While the Cologne court eventually acquitted the doctor because the underlying legal principle had not yet been established, it sought to change that by ruling that circumcising a child too young to give informed consent is a criminal act, even when done by a doctor with the permission of the parents, and even if there are no subsequent medical complications.
Even though the Cologne case involved a Muslim boy, Jews living in Germany saw the ruling as a direct threat to their way of life as well.
The Conference of European Rabbis called an emergency 3-day meeting in Berlin last week to discuss what to do. Its president, Rabbi Pinchos Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, called the Cologne ruling the “worst attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust.”
Citing France’s ban on Muslim veils and Switzerland’s ban on the construction of new minarets for mosques, Goldschmidt suggested that the Cologne decision is part of a wider trend of intolerance against religious traditions in Europe. He urged German leaders to resolve the problem, “not tomorrow, but yesterday,” and said that in the meantime, members of the German Jewish community should “keep performing the bris milah, and have no fear.”
Rabbi Avichai Apel, the chief rabbi of the German city of Dortmund, said that he has been in regular contact with Germany’s bishops and imams, who have been very supportive of the Jewish position on the issue.
MULTI-RELIGIOUS CONDEMNATIONS OF THE RULING
In a joint statement issued from Brussels last week, a group of rabbis, imams and others said that they consider the Cologne ruling to be “an affront on our basic religious and human rights.”
Protests against the Cologne ruling were also issued by the American Jewish Committee and the Los Angeles-based Simon Weisenthal Center.
The ruling prompted the members of the Knesset committee on Immigration, Absorption and the Diaspora to call in Andreas Michaelis, the German ambassador to Israel, to express their dismay. MK Nissim Ze’ev of Shas recalled how his father who was a mohel in the French Algerian city of Oran during World War II would risk his life to perform bris milah on newborns. “Why? Because for generations we have laid down our lives to uphold our traditions.”
Ambassador Michaelis responded by noting that “Jewish life in Germany, in the wake of Germany’s awful past, is entirely different today. Obviously the ban on circumcision is more sensitive in Germany than other places because of the Holocaust, but it’s important to stress that the Jewish community in Germany today is growing.”
Today, there are approximately 120,000 Jews living in Germany. Very few are descendants of pre-war German Jewry. Most were invited to emigrate there in recent decades from Eastern Europe and encouraged by the German government to rebuild the Jewish community.
Germany today is home to four million Muslims, many of whom are the descendants of Turks who were brought to Germany decades ago to provide cheap labor. Today Germany is one of several European countries which is having problems integrating a permanent Muslim population into their societies.
MERKEL PROMISES PROMPT ACTION TO OVERRULE THE DECISION
Following the uproar from religious leaders around the world who condemned the Cologne ruling as a dangerous attack on the principle of religious liberty, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week promised that she would ask the German parliament to pass “emergency legislation” to overrule the court’s decision. The spokesman said, “for everyone in the government, it’s completely clear: We want Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany. Circumcisions carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment.”
Merkel’s statement prompted the Presidents Conference, representing organized American Jewry, to praise the German Chancellor for her pledge to solve the problem.
Malcolm Hoenlein and Richard Stone, the leaders of the Presidents Conference, issued a statement saying, “We welcome the commitment voiced by Chancellor Merkel to protect religious freedom in Germany by assuring the continuing right to ritual circumcision. The Cologne district court that sought to outlaw this most ancient of rituals overstepped its bounds and would have caused tremendous damage to the rights of German citizens and to the future of the Jewish community there. Circumcision of newborn boys is a fundamental component of the Jewish religion as it is of Islam and the choice of many other parents and has been performed from time immemorial. This right is respected around the world. In the past, a ban on circumcision was a means to attack or drive out Jewish communities.
“We are pleased that the German government has reaffirmed its pledge to protect religious life in Germany, including non-interference with circumcision when carried out in a responsible manner. Striking down the ill-conceived Cologne court ruling should clarify any legal uncertainty and not allow such ideas to spread.”
A DENIAL OF PARENTS’ RELIGIOUS RIGHTS
The Cologne court sought to justify its decision by noting that the operation would “permanently and irreparably change” the child’s body which violated the child’s right, “to physical integrity and to decide for himself later on to which religion he wishes to belong.” The court’s ruling also implied that parents do not have a right to raise their own child in their religion, and showed the court’s disdain for the value of all religious practices.
