Abraham Cooper

The teddy bear in Norway: A new threat for Jews

A new threat for the Jews of Europe

Genocidal rants from Iranian mullahs and president. Potential attacks from the next lone wolf terrorists, yet identified by French or German Intelligence. “Pro-Israel” Dutch politicians who insist they will to ban shehita. A mayor of a major Swedish city refusing to protect the local Rabbi from anti-Semitic attacks. This new year, as they gather in synagogues ringed by police and video surveillance, members of Europe’s beleaguered Jewish communities must be asking themselves — what’s next?

Actually, the next great threat to Jewry’s future could be lurking behind a teddy bear. I made that discovery during a recent trip to European capitals, including Berlin, where I met with a team led by the German minister of justice, who has been tasked with undoing the harm unleashed by a judge in Cologne who has criminalized brit milah. Moves to suspend ritual circumcision or calls to ban it outright spread to Switzerland, Denmark, Austria and Norway.

I was most interested to meet Dr. Anne Lindboe, a pediatrician who serves as Norway’s ombudsman for children’s rights. As our delegation, which included the president of the Norwegian Jewish community, entered her Oslo offices, I noticed that the official coat-of-arms of this government agency is the teddy bear. But there was nothing warm or cuddly about Dr. Lindboe’s PowerPoint presentation outlining her opposition to ritual circumcision of Jewish male infants, nor in the tense exchanges that ensued. For the first time, I encountered an official in a Western democracy whose personal contempt for a 3,000-year-old religious ritual she admits she never witnessed leads her to castigate a core Judaic rite as “barbaric” and “immoral.” Indeed, even as I described the transcendent moments I experienced as a grandfather who has been blessed to hold his four grandsons during their circumcision ceremonies, it was clear that the doctor views me and Jewish parents circumcising their infant boys in the same league as child molesters.

Equally outrageous was Dr. Lindboe, whose mandate is to protect vulnerable children, summarily dismissing as “irrelevant,” the growing body of scientific evidence of the medical benefits that circumcision provides males, their sexual partners and society as a whole. Indeed, just last month the American Pediatric Association urged that all American baby boys be circumcised.

While Norway’s State Secretary Larson later reassured us that there will be no ban on brit milah by her country’s political establishment, the nation’s ombudsman has independent standing that could lead to legal efforts in international bodies to ban our religious rite — a draconian measure that historically had been the exclusive domain of ancient tyrants and modern dictators like Josef Stalin. Pressed again and again to rationally explain her position, she merely reiterated that it was her “belief”; based on her “experiences,” it was the right thing to do to “protect” children. Dr. Lindboe actually took pains to acknowledge the relentless bullying of Jewish children in Norwegian schools, but this unconscious facilitator of anti-Semitism refused to connect the dots of her rhetoric to real-life bigotry.

We had no such trouble connecting the dots in Germany.

When meeting with the German justice minister whose offices were built upon the site of pre-World War II Jewish Fashion Houses, erased so efficiently and totally by the Nazi Third Reich, the weight of history filled the room. She needed no further explanation when I said “no Jewish parent will ever accept the dictates of any German government as to how they will raise their children.”

So we continue to work with and through democratic institutions in Germany,Norway and across Europe to secure freedom of religion for Jews and other minorities.

In France, Jewish leaders are pushing to have their community’s rights and safety secured. My meeting with Manuel Valls, President Hollande’s minister of interior, confirms that the new French administration is not forsaking Europe’s largest community in the wake of the shocking terrorist murders of Jewish kids and a rabbi on a school playground in Toulouse and the subsequent spike in violent anti-Jewish hate crimes.

But how to deal with officials, so totally estranged from the very idea that religions may actually have something positive to contribute to society’s well being, and so taken with the state “protecting children’s rights,” that they would move to override parental rights and responsibilities with big-brother diktats?

Norway and the rest of Europe have been down that road before. The results were genocide for Jews and devastation for a continent.

Don’t let the cute teddy bear fool you. Creating legal mechanisms to override religious freedom and to co-opt parental responsibility won’t protect kids; only debase and weaken the family — the basic building block of any healthy society. And therein lies the biggest threat of all.

About the Author
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Associate Dean and Global Director of its Ed Snider Social Action Institute