Fighting the cut

Recent European attacks on circumcision mark a new expression of anti-Semitism that threatens communal Jewish life.

Pinchas Goldschmidt 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pinchas Goldschmidt 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the beginning of the month, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a body made up lawmakers from 47 mostly European countries, adopted a resolution identifying circumcision as a violation of male children’s “physical integrity.”
Luckily, PACE, which has called on European nations “to adopt specific legal provisions to ensure that certain operations and practices will not be carried out before a child is old enough to be consulted,” is powerless to make binding laws.
However, PACE is a venerable institution that was founded in Strasbourg in 1949, and is considered the oldest existing international parliamentary assembly established on the basis of an intergovernmental treaty. The EU’s European Parliament was created in PACE’s image; its recommendations – particularly on human rights issues – are considered to carry weight in the European political sphere. And the PACE vote against circumcision was hardly unequivocal: 78 lawmakers voted in favor, just 13 – mostly from countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan – voted against, and 15 abstained.
These lawmakers might not have been fully cognizant of the ramifications, but if their recommendation were to be made a binding law throughout Europe and circumcision were to be permitted only on a child “old enough to be consulted” (14 years old, according to the author of the recommendation), the majority of the approximately 1.4 million Jews living in Eastern and Western Europe would be made to feel intensely unwelcome. Muslims, who circumcise at a later age as a sign that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, might find it a bit easier to live with such as law.
Prof. Robert Wistrich, head of Hebrew University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, sees the Europeans’ attack on ritual aspects of Judaism, such as circumcision and shechita (ritual slaughter), as more dangerous to organized Jewish communal life in Europe than other forms of anti-Semitism, including anti-Zionism.
And close observers of European anti-Semitism, such as Wistrich and Conference of European Rabbis president Pinchas Goldshmidt, say that anti-circumcision and anti-shechita campaigns represent relatively new forms of anti-Semitic expression that had remained largely latent since the Holocaust.
IN THE years following the Six Day War, and with growing frequency and force after the First Lebanon War, the first intifada and more recent conflicts such as the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, it was Israel that provided the fodder for anti-Semitic attacks on European Jewry.
At a time when Europe finally seemed to be moving beyond old forms of nationalism toward a united, practically borderless European continent with a single currency, Israel and its ideology of Zionism insisted on a particularistic, ethnic (or religious) nationalism. And in the name of this Jewish nationalism, Israel, in blatant defiance of international law, was purportedly perpetrating human rights abuses against the Palestinian people, whose nationalist ambitions were perfectly justified in a post-colonialist world.
This narrative, which painted Israel in such a negative light, served Europeans’ psychological need for expiation in the post-Holocaust era. Wracked with guilt over their legacy of colonialism and their role in the destruction of European Jewry, what better way of coping than by blaming the victim? Suddenly, the gun-toting, militaristic, nationalistic Israelis were committing what was tantamount to a “Holocaust” on the Palestinian people. Jews could no longer occupy the moral high ground and level claims at Europeans for their crimes.
If in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the rise of European nationalism, Jews were singled out as rootless cosmopolitans and miscreants who were suspect because they lacked a land of their own, toward the end of the 20th century the situation had turned around completely: it was precisely this now-anachronistic Jewish nationalism that marked Jews for condemnation.
At the same time, however, there seemed to be room in this anti-Zionist narrative for the sorts of Jews who were killed in the Shoah. The wandering Jew, the Jew with the portable homeland whose identity was defined by his religion and his religious texts, not by his connection to a particular piece of land, was in vogue in Europe – particularly in Western and Central Europe, where the European unification project seemed to be the most successful. Suddenly, the old-fashioned Jew sans Zionism seemed to represent the very embodiment of a new cosmopolitan, borderless Europe that had eschewed all that had made it evil during the two world wars.
Europeans, at least those who bought into the post-nationalist zeitgeist, seemingly had no problems with the ritual aspects of Judaism. These were the quaint religious ceremonies of an ancient, exiled people.