Germany’s Justice Minister, Sabine Leutheuser Schnarrenberger, said that the Cologne court’s decision would be reviewed by a higher German federal court, which will weigh it against the principles of parental rights and religious freedom which are well established in Germany’s constitution.
“Circumcision has never been questioned in the past,” she said. “It is about fundamental questions and different values. The question is how to weigh the right of religious practice against the right to physical integrity.”
Norbert Geis, a lawmaker with the Christian Social Union, a Bavarian affiliate of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrat party, called the Cologne court’s decision a “misjudgement.”
He expressed confidence that if a higher German court does not overrule it first, that Germany’s parliament will move quickly to legalize circumcision to end any threat to members of religious groups and doctors performing the procedure. “I’d imagine that such a bill would be backed by a broad majority across all parties,” Geis said.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, reported that he has been inundated by criticism of the ruling. Everyone is greatly concerned about the ramifications of the ruling, and mostly for Jewish and Muslim life in Germany.” He sought to reassure the international community that, “Germany is an open, tolerant country, where religious freedom is firmly established and where religious traditions, such as circumcision, are legally protected as expressions of religious pluralism.”
GERMAN DOCTORS WARNED TO STOP CIRCUMSIZING CHILDREN
The court’s ruling prompted the German Medical Association to warn its members that the ruling exposes doctors performing circumcisions to legal jeopardy and advised its members to stop performing such operations because of the risk of being prosecuted. The president of the medical association, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, warned that the court’s decision might ultimately jeopardize the health of children. “There is now the danger that lay people will carry out the circumcisions instead of doctors, which will lead to considerable complications because of unsanitary conditions.” He noted that since the Cologne court’s ruling was issued, the 250-year-old Jewish Hospital of Berlin has suspended the performance of religious circumcisions for both Muslims and Jews, and canceled five previously planned procedures. Last year, the hospital reported that about 300 circumcisions had been performed there on both Muslim and Jewish boys in accordance with the requests of the parents of each child.
A spokesman for the Jewish community in Berlin told a reporter for the New York Times that since the court ruling, there have been three brisim performed in the community by Jews who were determined to defy the ruling. He also expressed doubt that authorities in Berlin would ever dare to try to enforce the Cologne court’s ruling.
RULING BRINGS OUT GERMAN ANTI-SEMITISM
While the Cologne ruling has been highly unpopular with Germany’s elected leaders, Holm Putzke, a law professor at the University of Passau, supports the decision because he says it reflects “the prevailing legal opinion” that circumcising a boy at such a young age is medically unnecessary.
“I can understand that this verdict has irritated people, but this irritation can be resolved if people look at the reasoning,” Putzke said. “It’s not about banning religious circumcision, it’s about delaying it until a child can decide for himself.”
Putzke praised the Cologne court for “not letting itself be frightened by the concern of being criticized as anti-Semitic or anti-religious. After the reflexive outrage has faded, hopefully a discussion will begin about how much religiously motivated violence against children a society is ready to tolerate.”
Putzke would like to see the ruling emulated by other German courts, and calls plans by the German government to pass legislation to overturn it a “hasty reaction.”
Washington Post commentator Charles Lane called Putzke’s accusations that both Muslims and Jews do violence to their own children by circumcising them even worse than classic anti-Semitic blood libels.
Lane also condemns the judges who issued the Cologne ruling “for completely ignoring the nature of religious tradition, which is that it is transmitted from parents to children. To posit a world in which the parents have their religion, and kids choose theirs, when they’re old enough, is to imply that even sending one’s child to a religious school – or making him prepare for a bar mitzvah – might be a form of brainwashing. Certainly it pushes progressive notions of human rights past the point at which they would undermine the spiritual basis of ancient communities.”
Unfortunately, these ideas are not unique to Putzke and the Cologne judges, or limited to Germany. Anti bris milah activists put similar proposals on the ballot in two California cities last year. But nobody should be fooled. The legalistic child protection rhetoric used to justify the outrageous Cologne rulings is merely a thin veneer over the same old anti-Semitism that lurks just below the civilized surface.
The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this story