Last week, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, wrote in the Jerusalem Post about a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2007 at which he said it was up to her and other leaders as to whether the rising tide of anti-Semitism would determine the future of Jewish life in Europe. He said afterwards she asked him what she could do to help. Thinking back on the question, he said he now had an answer: override the ban on circumcision handed down by a judge in Cologne last month.
While the ruling, along with the troubling growth of Jew-hatred throughout Western Europe and violence in France has raised questions about the viability of Jewish life in Europe, Merkel has answered the rabbi’s challenge. As Reuters reports, the chancellor’s office has issued a statement telling both Jews and Muslims in Germany that they should not be deterred from practicing their faith despite the court ruling. The Berlin government said it would seek a quick resolution that would enable it to override the Cologne decision that banned the circumcision of infants. Yet, while Merkel is to be commended for speaking up for religious freedom in Germany, the bris ban remains a bitter reminder of the history of German anti-Semitism. But it also shone a spotlight on the way in which Jews have been targeted not just by thugs or terrorists but also by European elites in recent years.
Swift action by Berlin is necessary, and it is likely the chancellor will get her way. Though many intellectuals throughout Western Europe appear to be slipping back into the continent’s old habits with regard to Jew-hatred, Merkel has demonstrated an understanding of her nation’s historic responsibility. But it will take more than the much needed trashing of the circumcision ruling to reassure European Jewry that they are well and truly safe.
The embrace by European elites of a brand of anti-Zionism that seeks to delegitimize all expressions of Jewish identity has complicated the defense of the rights of religious minorities in Western Europe. Where decades ago, the memory of the Holocaust might have served to deter even the most perverse judge from seeking to curtail religious freedom in Germany, today it increasingly seems as if it is open season on the Jews.
If Merkel is to answer Rabbi Sacks’ challenge, she and her fellow European leaders will have to do more than merely quash the Cologne decision. They must speak up in opposition to the delegitimization of Israel and Jewish identity. If not, the bris ban will be seen as just the beginning of attacks on Jewish rights rather than a regrettable but reversible episode.