In May 2007, a small group of religious leaders met, in the EU headquarters in
Brussels, with the three most significant leaders of Europe: Angela Merkel,
German Chancellor and at the time president of the European Council, Jose-Manuel
Barroso, president of the European Commission, and Hans- Gert Pöttering,
president of the European Parliament.
The meeting was one of those
semi-formal occasions at which little is said, and a great deal of time taken in
saying it. Concerned at the return of anti-Semitism to Europe within living
memory of the Holocaust, I decided that the time had come to break protocol and
speak plainly, even bluntly.
I gave the shortest speech of my life.
Sitting directly opposite the three leaders I said this: “Jews and Europe go
back a long way. The experience of Jews in Europe has added several words to the
human vocabulary – words like expulsion, public disputation, forced conversion,
inquisition, auto-da-fé, blood libel, ghetto and pogrom, without even mentioning
the word Holocaust.
That is the past. My concern is with the future.
Today the Jews of Europe are asking whether there is a future for Jews in
Europe, and that should concern you, the leaders of Europe.”
It took less
than a minute, and after it there was a shocked silence.
We adjourned for
lunch, and over it Angela Merkel asked, “What would you like me to do, Chief
Rabbi?” I did not have an easy answer for her then. I do now.
reverse, immediately, the decision of the Cologne court that renders Jewish
parents who give their son a brit mila, even if performed in hospital by a
qualified doctor, liable to prosecution.
It is hard to think of a more
appalling decision. Did the court know that circumcision is the most ancient
ritual in the history of Judaism, dating back almost 4,000 years to the days of
Abraham? Did it know that Spinoza, not religious but together with John Locke
the father of European liberalism, wrote that brit mila in and of itself had the
power to sustain Jewish identity through the centuries? Did it know that banning
mila was the route chosen by two of the worst enemies the Jewish people ever
had, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV and the Roman emperor Hadrian, both of whom
set out to extinguish not only Jews but also Judaism? Either the court knew
these things or it did not. If it did not, then how was it competent to assess
the claim of religious liberty? If it did, then there are judges in Germany
quite willing to say to religious Jews, in effect, “If you don’t like it,
Do judges in Cologne today really not know what happened the last
time Germany went down that road? The case – like the banning of shechita
(ritual slaughter of animals) by the Dutch parliament, now thankfully reversed –
illustrates the deep difficulty Jews are facing in Europe today. Both cases
initially had nothing to do with Jews. They were directed predominantly against
Muslims, whose population vastly outnumbers that of Jews in almost every country
They are part of the backlash against the misguided policy,
adopted by most European countries in the 1970s, known as multiculturalism. This
was meant to promote tolerance.
Its effect was precisely the opposite. It
encouraged segregation of ethnic minorities, not integration, and instead of
getting people to ignore differences it made an issue of them at every
The Muslim communities of Europe have been in the frontline of
both the policy and its discontents. The result has been that in Germany the
court, and in the Netherlands the parliament, have sought to ban a Muslim
practice, while the Jewish community has suffered collateral damage in both
That is part of the problem, but not all of it.
argued for some years that an assault on Jewish life always needs justification
by the highest source of authority in the culture at any given age. Throughout
the Middle Ages the highest authority in Europe was the Church. Hence
anti-Semitism took the form of Christian anti-Judaism.
post-enlightenment Europe of the 19th century the highest authority was no
longer the Church. Instead it was science. Thus was born racial anti-Semitism,
based on two disciplines regarded as science in their day: the “scientific study
of race” and the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel. Today we
know that both of these were pseudosciences, but in their day they were endorsed
by some of the leading figures of the age.
Since Hiroshima and the
Holocaust, science no longer holds its pristine place as the highest moral
Instead that role is taken by human rights. It follows that
any assault on Jewish life – on Jews or Judaism or the Jewish state – must be
cast in the language of human rights.
Hence the by-now routine accusation
that Israel has committed the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism,
apartheid, ethnic cleansing, attempted genocide and crimes against humanity.
This is not because the people making these accusations seriously believe them –
some do, some don’t.
It is because this is the only form in which an
assault on Jews can be stated today.
That is what the court in Cologne
has done. It has declared that circumcision is an assault on the rights of the
child since it is performed without his consent. It ignored the fact that if
this is true, teaching children to speak German, sending them to school and
vaccinating them against illness are all assaults against the rights of the
child since they are done without consent. The court’s judgment was tendentious,
foolish and has set a dangerous precedent.
In historical context,
however, it is far worse. By ruling that religious Jews performing their most
ancient sacred ritual are abusing the rights of the child, a German court has
just invented a new form of blood libel perfectly designed for the 21st
Chancellor Merkel, the answer to your question, “What would you
like me to do?” is simple. Ensure that this ruling is overturned, for the sake
of religious freedom and the moral reputation of Germany.The writer has
been Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth since
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