Commentary Magazine


Europe’s Assault on Jewish Ritual

On july 21, 600 German doctors appended their signatures to a letter in the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper calling for the practice of circumcision to be outlawed. In depicting circumcision as a form of bodily harm imposed by adults on powerless children, the doctors asserted that “religious freedom cannot be a blank check for sexual violence against underage boys.”

The letter was published less than a month after a district court in the city of Cologne ruled that circumcision is a criminal act. Both the small German Jewish community and its much larger Muslim counterpart expressed outrage at the decision. In a rare show of unity, their leaders jointly protested the ruling with a series of statements, interviews, and modestly attended public rallies. German politicians, too, weighed in anxiously, foremost among them Chancellor Angela Merkel, who articulated the fear that Germany risked turning itself into a “laughingstock” by preventing Jews from carrying out this most sacred ritual. Merkel has a point, to say the least: A country that forbids Jews from performing the Brit Milah upon their sons, in accordance with the injunction passed from God to Abraham in Genesis, is a country where Jews cannot live.

By August, the circumcision ruling had found its first target for prosecution. Rabbi David Goldberg, a mohel (an individual licensed under Jewish law to perform circumcision) who serves the tiny Jewish community of Hof in northern Bavaria, was charged with causing bodily harm. “This latest development in Hof is yet another grave affront to religious freedom and underlines the urgent need for the German government to expedite the process of ensuring that the fundamental rights of minority communities are protected,” declared Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, of the Conference of European Rabbis, in response. “We call upon the minister of the interior to take immediate action to secure those rights in the short term.”

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The spectacle of anguished German Jews scurrying to protect their religious rights from further encroachment has the flavor of a literary thought experiment, a “Plot Against America” transferred to German soil. The proposition that circumcision might be outlawed in Germany—Germany!—less than a century after the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and the mass extermination of Europe’s Jews still strikes one as a warped fantasy even after its reality has become clear. And that may explain why Germany’s traditionally nuanced and cautious Jews have had to confront their deepest fears. “I seriously have to ask myself whether this country still wants us,” wrote Charlotte Knobloch, the former head of the German Central Council of Jews, in a raw commentary for the Süddeutsche Zeitung. “To me, it seems there is clearly a latent desire among parts of the German population to attack the practices of minority religions,” Rabbi Walter Rothschild told the Wall Street Journal.

So panicked was the German government by the thought that circumcision might be outlawed that, in early October, it announced it would push through legislation to protect circumcisions performed by specially trained professionals, including mohels. That such a measure is necessary speaks to the depth of public opposition to circumcision. “The circumcision debate sometimes turned very hostile, which was not rationally explicable,” said Dieter Graumann, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “Nowhere else in the world was this issue debated with such sharpness, coldness and sometimes brutal intolerance.”

Across Europe, there is a new assault on the legitimacy of Jewish ritual. While the attempt in Germany to turn the legal screws on circumcision is the assault’s most historically resonant example, other countries, among them the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, have also sought to place Jewish religious customs and traditions—notably shechita, the halachically sanctioned method of slaughtering animals for kosher consumption—outside of the laws of the land.

When it comes to examining this anti-ritual trend, two interpretations are dominant. First, that the objection to ritual practice is rooted in the so-called culture wars that have played out in the ethnically and religiously diverse societies that emerged in Europe after the Second World War. Writing in the Washington Post, Michael Gerson efficiently summarized the elements of this dispute, which places individual rights and communal norms in direct competition. “It is the role of the state to defend individual self-determination against oppressive institutions, including religious institutions,” Gerson explained, in an article viscerally objecting to the Cologne court’s ruling. “Since circumcision is coerced, it is [deemed] unjust.”

Second, the attack on ritual is understood as an attack on Jews and Muslims in equal measure. Indeed, a related argument holds that Muslims are the real targets of anti-ritual legislation, in which the Jews represent unfortunate, but unavoidable, collateral damage.

On the surface, there is some merit to this last view. Democracies are, in theory, obliged to couch restrictive laws in the most general terms possible, since to mark out a single community amounts to discrimination. The contention that the anti-ritual trend is primarily anti-Islam is strengthened by the demographic statistics: The Jewish population in Europe, including Russia, stands at around 2 million, while the number of Muslims in the European Union alone is estimated to be as high as 25 million. In political terms, Europe’s Jewish leaders have always been satisfactorily accommodating, unlike various European Muslim communal groups, many of them ideologically and institutionally tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. In that light, it is surely no accident that the political parties that have sounded the most dire warnings about creeping Sharia law in Europe, such as the Freedom Party in Holland and the Swiss People’s Party, have been at the forefront of the surge in anti-ritual sentiment.

Yet just as Europe’s Muslims cannot be airbrushed out of the anti-ritual narrative, it is a grave error to regard the Jews as its accidental victims, especially against the background of a revival in European anti-Semitism. Hostility toward Jewish ritual long predates the arrival of a multicultural Europe. Therefore, one must ask a question that is at once sensible and provocative: How, if at all, does the attack on ritual pertain to the common targeting of European Jews for their affiliations with Israel and Zionism?

