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.
Circumcision is one of the very few rituals practiced by Jews of all denominations. Even secular Jews like myself who do not keep kosher, rarely attend Synagogue, and otherwise make no attempt to follow the stringent rules promulgated by the Torah, undergo circumcision and consider it to be an essential aspect of membership in the Jewish community. Boys cannot be called to read the Torah as Bar Mitzvahs unless they are circumcised. Uncircumcised gentiles who wish to become Jews must undergo circumcision before their conversion can be complete. Throughout history, the enemies of the Jews have recognized the central importance of circumcision to the Jewish faith, and they have used it to portray Jews as a barbaric, backwards people, a trait they share with many of the most vocal anti-circumcision advocates of today. Banning circumcision was a major element of the Roman persecution of the Jews. Was this really the legacy that the Germans, of all people, wanted to follow?
Thankfully, Chancellor Angela Merkel recognized the painful absurdity of banning circumcision in Germany. She immediately understood the dangerous repercussions of the Cologne court’s decision, and she made her views known in a way that was responsible, well-timed, and sensitive to the perverse situation in which her country found itself. Germany, she warned in a meeting with leaders of her Christian Democratic Union, risked becoming “a laughing stock among nations” if it banned circumcision. While her mockery of the Cologne court and supporters of a circumcision ban was understandable, her warning was an understatement, for the prospect of Germans snooping on their Jewish neighbors to report their now-proscribed rituals to the police (as was the case with a Bavarian rabbi, charged with committing bodily harm in August) was no “laughing” matter. “I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world in which Jews cannot practice their rites,” she said.
Merkel had reason to be worried, as polls showed that about half of Germans supported some sort of a prohibition on circumcision. Being so concerned about a harmless religious ritual other parents perform for their children that one would be driven to support government action to ban it is a peculiar impulse, and the anti-circumcision obsessives brought an appropriate mania to their campaign against the practice. A cartoon appeared in a German newspaper depicting a large-nosed Jew snipping off the penis off a young boy; another showed German parliamentarians bowing at the feet of representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities. On July 21, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published an open letter by 600 doctors and lawyers alleging circumcision to be a form of “sexual violence.”
When not accusing Jews of depravity, circumcision opponents labeled them venal. The secular humanist foundation leading the anti-circumcision campaign alleged the ritual to be a “two billion dollar business that has many profiteers.” Meanwhile, Marlene Rupprecht, a leading member of the Social Democratic Party, accused “Jewish circles” of using the “bludgeon of the Shoa” to suppress Germans from debating a topic that would only be off-limits in a “theocracy.” Holm Putzke, the self-aggrandizing law professor at the University of Passau who made a name for himself as an anti-circumcision crusader, echoed the notion of a cabal of Jewish guilt-mongers, stating that, “The court has, in contrast to many politicians, not allowed itself to be scared by the fear of being criticized as anti-Semitic or opposed to religion.”
These attacks on the Jewish community were similar in tone to the controversial poem published earlier in the year by Nobel Laureate Gunther Grass, in which he argued that it was Israel, and not, say, Iran, that was bent on ensnaring Europe into World War III. Presenting himself as a brave dissenter (he had entitled the piece, published in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, “What Must Be Said”) Grass only gave voice to a view depressingly popular among Germans, which any reading of the press would reveal is hardly suppressed by some sort of post-Holocaust guilt. As for the debate over circumcision, among German officialdom it was restrained compared to the opinions voiced by regular Germans in online comment forums and letters to newspapers; editors reported an influx of grossly anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim vituperation. The Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee received a letter from a German instructing them to either desist in their opposition to the circumcision ban or leave the country. The Beschneidungsdebatte seemed to open up the gates, to give license, to a type of discourse about Jews and their place in German society that had long been verboten. As one German journalist told me, the controversy marked a decisive moment in postwar Germany, as one could now finally express anti-Semitic views under a veneer of enlightened concern for the autonomy of infant boys.
Following a flurry of delegations from prominent American and international Jewish organizations, the German government introduced a law permitting circumcision for religious purposes, which passed the Bundestag overwhelmingly in December of this year. Nonetheless, 100 out of the nearly 600 members of the body, mostly coming from the SPD, Green, and Left parties, voted against the law. An alliance from those three parties had proposed a bill prohibiting circumcision of boys younger than 14, a false “compromise” intolerable for Jews (who must circumcise their boy children on the 8th day after birth) as well as Muslims (who usually perform the ritual before the age of 10).
The circumcision debate revealed much about contemporary Germany. It exposed a bullying intolerance of religious people, ironic as it emerged from precisely those secular people who consider themselves the most liberal and open-minded. It also revealed a stunning lack of rigor on behalf of many members of the medical and psychiatric communities, who offered emotion-laden, fact-free analyses of the supposed “dangers” and “traumas” of circumcision. And it showed that as much as Germany has indeed moved on from the real traumas of its own past, it still has some way to go before fully accepting Muslims and Jews as fellow citizens.
James Kirchick is a 2012-2013 Bosch Stiftung Fellow in Berlin. A fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, he is a columnist for Tablet, Ha’aretz and The New York Daily News.
More information on the circumcision debate in Germany: