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German cabinet approves controversial circumcision bill

Jonathan Weckerle

At Sept. 9 rally in Bebelplatz a woman wears a T-shirt displaying pictures of famous Jewish men such as Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka and Leonard Nimoy that is emblazoned with the words, 'We were circumcised.'

 

By Donald Snyder, NBC News Special Correspondent

BERLIN -- The German cabinet approved a bill on Wednesday to make circumcision legal, a major step toward ending a controversy that started when a Cologne court banned the practice.


Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle issued the following statement: “This law will create legal certainty for those practicing religious traditions in Germany. The bill clearly shows that Germany is and will remain a cosmopolitan and tolerant country. We want Jewish and Muslim life to flourish as part of our society.”

The bill now goes to the Bundestag (German parliament) where it will be debated and a law will be drafted.

The debate over circumcision arose in June when Cologne’s regional court ruled that the ritual deprives a child of the right to self-determination and violates his physical integrity. 

According to Deidre Berger, executive director of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, the bill affirms religious freedom; treats circumcision as a matter of family law, not criminal law; and allows mohels (Jews trained to perform circumcisions) to perform the ritual. 

The Cologne court found that circumcision constitutes “bodily harm” and “assault.”  It criminalized circumcision in the Cologne district and created uncertainty about its legality in the rest of Germany.  

Tobias Schwarz / REUTERS

German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger (R) chats with Health Minster Daniel Bahr before weekly cabinet meeting in Berlin on Oct. 10, 2012. Germany's cabinet approved a bill that will allow the circumcision of infant boys and end months of legal uncertainty after a local court banned the practice.

Jews question their future in Germany

The circumcision of a four-year-old Muslim boy, hospitalized due to medical complications, triggered the controversy. 

But although the ruling was originally aimed at Muslim circumcision, it severely impacts the Jewish community. Jews began asking if they have a future in Germany.

In Hof, a small town near the Czech border, a 64-year-old rabbi faces charges for performing circumcisions.

“The Germans are not protecting the child from circumcision,” said Rabbi Joshua Spinner, Executive Vice President and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, “Rather, they are protecting themselves from the circumcised.”

Spinner emphasized the “otherness” of Jews and Muslims in German culture. 

Attacks on religion have heightened throughout Europe, particularly religions alien to European culture. The targets are minarets, headscarves, and kosher slaughter. 

Germany’s secular society considers religion a relic from the past. This is especially true in the former East Germany with its history of Communist atheism.  

TNS Emnid, a German polling organization, found 56 percent of Germans agree with the Cologne ruling.

According to Berger, the ruling can be traced to a body of law and medical literature that’s been accumulating for a decade. Based on little scientific evidence, this literature holds that circumcision does irreversible physical damage and causes emotional trauma. 

The German Association of Pediatricians agrees and calls for a two-year moratorium on circumcisions, in sharp contrast to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization, both of which both endorse circumcision for its medical benefits, particularly in fighting the spread of HIV in Africa. 

Advocating for religious freedom

But for the Jewish and Muslim communities, it’s not a medical issue. It’s about religious freedom. 

At a September rally held in Bebelplatz, the same square where the Nazis burned more than 20,000 “un-German” books, Jewish and

Jonathan Weckerle

A demonstrator wearing a T-shirt that says 'Are you Jewish? Yes!' shows her Jewish pride at a Sept. 9 rally held in Bebelplatz, Germany.

Muslim leaders denounced the Cologne ruling and asserted the right to freedom of religion.

The draft legislation is intended to respect this right. After discussion by Merkel’s cabinet, the legislation goes before the Bundestag.

Legislators expect legislation to be passed before the end of the year.

Dietmar Nietan, a Social Democratic Bundestag member, said the law must balance the right to religious freedom with the child’s rights. He attached equal weight to both sides of the equation. Nietan said he’d like the legislation to pass with a large majority, thereby validating Jewish life in Germany.

Philip Missfelder, a Bundestag member from the Christian Democratic party, called the draft legislation “a good approach to resolve the current juridical dilemma regarding circumcision.” 

The 33-year-old rising star in Merkel’s party believes the draft legislation “ensures both practice of Jewish religious life in our country and the children’s welfare.” He expects the bill to pass the Bundestag “without substantial alterations.” 

Missfelder says his Jewish constituents ask how they can live in a Germany that does not permit a four thousand year old religious ritual.

Chancellor Merkel has denounced the Cologne decision, calling for speedy enactment of a law that would be acceptable to Jews and Muslims.

But for some, regardless of the legislation that’s finally passed, the very fact that this discussion is happening raises questions about whether Jews belong in Germany. A debate over the right to engage in a ritual practice that’s at the very core of Jewish identity is a debate that should not even be taking place. 

“I look at this with much anger,” said Emmanuel Nashon, Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli Embassy in Berlin. 

And according to Berger, the adoption of this law is not even a foregone conclusion.  There are well-financed campaigns against it.

“Public opinion seems to be against circumcision and many parliamentary delegates from all parties are ambivalent. In addition major medical associations in Germany are anti-circumcision and are likely to oppose the draft law.” 

Berger sees this legislation as “a litmus test” for the future of Jewish life in Germany.