Controversy Surrounds Germany’s Circumcision Law

By Eva Harder

The cathedral in Cologne, the city where the law banning circumcision was passed.

Circumcision was touted as a cure for paralysis in the 19th century, but it has managed to do something even more remarkable in the 21st. The procedure has brought Jews and Muslims together.

A regional court in Cologne, Germany, passed a law banning circumcision this past June, ruling that performing circumcision on a child is tantamount to inflicting bodily harm. The country’s 120,000 Jews and 4 million Muslims saw the controversial ruling as an attack on religious freedom. Three hundred people protested the law earlier this September at Bebel Square, the same place where Nazis scorched more than 20,000 pieces of literature in the infamous book-burning of 1933.

For the past four months, doctors and rabbis have refused to perform circumcision for fear of criminal charges. In an interview with NPR last month, the president of the German Muslim Council, Aiman Mazyek, said that circumcision is not considered a crime anywhere else in the world. The outcry of protests from Germany’s religious community caused the German government to introduce a new bill intended to make circumcision legal. Currently awaiting Parliament’s approval, it would allow German parents to choose circumcision for their sons until they’re six months old, provided that the procedure is carried out by adequately trained practitioners with the use of an effective painkiller.

The controversy surrounding the June ruling has led to a much larger discussion in Germany. Even though the law was limited to Cologne, and the German government quickly responded by drafting legislation to legalize circumcision across the country, the rhetoric in the media inevitably echoed Germany’s inescapable past.
More than 530,000 Jews lived in Germany before WWII; barely more than 100,000 remain. An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted a German-born Jew who said, in response to the law, “I seriously have to ask myself whether this country still wants us [Jews].” A study mentioned in the BBC said that one in five Germans possesses a latent antipathy toward Jews.

Germany has spent over half a century struggling to scrub the stains of the Holocaust from its national image, and some nations continue to express hostility toward the country. It’s been over 67 years since the end of the Third Reich, which means that every German who could have been directly involved in the Holocaust is now past retirement age. Technically, the current government is free from blame. Germany’s young people today are less affected by German guilt than their parents, leaving the country at a turning point in rewriting its national identity.

Germany has the biggest economy in the Eurozone, the German language is a leader in international business, and while the nation can never forget its past, the government is reaching an age where the current administration is less likely to be blamed for it. Can Germany really afford to allow this controversial law to push its national image back into the headlines of anti-Semitism?

Dr. Ulrich Fegeler, the spokesman for Germany’s Association of Pediatricians, told NPR that the government should not allow the country’s past crimes to dictate current decision-making, especially when it comes to the rights of children. “We murdered millions of Jewish people, and it is a burden that we have to reflect,” Dr. Fegeler said. “But otherwise, there is a right of children to have a non-harmed body.”

Photo by Eva Harder.

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