In German circumcision debate, 'us vs them' fears

By DAVID RISING,Associated Press Updated at 2012-07-22 09:19:03 +0000

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BERLIN (AP) — Rabbi David Goldberg had performed about 25 ritual circumcisions this year before a regional court ruled in June that the practice amounted to causing criminal bodily harm.

Despite the decision, he expects to perform the same number in second half of the year.

"I haven't changed anything," said Goldberg, one of Germany's few mohels — a person trained in the Jewish ritual of circumcision.

Though the Cologne court's decision has raised fears among Muslims and Jews that circumcising their children could get them into legal trouble, it has had little practical effect in reducing religious circumcisions — especially since the government has weighed in with assurances to both communities that their practices will be respected.

But both Jews and Muslims say that a more lasting effect may be "us vs. them" tensions that have raised an invisible barrier between secular Germans and religious minorities.

"It is no surprise that the Catholics and the Protestants have stood behind the Muslim community in this case and denounced the verdict," said Aiman Mazyek, the chairman of Germany's Central Council of Muslims. "In my opinion this is no picture of tolerance or religious freedom from a modern civilization. It is a step backward."

Jews are religiously required to circumcise baby boys on the 8th day after birth in a ceremony seen as their entrance into a covenant with God. Muslims also usually perform the procedure early in a boy's life, though sometimes wait until later in childhood.

In the Cologne decision, announced June 26, the court said circumcising young boys on religious grounds amounts to bodily harm even if parents consent to the procedure. The charge is punishable by anything from a fine to up to five years in prison.

The ruling came in the case of the circumcision of a 4-year-old Muslim boy that led to medical complications.

The boy was circumcised at the request of his parents. He developed complications two days later and was rushed to the hospital. Prosecutors charged the doctor, who was acquitted when a Cologne court found that he had performed the procedure properly, and that he had the parents' permission to carry out the circumcision.

But prosecutors appealed, and the higher Cologne court ruled that in a case of circumcision for non-medical reasons, the welfare of the child outweighed the religious rights of the parents. The acquittal of the doctor, however, was upheld because the court said the law had been unclear.

Though not precedent setting for other courts in Germany, the ruling prompted an outcry from Jewish and Muslim groups across Europe, while in Israel the German ambassador was invited to explain the decision to the Knesset.

Germany's main Catholic and Protestant organizations also condemned the ruling as an attack on religious freedom. The president of the German Medical Association said the ruling could even endanger children, by forcing circumcisions to be performed under possibly unsanitary conditions outside of hospitals.

Caught in the middle were people like Moishe Furer, a rabbinical student in Berlin whose son Elchanan was born five days before the decision was announced.

The native of Moldova said his own parents had to bribe a doctor when he was born to certify that his own circumcision was for medical purposes because performing the procedure for religious reasons was not allowed in the former Soviet Union. When he first heard of the Cologne decision, he said he thought the court ruling was being misinterpreted.

"We thought it was a mistake, that it could not be true that something like circumcision could be forbidden in Germany," he said.

But because of the religious significance, he said, they had the circumcision done, despite fears that other courts might follow the ruling even if it did not set a precedent.

"It was important enough to risk," he said.

The most disturbing part of the ruling for Jews and Muslims is the court's contention that being circumcised "runs contrary to the interest of the child to later choose his religious affiliation," said Josh Spinner, an American rabbi who grew up in Hamilton, Canada, and has been in Berlin for more than a decade.

"I'm a circumcised male, I expect that I have the right to become a Catholic or Protestant or Buddhist or atheist if I choose to today. But what the court is saying is that if I am circumcised I am a Jew," he said. "There's a very dark and very illiberal view of what this mark does on the individual."

Around 250,000 Jews live in Germany today, and about 4 million Muslims — the largest minority among Germany's 82 million population.

Spinner said the ruling has the potential of opening the door to even greater restrictions on religious freedom for minorities — a particularly sensitive issue in Germany given the years of state-imposed anti-Jewish measures under the Nazis that preceded the Holocaust.

"Germany needs to understand that if they want to tolerate Jews then they need to tolerate Judaism," Spinner said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged the same concern behind closed doors in a meeting this week with her party leaders, saying "I don't want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot perform their rituals," according to an official who was present.

Immediately following the court ruling, however, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was alone among top officials to speak out on the issue. He offered assurances that "the free exercise of religion is protected in Germany — that includes religious traditions."

In the past week, however, Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert has weighed in several times, promising that the government will come up with a solution that will allow the practice.

And in Parliament on Thursday, lawmakers from several parties adopted a resolution urging the government to draft a new law by the fall guaranteeing Muslims and Jews the right to continue circumcising their boys.

"Jewish and Muslim religious life must continue to be possible in Germany," the lawmakers said in the two-page resolution. "The circumcision of boys for Jews and Muslims has a central religious importance."

Had the government spoken out strongly sooner, said Goldberg, Germany may have managed to prevent the discussion from turning into an "us vs. them" embroilment.

"I get a lot of emails from non-Jewish Germans saying things like 'if you don't like it, leave Germany' — very anti-Semitic. It's a bad atmosphere," said the rabbi, who immigrated to Germany 19 years ago from Israel and now lives in the southeastern city of Hof.

"Nobody said anything aside from Westerwelle, so that is also partially the fault of the government."

Joerg van Essen, parliamentary chief whip of the Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition partner, said that drafting the resolution to protect circumcisions took time because lawmakers needed to carefully balance constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms and parental rights with the safety of the child.

"It's a relatively small procedure for the child, but banning it would be a big encroachment on religious freedom and the right of the parents to decide how to raise their children," he said.

Furer said he hoped that the circumcision debate would be expose more Germans to other religious ideas.

"I think a lot of Germans don't understand our religion and our religious issues," he said.


Associated Press correspondent Frank Jordans contributed to this report.