Circumcision: A superfluous debate

Germany´s furious debate about a possible ban of Circumcision is wrong and superflous. The insistence on applying law should not be allowed to disturb the peace under law.

Israeli President Shimon Peres has written to the President of Germany Joachim Gauck and Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In these letters, they warn that religious circumcision should be tolerated and respected by German law. Circumcision, explains Peres, is a central feature of Jewish identity.

In Germany, letters are also being written. Countless letter writers furiously demand that no tolerance and no legal respect should be paid to a ‘primitive ritual’ in Judaism and Islam. They go on to demand that the practice be stopped in the name of the child’s welfare and his bodily integrity.

A storm of agitation

With its decision that circumcision is a criminal offense, the Cologne court unleashed a storm of agitation: Opponents of the decision are outraged over the verdict as unmindful of history. Supporters of the decision, on the other hand, celebrate it as the liberation of law from tutelage and partiality and demand that the decision be made universal. Why are they doing that? Child welfare ranks high in low birth-rate Germany – and the instructions on the inviolability of the law are serious.

One cannot and should not, say the proponents of the decision, exclude a certain group of people from the generality of the law. However, should dogmatic insistence on applying criminal law be allowed to disturb the peace under law? The opponents of the decision call for the respect of the right to millennia-old Jewish and Muslim traditions; they seek redress for this enmity toward minorities.

That there are parents, some Christian, some not religious at all, who have had their children circumcised for health reasons plays no role in the debate. This is a dispute over the role of religion in secular society.
Other conflicts will follow; they are part of a multi-religious society on the one hand, and on the other hand of an increasingly irreligious society. They cannot be solved definitively; what matters, is how they are fought.
The language of this debate is frequently drastic, often very disrespectful – toward religion in general and against Judaism and Islam in particular.

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

When malicious critics of circumcision come along they bring with them old anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in a new guise, namely in a romping suit. There is, unfortunately a lot of romping going on in Germany today. Wellmeaning critics of circumcision point out that one could practice the religious precept more gently and kindly: a symbolic action, as a mere touch of the penis with the circumcision instruments. And as long as the ritual is not humanized in this way, Jews and Muslims should circumcise their children later, perhaps at the age of 14, but at any rate not a helpless child.

Sacrilegious hubris This may have been well-meaning, but this does not change the question: should parents and doctors be punished here and now, either for circumcising a child or allowing it? One does not campaign against an old culture with the means of criminal law! It would be perverse if – as the only nation in the world – the Germans undertook to educate Jews with fines and jail sentences. After the Cologne decision it was also said that the Germans have the obligation to learn from their past to respect human rights and protect minorities – in this case Jewish and Muslim children from their parents by means of criminal law: Such talk is sacrilegious hubris. A law that has hardly come to terms with its own story of injustice should abstain from self-righteously inflating itself.

Mary and Joseph

In this sense, a large majority of the Bundestag has announced the introduction of a bill to make circumcision go unpunished. The German Board of Ethics has recently mapped out the content of this bill: It would ensure that circumcisions are performed professionally and as painlessly as possible. It cannot and must not do more now. The new law will not end the debate; it will accompany it, and, hopefully, keep it within limits. Soon it will be Christmas. We should not think of Mary and Joseph as criminals because they circumcised the infant Jesus.

Heribert Prantl is deputy editor-inchief of Germany‘s leading newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and one of the country´s best known journalists

Photo Credit: Ullstein Bilderdienst

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