Commentary Magazine


Topic: circumcision ban

Germans Move to Lift Bris Ban

Four months after a Cologne court rattled European Jews with a ruling that banned circumcision, the German government took the first step toward granting the ritual the formal protection of the law. Acting at the behest of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 16-member cabinet voted in favor of a draft bill that will overturn the Cologne court and make circumcision legal throughout Germany if done by a trained professional, such as a Jewish mohel or ritual circumciser. If the bill is passed by the federal parliament, it will become law and remove the threat of prosecution that now hangs over mohels in Germany.

The odds are, that is exactly what the Bundestag will do in the coming weeks, though some Jews are worried that public sentiment is still against them no matter Merkel wants. As the Forward notes, German Jewish leaders fear that the ambivalence of all the major parties, as well as what may turn out to be spirited resistance from major medical associations, will derail the legislation. But even if Merkel succeeds, the question hanging over European Jewry is whether the bill can start to undo the damage that the court ruling created.

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Four months after a Cologne court rattled European Jews with a ruling that banned circumcision, the German government took the first step toward granting the ritual the formal protection of the law. Acting at the behest of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the 16-member cabinet voted in favor of a draft bill that will overturn the Cologne court and make circumcision legal throughout Germany if done by a trained professional, such as a Jewish mohel or ritual circumciser. If the bill is passed by the federal parliament, it will become law and remove the threat of prosecution that now hangs over mohels in Germany.

The odds are, that is exactly what the Bundestag will do in the coming weeks, though some Jews are worried that public sentiment is still against them no matter Merkel wants. As the Forward notes, German Jewish leaders fear that the ambivalence of all the major parties, as well as what may turn out to be spirited resistance from major medical associations, will derail the legislation. But even if Merkel succeeds, the question hanging over European Jewry is whether the bill can start to undo the damage that the court ruling created.

The prosecutions of rabbis for performing circumcisions, the decisions by hospitals to cease conducting the procedure, and incidents of anti-Semitic violence have all helped to create a hostile atmosphere for European Jews. While some put down the opposition to circumcision to a general lack of tolerance for faith and organized religion in Europe, the fact remains that Jews remain the leading targets for ostracism and hatred.

In contemporary Europe, hostility to Zionism and Israel has given a façade of faux legitimacy to traditional anti-Semitism. Combine that with a culture that views all religious observance as either primitive or foreign and it’s easy to see how the anti-circumcision movement has gained so much traction.

That means that Merkel is going to have put the whip out on her coalition members to ensure that the bill is passed without any changes that would make it impossible for mohels to do their job and thus render the whole exercise pointless.

Nevertheless, Chancellor Merkel deserves great credit for pushing the bill through this far. A failure to legalize circumcision will expose Germany to ridicule and anger. But even if it passes, there is no denying that this lamentable chapter has exposed a raw nerve of modern Jew-hatred.

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Another German Rabbi Charged in Bris Ban

I’ve gotten some feedback from readers who don’t agree with my posts that look to anti-Semitism as supplying much of the motivation for the drive to ban circumcision in Germany. They claim I’m exaggerating the Jewish angle and ignoring other reasons–such as German hostility to Muslims and foreigners in general, as well as the belief by some that it harms children. I’m prepared to acknowledge that those may have a hand in driving this story, but the developments since a judge in Cologne first issued the ruling rendering circumcision illegal in the country tend to undermine other narratives.

Today we learned that criminal charges have now filed against a second rabbi for performing circumcisions. This also comes hours after a brutal beating of a skullcap-wearing Jew on the streets of Berlin in front of his six-year-old daughter by an assailant who first demanded to know if he was Jewish. It’s time for those seeking to assert that what the U.S. State Department has called a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” in Europe hasn’t touched Germany to acknowledge that there is a serious problem. And it is getting worse.

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I’ve gotten some feedback from readers who don’t agree with my posts that look to anti-Semitism as supplying much of the motivation for the drive to ban circumcision in Germany. They claim I’m exaggerating the Jewish angle and ignoring other reasons–such as German hostility to Muslims and foreigners in general, as well as the belief by some that it harms children. I’m prepared to acknowledge that those may have a hand in driving this story, but the developments since a judge in Cologne first issued the ruling rendering circumcision illegal in the country tend to undermine other narratives.

Today we learned that criminal charges have now filed against a second rabbi for performing circumcisions. This also comes hours after a brutal beating of a skullcap-wearing Jew on the streets of Berlin in front of his six-year-old daughter by an assailant who first demanded to know if he was Jewish. It’s time for those seeking to assert that what the U.S. State Department has called a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” in Europe hasn’t touched Germany to acknowledge that there is a serious problem. And it is getting worse.

Rabbi Yishak Ehrenberg is the second German Jewish clergyman to be noticed by officials that he is under investigation for violating the ban on circumcision. This apparently happened after Ehrenberg took part in a television debate on the issue at which he vowed that the Jewish community would continue to perform the ritual of brit milah that is at the heart of Jewish identity.

The Times of Israel supplied the following quote from Ehrenberg’s appearance:

“I don’t even want to go into this discussion,” Ehrenberg said after a proponent of a ban said that the act was tantamount to causing the child bodily injury without his or her consent. “We’re talking about religion,” said Ehrenberg. “This ruling will kill Judaism in Germany.”

The rabbi is correct about that. Though German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a strong stand against the ruling and vowed that her parliamentary majority will pass a law legalizing it this fall, it’s not clear that what will be passed will actually grant immunity to traditional Jewish practice.

More to the point, the assumption that most Germans would ignore the Cologne ruling until the federal government dealt with the issue was incorrect. There is an obvious willingness by Germans to enforce the ban and punish those dedicated to ensuring that Jewish life in the country is able to continue.

That this effort would spill over into street violence against Jews was entirely predictable. The Cologne decision was a signal to anti-Semites that the generations-old taboo against anti-Jewish behavior had been lifted in mainstream German society.

Though there may be other factors behind the original campaign against circumcision, it’s now clear what is at stake here. It is now up to Merkel and her government to act expeditiously to quash any prosecutions of Jews and to pass a law that will put this nightmare to rest. The alternative is to see the country that spawned the Nazis and the Holocaust revisit a tragic and criminal past by threatening the religious freedom of Jews.

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