To begin with, the statements made in Germany against circumcision strikingly echo those of left-wing anti-Zionists, particularly when it comes to deflecting the accusation of anti-Semitism. Consider the words of Holm Putzke, a professor at the law department of the University of Passau, in support of the Cologne court’s ruling: “The court has, in contrast to many politicians, not allowed itself to be scared by the fear of being criticized as anti-Semitic or opposed to religion.” The accusation of anti-Semitism as an intimidatory tactic has become a commonplace in Germany, much as it has in America and elsewhere in Europe. The German novelist Günter Grass argued much the same thing in his recent poem “What Must Be Said,” bemoaning the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran. Included in one verse of the poem was the clumsily sarcastic phrase, “verdict, ‘anti-Semitism’,” as an explanation for German reluctance to criticize Israel.

The core message is unmistakable: Whether the topic at hand is Israeli foreign policy or the ancient religious rites of the Jewish people, critics will invariably be silenced by the invocation of anti-Semitism. Anticipating this tactic—by portraying it as a red herring designed to turn attention away from the critical imperative of protecting the bodies of defenseless children from the backward customs of their parents—is one means of defeating it. Another is to find an individual of Jewish origin to prop up the anti-ritual position.

In their crusade against Israel, anti-Zionists have recognized the importance of praising Jews who damn their brethren, and again, this has not been lost on the anti-ritualists. In the letter to the Frankfurter Allgemeine signed by the 600 doctors, special mention was made of an Israeli, Jonathan Enosch, who is opposed to circumcision. Enosch is an activist with a minuscule group in Israel, Ben Shalem (Hebrew for “intact son”), that also characterizes the ritual as a form of abuse. This largely unknown individual the German doctors nonetheless elevated to the status of prophet, in much the same way Palestinian advocates present anti-Zionist Jews as courageous revealers of truth to a stiff-necked people who will not bend. 

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At the same time, it can be countered that however significant these overlaps in argumentation might be, they are not mirrored in organizational terms, as the anti-ritualists are not exclusively based in the left-wing groups that have pushed anti-Zionism. That, however, is cause for worry, rather than comfort, for it demonstrates that hostility toward Jewish distinctiveness is not confined to a particular political constituency.

Indeed, there is bitter irony in the strong crossover between anti-ritualists and non-Jewish supporters of Israel. For the latter group, the Jewish state represents a bulwark against the Islamic barbarism—as they would portray it—on display in Europe’s cities. Yet their unwavering secularism means they are uneasy about Jewish identity in a strictly religious sense. A recent article by Clemens Heni, a German who writes extensively about anti-Semitism, pointed out the anomaly of pro-Israel activists in Germany urging their supporters not to attend a pro-circumcision gathering in Berlin. “They want a fantasy Israel with no Judaism at all,” Heni observed.

The story is similar in the Netherlands, where the loudest voice in the anti-ritual movement belongs to the Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. Acclaimed in Israel and in sections of the Jewish community in America for his resolute antagonism toward Islamism—though many would argue that his fight is with Islam per se—Wilders has been one of the most outspoken supporters of Israel on a continent that increasingly regards the Jewish state as the reincarnation of apartheid South Africa. Yet that has not stopped his party from backing legal measures to outlaw ritual slaughter. And even though Wilders suffered major losses in September’s parliamentary election, some Dutch Jews fear that he has enough parliamentary presence to mount a new offensive against circumcision.

The notion that the anti-ritual movement is really focused on Muslims has surfaced not only in Germany but also in Holland. And, as in Germany, the primary focus of the Dutch debate about the Jews has undermined that same claim. In the Dutch case, Muslims were given legal benefits at the expense of Jews. An attempt earlier this year to push a ban on ritual slaughter through the lower house of the Dutch parliament stumbled upon a compromise—that animals be stunned prior to slaughter—that was perfectly acceptable to Muslim tradition. In contrast to the demands of kashruth, the production of halal meat permits stunning in advance.

Should the Dutch follow the German route on circumcision, a similar compromise may well arise on this issue, too. While Judaism insists that circumcision be performed on an eight-day-old male infant, provided he is in good health, Muslims permit circumcision up until the age of 13. Hence, at stake in Holland is the possibility that specifically Jewish circumcision may be outlawed—on the grounds that a baby is incapable of voicing an objection to the procedure—while its Muslim variant will be permitted, based on the logic that once a child acquires the power of speech, he acquires as well the power of refusal.

The pitfalls here are obvious. In all close-knit communities, a decision to opt out of core rituals carries the attendant threat of excommunication and banishment; in societies governed by Islamic law, there is also the real prospect of a death sentence. If the circumcision of Muslim boys is permitted on the basis that they can refuse the operation, that right to refuse is unlikely to be exercised in many, perhaps most, cases. Moreover, the physical pain associated with circumcision—the most commonly cited moral objection to the practice—is immeasurably worse for a young boy than for a baby.

