In the wake of a German court’s ruling in June that declared nonconsensual religious circumcision to be inflicting “bodily harm” on boys, Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center have called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders in the Bundestag to pass legislation declaring the practice legal in Germany.
Circumcision is a central rite for both Jews and Muslims, and the court’s decision provoked criticism from religious and political leaders both in Germany and beyond.
In their letter dated July 5, Hier and Cooper urged Merkel to condemn the ruling and “take immediate legislative steps to guarantee the right of Jews and Muslims to continue to practice their age-old core tradition of circumcision.”
The current controversy began when the District Court of Cologne ruled in a case involving a four-year-old Muslim boy who was taken by his parents to a hospital days after his ritual circumcision. The court acquitted the doctor, but ruled that in the future, doctors who carry out circumcisions should be punished, and declared that circumcision “even when done properly by a doctor with the permission of the parents, should be considered as bodily harm if it is carried out on a boy unable to give his own consent,” The Guardian reported.
The decision was met with immediate criticism from Jews and Muslims in Germany and beyond. German politicians and Christian leaders in the country also criticized the decision as infringing upon religious freedom and parental rights. The court’s decision rejected such claims, however, ruling that, “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of the parents.”
Many of the arguments on both sides of this debate will look familiar to anyone who followed the path of an anti-circumcision measure that initially qualified for inclusion on ballots in San Francisco in 2011.
In much the same way as the proposed San Francisco law would have only applied to men under age 18, a law professor involved in the debate over the legal status of religious circumcision in Germany told Reuters that the court’s decision was not an effort to ban religious circumcision, but to prohibit the surgery from being performed on anyone too young to give consent.
Such declarations are unlikely to mollify the concerns of Jews, who traditionally circumcise their sons on the eighth day of life.
By urging the German government to take action legislatively, Hier and Cooper are advocating for one strategy that was employed in 2011 by American lawmakers who passed a law in Sacramento and introduced another in Washington, D.C., that would have stopped the proposed anti-circumcision ballot measure from spreading beyond San Francisco. (The 2011 ballot measure was ultimately struck from the ballot after a court decided that a preexisting California law prohibited cities from regulating such procedures.)
Pointing to news reports that the Jewish Hospital in Berlin had stopped performing circumcisions, even though the Cologne court’s decision might not apply in the German capital, Cooper said that a law could put an end to the newly murky legal status of circumcision.
“One way to clarify this very important social issue is to pass a piece of legislation that specifically says circumcision is legal,” Cooper told The Journal in an interview. “We turn to Chancellor Merkel, really as the most important politician in Germany, to get her to exercise political leadership.”
But if the abortive attempt to outlaw underage male circumcision in a California city provoked strong reactions last year, the current controversy over the court’s binding ruling is stoking passions to an particularly intense degree specifically because it is taking place in Germany.
Calling the ruling “a frontal attack on religious freedom,” Cooper said that laws prohibiting circumcision, like similar legislation prohibiting ritual Jewish slaughter in certain European countries, were “an invitation for Jews to leave.”
“Hell will freeze over before the Jewish people will look for moral leadership from anyone in Germany about how we should exercise our religion,” Cooper said.