US Jewish organizations urge Iceland to nix bill banning male circumcision

"If passed, the Icelandic measure would create insurmountable challenges for Jews and Muslims living there,”

Relatives look at a baby after his circumcision in Jerusalem September 24, 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Relatives look at a baby after his circumcision in Jerusalem September 24, 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
NEW YOR K – A letter sent by two US lawmakers urging the government of Iceland to reconsider proposed legislation banning male circumcision has been applauded by a number of major American Jewish organizations.
US Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-New York), the committee’s ranking member, said in their statement that outlawing the practice would curtail religious freedoms and alienate Iceland’s minorities.
“While Jewish and Muslim populations in Iceland may be small, your country’s ban could be exploited by those who stoke xenophobia and antisemitism in countries with more diverse populations,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
The congressmen added: “As a partner nation, we urge your government to stop this intolerant bill from advancing any further.”
The letter was given to Icelandic Ambassador to the United States, H.E. Geir Haarde, on April 5.
The move was quickly heralded by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations – the largest Orthodox umbrella organization in the US. An OU representative told The Jerusalem Post, “We deeply appreciate the support of chairman Royce and ranking member Engel for working to safeguard the universal value of religious freedom.”
“While Iceland’s Jewish community may be one of the smallest in the world, the legislation to ban male circumcision looms as a large assault upon Jewish – and Muslim – religious freedom and practice,” the OU continued.
“Male circumcision is a fundamental ritual and sacred rite of passage for both the Jewish and Muslim communities. Throughout history, the prohibition of brit mila has been tantamount to rejection of the Jewish community’s existence. If passed, the Icelandic measure would create insurmountable challenges for Jews and Muslims living there,” the organization added.
Earlier this year, lawmakers from four political parties in Iceland introduced a bill in parliament that would ban the non-medical circumcision of boys younger than 18 and impose imprisonment of up to six years on offenders.
Members of the ruling Left Green Movement, the Progressive Party, People’s Party and the Pirate Party are sponsoring the legislation, which was sent to Iceland’s parliament, the Albingi, on January 30, the RU V news site reported. Together, the parties account for 46% of the parliament’s 63 seats.
“WE ARE talking about children’s rights, not about freedom of belief,” Progressive Party MP Silja Dögg Gunnarsdottir said after introducing the bill.
“Everyone has the right to believe in what they want, but the rights of children come above the right to believe.”
The measure cites the prohibition of female genital mutilation in 2005, arguing a similar prohibition is necessary for males. The report did not say when the bill would come to a vote.
The World Jewish Congress said that it was “deeply disturbed” by the proposal making its way through parliament, warning that if the law passes it could set a frightening precedent for other nations to follow.
“The WJC is deeply disturbed by the attempt to ban the religious practice of brit mila – that of circumcision of Jewish baby boys – a precept inherent in Jewish identity for millennia” said Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of WJC North America.
“We believe that this proposal, if allowed to pass, would indicate a setback in religious freedom, would harm the welfare of the Jewish community there by curtailing its religious rights, and set a poor example for other countries.
“In a time when Jews the world over are profoundly concerned by a serious increase in antisemitic incidents, including physical attacks on Jews, their strong statement is direct and unequivocal,” she added.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Marc Schneier, the founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, slammed the proposed legislation as an “affront” to Jewish and Islamic custom, calling for lawmakers in Reykjavík to immediately withdraw the bill from parliament.
“This is an outrage to people of all faiths and, unfortunately, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a European government come out against religious circumcision,” Rabbi Schneier told the Post.
“Several years ago, I met with the secretary-general of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, leading a delegation of global Muslim and Jewish leaders. Together, we discussed the insensitivity of these bans and what an affront it is to both of our religions.”
Advocates of male circumcision, which many physicians believe reduces the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and genital infections, have long objected to the comparison of the practice with female genital mutilation, a custom with no medical benefits that is universally viewed as detrimental to the ability to derive pleasure from sexual intercourse.
An estimated 250 Jews live in Iceland along with 1,500 Muslims, according to the BBC.
Throughout Scandinavia, the nonmedical circumcision of boys under 18 is the subject of a debate on children’s rights and religious freedoms. The children’s ombudsmen of all Nordic countries – Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway – released a joint declaration in 2013 proposing a ban, though none of these countries has enacted one.
In the debate, circumcision is under attack from right-wing politicians who view it as a foreign import whose proliferation is often associated mostly with Muslim immigration. It is also opposed by left-wing liberals and atheists who denounce it as a primitive form of child abuse.
In 2012, a German court in Cologne ruled that ritual circumcision of minors amounted to a criminal act. The ruling was overturned but triggered temporary bans in Austria and Switzerland.
JTA contributed to this article.