That Wilders and his party were unperturbed by the adoption of positions specifically targeting Jews tells us a great deal about the current configuration of the nationalist, anti-European Union right in Europe. As the Dutch election approached, Wilders realized that opposing Islam and supporting Israel wasn’t going to muster sufficient votes; accordingly, he seized upon the traditional conservative rejection of the European Union as the centerpiece of his platform, extending his reach to people who did not share his opinion of Israel as a privileged ally in the war on Islamism. As the ongoing battles over shechita and circumcision in Holland prove, Wilders does not see the need to reflect his foreign-policy values on the domestic front. Perhaps that was why the chief rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, felt it necessary, in a letter to Wilders protesting his party’s stance on shechita, to point out the following: “I am fully aware of your firm support of the Jewish state of Israel and do respect and thank you for this. But one cannot separate between the Jewish state and the Jewish people.”

Metzger might have sent a similar message to Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right Front National (FN) in France. When Le Pen suggested, in September, that a ban on Muslim women wearing headscarves be extended to Jews wearing kippot, she called on Jews to sacrifice their rights in the name of the wider fight against Sharia ordinances establishing themselves in French public life. In order to avoid being “burned” as a “Muslim-hater,” Le Pen explained, she was appealing to “our Jewish compatriots to make this small effort, this little sacrifice probably” in the name of equality. “I’m sure a big part of them are ready to make that little sacrifice,” she added, rather disingenuously.

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The assault on Jewish ritual in Europe has broadened the appeal of anti-Semitism while retaining the core themes and techniques associated with its most recent, Israel-centered manifestation. At root, both strands of anti-Semitism are motivated by antipathy towards Jewish “tribalism.” In stubbornly retaining their differences, Jews wilfully go against the grain of history, whether by insisting on the integrity and security of their nation-state, or by retaining religious practices that are incompatible with enlightened secularism.

When it comes to circumcision, the assertion that the removal of the foreskin is an abuse of the individual lacks the basic condition conventionally associated with human-rights violations: namely, the victims’ own acknowledgement of having been systematically maltreated. Millions of male children are circumcised every year, and the vast majority reach adulthood never claiming that their bodies have been damaged without their consent. This, of course, raises the question of how the anti-ritualists can appeal to the language of human rights in the absence of a mass of “victims” who provide the raw material for their case.

The answer is plain. Anti-ritualism, like anti-Zionism, uses human-rights concerns as a fig leaf for a much more insidious agenda: namely, the removal of those characteristics that make Jews Jewish. However much the anti-ritualists are in denial, the historical record demonstrates conclusively that opposition to Jewish ritual has always been a central theme of anti-Semitism, in its premodern and modern forms. For example, the Roman Emperor Hadrian banned circumcision along with other Jewish observances in order to ensure, as the leading scholar of anti-Semitism Robert Wistrich has argued, that “the Jews had definitively ceased to exist as a nation in their own land.” Similar themes are evident in the forelock-tugging letter submitted, in 654 C.E., by a group of lapsed Toledo Jews to the Visigoth king: “We will not practice the operation of circumcision. We will not celebrate the Passover, Sabbath, and other festival days, as enjoined by the Jewish ritual.”

In modern times, Jewish ritual has been portrayed as an enemy of both Christian and Enlightenment values, with their various emphases on love, the innate equality of human beings, and the duty of care to all God’s creatures. The peculiarly European obsession with the flawed idea of “animal rights”—a construct that ignores the fact that rights flow from a social contract with the state, and depend on the ability of their bearers to communicate and reason with each other—is what lay behind the Swiss prohibition of shechita at the end of the 19th century, Norway and Sweden in the first half of the 20th century, and New Zealand as recently as 2010. Most famously, Nazi Germany banned shechita in 1933, just three months after Hitler seized power. In the notorious anti-Semitic film Der ewige Jude (“The Eternal Jew”), the Nazis portrayed shechita as a gruesome Jewish celebration of animal suffering. The anti-ritualists think in largely the same terms, even if they prefer to ignore the noxious provenance of their beliefs.

Is Charlotte Knobloch, the German Jewish leader, therefore correct in wondering aloud whether there is still a place for Jews in Germany? Anti-Semitism today lacks the grotesque characteristics of its previous eruptions: mass violence, the triggering of mass flight, the legally enshrined inferior status of the Jews. But the overall trend remains clear. Slowly yet inexorably, the foundations for a separate Jewish existence in Europe are being chipped away. And unlike in America, where the anti-circumcision movement exists only at the margins of political debate, anti-ritualism in Europe encompasses elected politicians, large swathes of the medical profession, and sympathetic voices in the commentariat. We ignore it at our peril.

About the Author

Ben Cohen is a writer in New York City. His article “Attacking Israel Online” appeared in our July/August issue.




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