Four months ago, a German regional court issued a ruling on the circumcision of boys for religious reasons. The decision sparked a vivid public debate in Germany, as well as here in Israel. But the discussion has also been subject to a considerable amount of confusion and misinterpretation regarding the legal status of circumcision in Germany. Has Germany “banned” circumcision, as some commentators claim? Is religious circumcision now considered a crime under German law? None of the above, is the short answer.
What has actually happened? On May 7, 2012, a regional court in the western city of Cologne found that the circumcision of under-age boys for religious reasons was an unlawful act that caused bodily harm. Contrary to some comments in the press, this ruling has no binding force. It does not mean that other German courts will have to rule in the same way in the future. Moreover, this singular decision stands in contrast to the previously broad acceptance of male circumcision as a religious act and the hitherto unchallenged practice of religiously- motivated circumcision in our country.
The Cologne decision has however sparked uncertainty among Jewish and Muslim communities. Against this backdrop the German lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, has swiftly called on the government to draft legislation that ensures that the circumcision of boys is in principle permitted by law. In its motion, passed by a large majority of lawmakers across party borders in July, the Bundestag urged the government to take into account the welfare of the child, as well as freedom of religion and parental rights with respect to child-rearing.
The German government respects the independence of the judiciary. It also takes the concerns expressed by Jewish leaders in Germany and Israel very seriously. In light of our history and Germany’s responsibility for the Shoah, I feel humbled and grateful for the fact that Jewish life in Germany is flourishing again. Membership in Jewish communities has tripled over the past 20 years. We count more than 100 Jewish communities in Germany today. In the current debate, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle have both been very clear on the fact that we want to allow Jewish life to continue to thrive in our country. This means that Jews must be able to exercise their religious traditions without legal uncertainty. Religious freedom is one of the basic rights inscribed in our constitution.
While the government is working toward finding a comprehensive solution on the question of circumcision in our country, it seems advisable to lead the surrounding debate in a calm and fair manner.
The writer is the German ambassador to Israel.