Conflict & Justice

German Jews and Muslims Decry Circumcision Ruling

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In Berlin's largely Turkish Kreuzberg neighborhood, a Muslim mother holds her six-month-old son. She plans to have him circumcised despite a court ruling that declares the procedure illegal for non-medical, religious purposes. (Photo: David Levitz)

Over the past 250 years, Berlin's Jewish Hospital has seen a lot, but Dr. Richard Stern never thought he'd see what's happening now.

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"We've already had to cancel four or five planned circumcisions," he says. "The parents are disappointed. Some of them have no idea where to turn."

Across Germany, doctors are refusing to perform circumcisions on young boys, except in cases of medical necessity. Doctors say they're afraid of prosecution.

Late last month, a German court ruled that the circumcision of a four-year-old Muslim boy was illegal; it amounted to grievous bodily harm.

The court said that circumcision violated the boy's constitutional right to bodily integrity and that it was the child's right to decide, once he reaches adulthood, whether he wants to have his body irreversibly changed.

The ruling has outraged Germany's Jewish and Muslim minorities. Circumcision of young boys is integral to both religious traditions.

"For Jews, circumcision is a Biblical commandment, and it's supposed to be done on the eighth day," says Dr. Stern. "We're also talking about an ancient tradition that goes back over three thousand years."

Germany has been plunged into a heated debate for three weeks now. After the court ruling, the country's foreign minister immediately sided with Jews and Muslims in demanding that the practice of circumcision be protected, but the rest of the government remained silent. One poll showed the majority of Germans agreed with the judges that circumcision should be outlawed.

Late last week the discussion reached a boiling point when an emergency summit of European Orthodox rabbis declared the court's decision "the worst attack on Jewish life in Germany since the Holocaust."

The next day, the German government broke its silence.

"We want Muslim and we want Jewish religious life in Germany," said government spokesman Steffen Seibert. "Responsibly performed circumcisions must be possible in this country, free from prosecution."

But the legal situation remains confusing.

The court ruling last month only affects one jurisdiction directly, but experts say there's no telling how much that one decision could influence other courts across Germany.

All major political parties are now calling for a law that expressly protects circumcision, but Parliament doesn't get back from summer break until September, so the confusion will continue for some time.

At a Turkish market in Berlin, one Muslim mother who didn't give her name tells me she and other families won't wait for Parliament to act. She says, if parents have to, they will get their sons circumcised abroad.

"We weren't sure at first whether we'd get it done here or in Turkey, but now it looks like it's going to be Turkey," she says. "Turkey does have doctors too, and at least they'll let us say prayers."

German Jews may have the option of relying on traditional circumcisers, known as mohels, but there are only a few in Germany.

Even if the government does pass a law to protect circumcision, legal experts say crafting legislation will be tricky.

"In the end, we're talking about a collision between two fundamental constitutional rights," says Hans Michael Heinig, a law professor at the University of Göttingen. "On the one hand, [there's] the right of parents to give their children a religious upbringing, and on the other hand the right to bodily integrity, which is also quite important."

These competing rights were written into Germany's constitution after World War II in response to Nazi atrocities. They were intended to protect vulnerable populations.

Today, Germany's Jewish population is small — around 100,000 — but the country has 4 million Muslims. One side effect of the court's ruling has been to foster solidarity between Germany's Jewish, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders, all of whom have come out against the decision.

Their concerns have been echoed by denouncements from the Turkish government and the Israeli Parliament.

Since the Holocaust, Germany has worked hard to build a reputation for religious tolerance. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that the court ruling against circumcision threatens that reputation.

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