Anti-Semitism and Germany's Movement Against Circumcision

By Joshua Hammer

The German Society of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine condemned circumcision, and some say political movements simply reflect a culture traditionally inclined to tell people how to behave. But some Jewish Germans are less sure of the underpinnings.

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Protestors demonstrate against male circumcision in Berlin this past December. [Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters]

Last spring, shortly before the birth of our son, my partner and I sat down at the apartment we shared in Berlin to discuss an uncomfortable but urgent matter: circumcision. As an American Jew, I was adamant that Tom should be circumcised. Although I'm not religious, I pointed out that cutting off his foreskin would establish the Jewish part of his identity -- an identity that I believed was important to declare in Germany - -and that in America, it was a common procedure. It also came down to cosmetics: I wanted my son to look like me. But my partner, who is a German gentile, was deeply uncomfortable with the idea. She was anguished about the prospect of surrendering her infant son, for even fifteen minutes, to a stranger with a knife.

Ultimately, however, she recognized circumcision's importance to me, and agreed to go ahead with it. She was resolute that he not be cut by a mohel, without an anesthetic, "on the kitchen table," so, after phoning around, we found the one medical facility in Berlin that performs the operation: The Jewish Hospital in the gritty Wedding neighborhood, which -- ironically -- caters mostly to German Muslims. The surgery was carried out, with no complications, in May.

Our timing was fortuitous. A month later, in a decision that shocked Germany's Jews and Muslims and damaged the country's image around the world, a Cologne court ruled that male circumcision causes "bodily harm," and declared the practice to be illegal. The decision stemmed from an incident in 2010, when a Muslim mother panicked at the sight of her son's just-circumcised penis and rushed him to an emergency room, leading a zealous prosecutor to file charges against the doctor. The ruling had an immediate chilling effect. Worried that they, too, would be found criminally liable, doctors and mohels across Germany stopped performing circumcisions. In June 2012, Berlin's Jewish Hospital announced it was suspending them until further notice.

circuminset.jpgRonen Zvulun/Reuters

Our fracas, and the national furor over the same issue, exposed a cultural gap that I had never even realized existed. Although I had known that circumcision is not widespread in Europe, I had no awareness of the average German's hostility toward the practice, nor of the deep-seated xenophobic and perhaps even anti-Semitic feelings dredged up by the controversy. My two sons from my previous marriage to a German had been circumcised. But she was an East German Jew who had embraced her heritage after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the procedures had been carried out in Jerusalem and Boston; both took place in welcoming environments without any intrafamily disagreements.

This time around the atmosphere couldn't have been more different. As I've discovered, just one in ten boys goes under the knife in Germany -- and many Germans, like some members of my partner's family, regard the surgery as antiquated and potentially stigmatizing. Indeed, one survey taken last year found that sixty percent of Germans equate it with genital mutilation. "But he's not even religious," one family member told my partner after learning about the surgery. He was confused about why a self-proclaimed agnostic would force his son to submit to a ritual straight out of the Old Testament. He was also anguished over the prospect that our son would be teased in school for "looking different," and believed that the procedure was "unnecessary."

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Germany's backlash against male circumcisions is not unique. In recent years so-called "intactivist" movements have pushed for a ban in Denmark, the United Kingdom, and other European countries. And last year a group called Male Genital Mutilation got a proposition on the ballot in San Francisco that would have outlawed circumcision. The organization distributed a comic called "Foreskin Man," featuring a blond, blue-eyed superhero who rescues an about-to-be-circumcised infant from the clutches of knife-wielding rabbis. The Jewish Community Relations Council called the comic "reminiscent of Nazi-era propaganda."

But it is in Germany, because of its history, that the controversy has been most emotional. As an American Jew who has spent much of his time in Berlin during the past six years, I've been impressed by Germany's willingness to confront its Nazi past, from the construction of the Holocaust Memorial at the Brandenburg Gate to the continuing placement of small gold plaques in the sidewalks of Berlin's residential neighborhoods, marking the homes of Jews murdered by the Nazis. Yet I'm also aware that Jews occupy a marginal, and tenuous place in German society: the heavy police presence in front of Berlin's handful of synagogues, Jewish book stores, and Jewish bakeries serve as a constant reminder that Jews are considered prime targets for neo-Nazis and other terrorist groups, and most Germans I've encountered have never met a Jew, and are largely ignorant about the nuances of Jewish culture. The court judgment and ensuing anti-circumcision backlash reinforced the notion that many Germans regard Jews -- and Muslims -- as outsiders, clinging to backward, unsavory rituals and beliefs. For the first time, I began to feel uncomfortable about being Jewish in Germany. My perspective even caused friction in my relationship: My girlfriend contends that the anti-circumcision sentiment here primarily reflects customs and health concerns, while I have argued that it is partly rooted in anti-Semitism.

