Collateral damage: Europe’s Jews feeling the pressure

Circumcision of male infants has come under attack from a variety of political factions as recent years in Western Europe have witnessed a rise in attempts to criminalize the ancient ritual practiced by Jews and Muslims.

In June, after a failed operation on a Muslim child, a district court in Cologne, Germany, ruled circumcision to be illegal, and in August criminal charges were filed against a rabbi in Northern Bavaria for performing circumcision. German politicians condemned the verdicts and promised to uphold religious freedom, but the voices that want to criminalize circumcision are becoming louder.

These voices have gained strength in Northern Europe, where efforts to ban circumcision have intensified. Gideon Bolotowsky, former chairman of the 1200-member Helsinki Jewish community and a vocal defender of male circumcision in the Finnish media, is worried, but believes in the vitality of Jewish life in Europe.

“I believe that politicians, at the end of the day, will realize that there are no medical or other benefits – probably it’s the other way around – to be gained by banning circumcision,” he said. “Besides, religious freedom is an inalienable part of human rights – and banning circumcision would be a serious infringement on the religious freedom of Jews.”

Few politicians in Finland have expressed opposition to circumcision, but in March organizations composed mainly of activists from the green and left-wing parties issued a statement in which they demanded that all non-medical circumcisions done to male infants be criminalized. These groups argued that circumcision is equivalent to an aggravated assault and should therefore be banned.

Assessing the reasons why circumcision has become a hot topic now, in the age of unprecedented cultural toleration, Bolotowsky sees social media and the easy dissemination of any material in enormous quantities as the main facilitator of the growing trend. This trend is largely fueled by emerging Muslim minorities in every European country, he added.

The surfacing of large Muslim minorities in Europe has made circumcision a contested topic all over Europe, where circumcision is not part of general prophylactic interventions like in the US and Australia.

Many argue that the ban on circumcision and its far-reaching legal ramifications would make Jewish and Muslim life in Europe extremely difficult, or altogether impossible. “A ban on circumcision would practically end Jewish life in Finland as we know it,” Simon Livson, the Chief Rabbi of Finland, warned. ”Circumcision is an intrinsic part of our identity. If you criminalize it, you will criminalize an essential part of Judaism.”

Livson’s fears are well-warranted. A survey conducted in Finland in 2008 showed that 80 percent of Finns oppose circumcision of male infants. One unnamed Finnish politician said that any public discussion of circumcision might not be good for the Jews, but it seems that Jews will soon forced to publicly make their case for the ancient ritual – and for their religion.

In Norway, the ombudsman for children’s rights, Dr. Anne Lindboe, told the local newspaper Vart Land in July that male circumcision is an infringement on a person’s right to decide over his own body.

According to the president of Oslo’s 700-member Jewish community, Ervin Kohn, the debate is ongoing, but it is unlikely that male infant circumcision will be banned in the near future.

The increasingly vocal opposition has occurred simultaneously with the rise of Europe’s Muslim populations. Many in Europe’s anti-circumcision movement view Jews as acceptable collateral damage as part of efforts to curb Muslim immigration to Europe.

Kohn subscribes to this view. “I think the Jews are collateral damage,” he said. “Not because Europeans hate Muslims, but because the Muslim population has different practices and their numbers are greater and therefore the number of complications is higher.”

Kohn explained that strong opposition to Jewish and Muslim practices among Norwegians can be traced back to theological differences. Norway is secular, but for many Norwegians religious understanding derives from Christianity.

“We have to remember that the Norwegian society is mainly a secular society which reacts negatively to religious practices and arguments,” Kohn said. “However, even though Norwegian society is secular, the frames of reference are Christian-Protestant. This leads to the opinion that religion is a private thing and is all about faith and belief, not so much about practices.”

Protecting the male infant’s personal freedom is a strong argument that resonates with the largely secular masses of northern Europe. Arguments that cite medical studies showing circumcision’s health benefits are contested by studies that indicate the development of sexual problems in adulthood. The debate will rage on, and Jews and Muslims will have to prepare for a long battle to convince the non-believers that religious freedom sometimes involves rituals that are seen as archaic in the eyes of the increasingly secular Europeans.

About the Author
Dennis Mitzner is a writer living in Helsinki and Tel Aviv