The World from Berlin Circumcision Ruling Is 'a Shameful Farce for Germany'

A controversial German court ruling on circumcision has outraged Muslim and Jewish groups in Germany and abroad. German commentators say the decision was misguided and could have devastating consequences.
German religious leaders claim that Jewish life will not be possible in the country if a court ruling on circumcision sets a legal precedent.

German religious leaders claim that Jewish life will not be possible in the country if a court ruling on circumcision sets a legal precedent.

Foto: dapd

The ruling came nearly two weeks ago, but the reaction is getting increasingly vocal. At a meeting of the orthodox Conference of European Rabbis in Berlin on Thursday, the group's head warned  that a June 26 court decision making a case of circumcision a crime had been the "worst attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust". Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt also threatened that Jews might leave Germany if the country doesn't move to provide legal certainty that the tradition of circumcision can continue.

In a case involving a Muslim boy, the Cologne regional court ruled  that the doctor performing the circumcision had committed bodily injury to a child, thus criminalizing the act. The ruling has no legal bearing on other cases, but some fear it could be used as a precedent by other courts.

The ruling has outraged not only the Muslim community, but also Jewish groups. In the postwar years, the Jewish community in Germany has painstakingly rebuilt itself to the point that it has been flourishing recently. But many view the ruling as a direct attack on their religious freedom.

Germany's leading Jewish body, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has called for a clarification of the country's confusing legal situation. "Circumcision is absolutely elementary for every Jew," the organization's president, Dieter Graumann, said in an interview with the Rheinische Post newspaper. He warned that if the Cologne ruling were to become the legal basis, that "Jewish life in Germany might ultimately no longer be possible."

Germany's parliament is currently on summer recess, but politicians are already discussing the possibility of making changes to German law to ensure that the religious rite of circumcision can continue here.

'Circumcisions Must Be Possible without Punishment'

"We know that a swift solution is necessary and that it can't be put off," said Steffen Seibert, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman. "Circumcisions that are carried out responsibly must be possible in this country without punishment." However, Seibert did not comment to reporters on whether a new law would be created ensuring the legality of circumcision, something that has been demanded by the opposition Greens and center-left Social Democratic Party. A spokeswoman for Germany's Justice Ministry also declined to comment.

In addition to Jewish and Muslim groups in Germany, the ruling has also drawn strong condemnation from the state of Israel. Germany's ambassador to the country, Andreas Michaelis, recently sought to ease concerns by writing a letter to Knesset President Reuven Rivlin. In it, he stated: "The decision is an isolated case that is not legally binding for other courts."

In recent days, the ruling has drawn nearly universal criticism in the press. On editorial pages on Friday, most newspapers writing on the topic call for the German government to move to provide clarity for religious groups that their freedoms will be protected.

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"It is understandable when religious leaders protest because they feel their faith and their rituals are being ridiculed. The ruling puts circumcision in a category that also includes beatings. The circumcised child is put on the same level as one who has been beaten up. Beatings belittle people and make a child the object of anger of the person beating it. But circumcision is an act of recognition: It makes the child the member of a faith and represents entry into a community. Some Christians and atheists may smirk over that, but Christians also don't have to celebrate the 'Feast of the Circumcision of Christ' on Jan. 1 if they don't want to. … The Cologne court's ruling was rash and the loud outcry is justified."

The regional Saarbrücker Zeitung writes:

"Under no circumstances can the circumcision ritual … of Judaism be reduced to an inherited, archaic religious law. To an overwhelming majority of secular Jews, it is viewed as much more of a foundation that is indispensable for establishing identity. Viewed in this context, there is no exaggeration in the objection that this legal decision makes Jewish -- as well as Muslim -- life in Germany impossible. … Another court, presumably (the Federal Constitutional Court in) Karlsruhe, will have to re-weigh the issues. If it affirms the (lower court's) ban, it would be unique in the entire world. It would do so in the full awareness that it risks triggering an exodus of Jews and Muslims (from Germany). One can't imagine what the consequences of this would be for Germany."

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"The circumcision of Jewish boys on the eighth day after their birth is a foundation of the Jewish religion. If it is suspended through disregard for freedom of religion, then Jewish life in Germany will no longer be possible. For the first time since the end of the Third Reich, Jews would be forced to leave the country in order to be able to adhere to this mandate of the scriptures. If that happens, it would send out a message with disastrous political consequences."

"There are also other reasons that legal certainty in the interests of freedom of religion and faith under Article 4 of the German constitution be created. A ban on circumcision, be it Muslim or Jewish, is a manifestation of the increasing intolerance shown towards religious groups in the world. It has been almost palpable since 9/11. ... Intolerance can swell like a flood: If you don't dam it up, it will continue."

"The reference (in the ruling) to the bodily integrity of the child is also only a pretext. No judge would seek to take action against the vaccinations given to infants -- an action that, statistically, can lead to greater complications than circumcision. And the 'castration trauma' that some dinner table psychologists have dreamt up cannot be taken seriously either. It certainly can't be any greater than the emotional burden faced by an adolescent who cannot take part in Jewish festivities and be consecrated because he is not circumcised. The Cologne judges didn't think about that and they issued a ruling that is unprecedented in the Western world. It is a shameful farce for Germany."

The left-leaning Frankfurter Rundschau writes:

"The rabbis' worries are justified. As long as German jurisprudence is concerned with finding a balance between the legally protected right of religious freedom and the right of physical integrity, religious Jews and Muslims will see themselves as confronted by a climate of defamation. In these emotionally charged debates, there is more at play than just investigating a position of legal positivism. Jews and Muslims don't need any advice or cultural-historical treatises on their rituals. What they need is legal certainty. And establishing this is also the job of politicians."

The regional Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The decision of the Cologne-based court shouldn't be allowed to stand in this way, and there needs to be another judicial review. What is the signal that Cologne was sending out? Should religious Jews who want to circumcise their boys now use quack doctors or even go abroad? One would already like to see a trace of historical or cultural sensitivity from the courts. The decision offers the kind of material that could trigger cultural warfare, if it hasn't already begun."