RTR38J3Vinset.jpgRonen Zvulun/Reuters

Jewish leaders share my suspicions. Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, called the court decision "one of the gravest attacks on Jewish life in the post-Holocaust world." Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Jewish Community in Berlin, told me that "the bris is fundamental for our religion. If this is put into a legal jeopardy, then we have to reconsider whether we can stay in Germany or not." German Muslims, many of whom already feel like second-class citizens here, were also incensed. Ali Demir, chairman of the Islamic Religious Community, called circumcision "a tradition that is thousands of years old and highly symbolic," and said that the ruling would make it more difficult for Muslims to assimilate into German life.

Anti-circumcision advocates deny that they are motivated by anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic feelings. The issue, they say, is "children's rights." Michael Schmidt-Salomon, the founder of a "humanist organization" called the Giordano Bruno Foundation , who says he was circumcised at 17 for "medical reasons," calls the procedure "high-risk, painful, sometimes even traumatizing" and claims that it can lead to "secondary hemorrhage, infections, boils . . . even amputations of the penis." Most German medical groups, including the German Pediatricians' Association, reflect Schmidt-Salomon's objections, regarding circumcision as a bodily injury without benefits to health. By contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics says circumcision "significantly reduces" the risk of HIV-AIDs and sexually transmitted diseases. (Even so, the number of infant boys who were circumcised in the US declined from 60 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

But Schmidt-Salomon has made no secret about his hostility toward organized religion, and he seems to have a particular animosity toward Judaism. German authorities condemned his 2008 children's book, How Do I Get to God, Asked the Small Piglet, for its virulent depictions of a rabbi, an imam, and a priest. Several critics likened its portrait of the rabbi to caricatures of Jews in Nazi-era propaganda. And Jewish leaders say whatever its motivations, the campaign has exposed wellsprings of anti-Semitic feeling in the German public. "We've gotten thousands of emails, ninety-five percent against us," I was told by Kramer. "People are saying things like 'Jews are torturing their own children, living in caves, performing ancient rituals for nothing.' It has made us strangers in our country."

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Last summer and fall, my partner began to feel a bit alienated herself. Every day when she pushed Tom in a stroller around our neighborhood, she ran a gauntlet of posters pasted up by Schmidt-Salomon's organization. They showed a young boy with his hands shielding his groin, with a legend that has become the rallying cry of the so-called children's rights movement: MY BODY BELONGS TO ME. At her weekly baby class, she has become reluctant to change Tom's diaper in front of the other mothers, for fear of drawing unwanted attention and being dragged into a discussion about the circumcision issue. As for me, the ongoing circumcision debate has reminded me again of the intolerance and parochialism in German society, and it also has started me wondering: what if my partner's family is right? What if Tom is subjected to abuse in school over his circumcised penis? (My two older sons, 11 and 7, haven't experienced any, at least as far as I know.) My partner's family has been warm and accepting toward me and has never raised Tom's circumcision in conversation, but for me, it remains there, hovering in the background -- a reminder of my "difference."

Germans I've talked to have downplayed the anti-Semitic angle in all this. They say that the circumcision backlash simply reflects a German habit of telling people what to do and how to behave, a busybody quality that reached its apogee in the culture of informants that thrived under the East German Stasi, but seems to infuse western German society as well. On repeated occasions I've been yelled at on the street, and even called a "murderer," for crossing against the light; the argument is that I'm setting a bad example for children, who might plunge into traffic and injure or kill themselves. (The fact that several of my acts of jaywalking took place on a deserted street on Sunday morning seems to have made little difference.) My son's pediatrician considers the anti-circumcision drive "ridiculous and dangerous" and believes outlawing the procedure would ensure that it would be carried out in "backrooms" and increase its risk.

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The German leadership, after a month-long silence, finally condemned the court ruling last summer. Prosecutors have promised not to arrest doctors or mohels, and the Jewish Hospital has resumed circumcisions. A bill legalizing ritual circumcision -- as long as it is performed using an anaesthetic by someone with "medical expertise" -- is working its way through the Bundestag. But about fifty Parliamentarians have proposed a countermeasure that would ban circumcisions on boys below age 14; the legislators insist that the child himself should have the right to allow or reject "such a serious interference with his bodily integrity." 

Even if the anti-circumcision movement gets its way, my longtime acquaintance Joshua Spinner, a rabbi at Skoblo Synagogue in the Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg, and head of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation here, vows that the ancient ritual will go on. "We have never stopped," he told me. "We said, 'If they want to haul us into court, they can do it. They can go to hell.'"

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/anti-semitism-and-germanys-movement-against-circumcision/266794/