Germany’s Circumcision Debate: A Personal Reflection

December 20, 2012 Print

I never imagined that my existence as a Jew in Germany would be challenged by an advertisement in the Berlin U-Bahn. But there it was, staring at me on the U2 line on my way home one afternoon, a small poster encased in the curvature of the train carriage roof. Visible was the fully clothed body of a young boy, his tiny hands anxiously protecting his genital area. Beside this image of a frightened toddler was the plaintive slogan, “Mein Körper gehört mir!” (“My body belongs to me!”), along with a declaration against “forced circumcision,” a literal evocation of the Nazis’ forced sterilization.

My reaction to the poster was visceral. Since May of this year, when a Cologne judge handed down a decision prohibiting non-medically necessary circumcisions following a bungled procedure on a Muslim boy, the Beschneidungsdebatte (debate on circumcision) reached alternately comical and offensive heights. Here was a “debate,” (actually more of a monologue on the part of its protagonists), that seemed to encompass all of the worst stereotypes of Germans: that they are busybodies, rigid and judgmental conformists, obsessed with Jews, uncomfortable with Turkish immigrants, and gripped by romantic notions of “bodily integrity” that hearken back to a pre-modern, pre-industrial, pagan age.

It is clichéd, at this point, to observe that Germany has “come a long way” since World War II; indeed, my appreciation for the country’s admirable attempt at dealing with its past and fascination with its contemporary history motivated me to learn German and move to Berlin for a year-long fellowship program. I had visited Germany several times before, had German friends, and never felt the weight of history that other Jews—either those who lost family members in the Holocaust or not—said prevented them from ever stepping foot in the country. Of course I was aware that attitudes from the Nazi era still lingered on the fringes of society (I had been following the saga of the German government’s ongoing attempt to ban the neo-fascist National Democratic Party), but the very fact that Germans were so fixated with the doings of a miniscule political group indicated to me that they took the issue of anti-Semitism seriously.

So you can imagine my distress upon discovering, shortly after moving to Germany in June of 2012, that a substantial portion of the German population admitted to the view that Judaism should effectively be outlawed in their country. For this is how a ban on circumcision (now thankfully averted by legislation passed by the Bundestag in December) must be viewed: as an attempt to prohibit one of the most basic and important rites of the Jewish faith, without which no man can be a Jew. More distressing was that some, like the forces behind the misnamed “Pro Kinderrechte” (for children’s rights) campaign that sponsored the aforementioned poster, would go so far as to allege that Jews (and, for that matter, Muslims) were collectively guilty of crimes worse than pedophilia.

Implicit in the campaign to ban circumcision is the belief that men who are circumcised are the victims of an irreparable transgression against their mind and bodies. Take, for instance, the testimony of Professor Matthias Franz, Deputy Director of the Clinical Institute for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the University of Düsseldorf Medical Center, one of the leading opponents of circumcision. “As a physician and psychoanalyst,” he said at a September 12 press conference, “I have learned from my patients over the course of the past ten years, what dramatic traumatic, psycho-traumatic, long-term consequences…the traumatic genital circumcision of boys can have.” That there is absolutely no peer-approved study available to prove Dr. Franz’s wild claims is beside the point. The notion that Jewish men, whose rate of winning Nobel Prizes, to take but one example, is wildly higher than their proportion of the world’s population, have been psychologically and physically traumatized by the millennial-old practice of circumcision would be merely silly were it not so insulting.

The circumcision controversy has been muddied by ancillary arguments weighing the procedure’s health benefits against the risks. This is the false territory on which circumcision opponents wish to have the debate, one that is really about the competing, but not necessarily conflicting, values of religious freedom, parental rights, and personal consent. Let it be said, however, that there is no valid evidence pointing to serious medical risk from circumcision, that the number of “botched” procedures are so statistically small as to be irrelevant to the discussion, and that that the benefits, both calculable in terms of preventing HIV and other infections and incalculable in terms of religious identity, outweigh whatever risks do exist, at least for those who are Jewish or Muslim.

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