The fight is on for religious freedom

Brit Milah ceremonies could become a thing of the past if Jewish communities don’t wake up.

October 3, 2011 21:30
4 minute read.
A circumcision ceremony in Bnei Brak

circumcision brit mila 311 R. (photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)


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Although many Jews today believe they have religious freedoms guaranteeing their religious practices, these rights are being violated through the enactment of legislation around the world that would limit the rights of Jews living in the Diaspora.

As we live in a global village, countries influence each other, aided by the ease of communication, websites, and the use of virtual social networks. This pattern is gaining momentum and becoming the political norm.

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The question we have to ask ourselves is what is the true agenda of this legislation? Two recent examples of Jewish practices which have been or are being debated in parliaments across the globe include shechita, or ritual slaughter of animals and poultry according to Jewish dietary laws, and brit mila, male circumcision. These practices were previously banned by the Greeks and the Romans, the Nazis and the pre-perestroika Soviet Union specifically to prevent Jews performing their ancient religious practices. Today, those seeking to ban them claim to be motivated by human and animal rights.

An important feature of the US Constitution is the separation of Church and State, so that in America there is no established religion and the administration cannot support or promote religion or religious practice. But in spite of the separation clause, America has always prided itself on the important right of the free exercise of religion, also part of the First Amendment. Over the years the Supreme Court has interpreted the free exercise clause to include the right not to have a religion and to allowing the practice of recognized religions.

Now, however, legislation has been proposed in San Francisco to define circumcision as “child mutilation.”

This definition would require prior consent for the procedure, obviously impossible in the case of minors under the age of 18. Or in other words, the proposed legislation seeks to make performing a brit mila at eight days of age, an established and recognized Jewish custom since the time of Abraham, a criminal offense.

This legislation is now being contested on the grounds that it is unconstitutional as it limits the free exercise clause, but if this legal battle is lost, it would mean Jewish parents being obliged to take their child out of the jurisdiction of these courts to perform circumcisions.


This might cause many parents to choose not to circumcise their children, especially if neighboring states follow suit with a similar ban.

The shechita ban has often been used as a method to directly attack Jewish communities at many junctions in history. In 1898, Switzerland imposed such a ban with the intention of keeping out Polish Jews and preventing their emigration to Switzerland. That ban remains in place in Switzerland and has not been lifted due to an ongoing animal rights activist’s campaign.

Shechita is also banned in Sweden and Norway, where kosher meat also has to be imported, taking away the self-sufficiency of the community, and the practice is also on the proverbial chopping block in Holland, where the Dutch Senate has scheduled a final vote on the issue. If the ban is signed into law, Dutch Jews will need to import meat from neighboring Jewish communities (providing they are not restricted further by any import regulations).

ADDITIONALLY, WE must remain vigilant to prevent bad situations from becoming worse. For example, in 2006 Switzerland proposed a ban on importing kosher meat, which would have left the Jewish community with no way to obtain it. That law was not passed, but there is no guarantee it won’t be raised again in the future. The biggest problem with shechita bans is that the more countries find this idea acceptable, the more animal rights activists will seize the opportunity to promote their idea of animal rights over religious freedoms.

The ultimate danger is the escalation of restricted religious practice on the basis of modern politically accepted trends.

Kashrut and brit mila are two sacred and fundamental aspects of Jewish practice and we need to be vigilant and vociferous in our protest if we are to prevent this rising trend from engulfing our communities outside of Israel.

Jews must fight for legislation to enable future generations to practice Judaism. Jews in the Diaspora have not survived so many years of persecution only to give away our Jewish freedoms to so called “freedom” activists.

Jews around the world must campaign together to ensure religious rights and freedoms continue, because in our global world, the domino effect means that what is banned in one country will quickly cross borders to the next.

Jews in the Diaspora should not bury their heads in the sand, but must wake up to reality and campaign to protect their basic Jewish rights.

The writer is a lecturer at Bar Ilan University, the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and the Netanya Academic College.

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