability of Jewish life in the country and Western Europe.
The ruling baldly claimed circumcision inflicted “damage” on children and could not be protected by freedom of religion, though there is no rational reason for anyone to believe this is the case. Mistakes in circumcisions are rare and probably less likely to occur than errors in routine medical procedures. But the court went even further in asserting the assumption that parents don’t have the right to choose a faith for their child. That might be interpreted as an attack on all religions. But it must be considered particularly threatening to members of minority faiths, particularly Jews who remember well that in past centuries the majority sometimes tried to take Jewish children away from their parents by claiming it was in their interests not to be inculcated in Judaism.
While some on the left, including one German professor quoted in Ha’aretz, may think this is a blow struck for the freedom of children, it is really an attempt to further marginalize both Judaism and Islam.
An attempt was made last year to place a referendum banning circumcision on the ballot in San Francisco. But the sponsors’ use of an openly anti-Semitic Web comic book drew so much attention that critics were able to quash the effort. Though support for such measures may exist on the margins in the United States, the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe may have allowed this cause to drift into the mainstream. Along with other attempts to ban kosher slaughter elsewhere in Europe, the German bris ban calls into question the safety of Jews in a Western Europe where Jew-hatred often mixed with anti-Zionism has emerged from the shadows.
Though it is to be hoped this ruling will soon be overturned by joint legal efforts by Jews and Muslims, no matter what the outcome of the litigation, it must send a chill through a growing German Jewish community that has come to think of itself as immune to the dangers presented by the country’s past. They may be learning that in spite of the country’s advances, anti-Semitism never goes completely out of fashion in Germany.