BUT GRADUALLY the tides began to change. In June 2001, the World Jewish Congress claimed that a Swedish law which restricted circumcision marked “the first legal restriction on religious practice in Europe since the Nazi era.” The law said circumcisions could only be performed after the administering of an analgesic by a doctor or a nurse.
Since 2001, various European groups on the Left and on the Right – particularly in Scandinavia but not only there – have taken steps to curtail circumcision as well as ritual slaughter. In June of last year, for instance, a district court in Cologne, Germany, ruled that circumcision constitutes physical harm against newborn babies and is defined as “irreversible damage against the body.” At the end of 2012, Germany’s cabinet ratified legislation that would legalize the process. But the Cologne court’s ruling sparked a heated debate inside Germany that revealed a surprising antipathy for circumcision. And a Swiss hospital temporarily banned the practice.
A poll for the German Focus magazine taken after the Cologne court ruling found that 56 percent of those polled thought the judgment was right, compared with 35% against and 10% undecided. And a poll commissioned by Britain’s Jewish Chronicle and published in March found that 38% of the British population favored a ban on “male circumcision for religious reasons,” while 35% were against a ban and 27% were undecided.
WHAT SPARKED Europe’s renewed attack on Jewish ritual? Hebrew University’s Wistrich admits that only recently has the offensive on circumcision become so prominent, but he argues that “anti-Judaism” was always there.
“It was not highly profiled because even if someone felt Judaism was aberrant, it was not politically correct to say so. Religious tolerance was considered a central value and it was inconsistent with pluralism to attack Judaism as a religion.
“This assumption is now fraying at the edges.”
And what started those edges fraying was, in part, Europeans’ reaction to the huge influx of Muslims. In the past four decades or so, as the European birthrate plummeted, immigration from Muslim countries reached unprecedented heights. Today, Muslim immigrants and their children make up 10 percent or more of the population in major countries like Germany, France, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. In the UK and Denmark, Muslims comprise more than 5% of the population.
Many Europeans have taken a strong dislike to Islam. A Tilder/Institut Montaigne poll released in April found that all religions in France are regarded positively by 73% of Frenchmen – except for Islam. According to an Ipsos/Le Monde poll, 74% find Islam “intolerant” and 80% believe it is “forcing its ways on French society at large.” A parallel poll conducted in Germany last year yielded similar results, with 70% associating Islam with “fanaticism and radicalism,” 64% calling it “prone to violence,” and 60% citing its penchant for “revenge and retaliation.” Fifty-three percent of Germans foresee a battle between Islam and Christianity.
BUT WHILE Islam might be the primary target of the latest somewhat xenophobic European campaigns against circumcision and ritual slaughter, European Jewry is the “collateral damage” in this anti-Muslim offensive. The most glaring example of this was when Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front Party who won 18% of the vote in the 2012 French presidential elections, endorsed a ban on religious headwear – including kippot – in public.
In clarifying her opposition to kippot along with the Muslim veil or niqab worn by women, Le Pen admitted that “Jewish skullcaps are obviously not a problem in our country.” But she added that France has to ban them “in the name of equality.”
“What would people say if I had only asked to ban Muslim clothing? They would burn me as a Muslim hater.” Le Pen went on to ask France’s Jews to make this minor sacrifice and “toe the line” so to speak for the sake of laïcité and for the sake of Le Pen, so that she would not be accused of Islamophobia.
On the Left, meanwhile, a different dynamic is unfolding. European secularism has a long history of anti-clericalism and opposition to religion. Many loathe Judaism without necessarily singling it out. Prominent intellectuals like evolutionary biologist Richard Hawkins, whose books include The God Delusion, and the late Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, have attacked monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and have argued passionately and convincingly that they are the main cause of criminality and genocide in this world.
This stance has become highly fashionable among European secular elites, and it is an integral part of a zeitgeist that emphasizes human rights over tradition. In the case of circumcision, the right of the male child to protect his physical integrity is championed.
AS WISTRICH points out, however, there are deeper intellectual undercurrents – conscious and unconscious – involved in Europeans’ opposition to circumcision. Indeed, the Jewish obligation to cut the foreskin of a newborn child has been a source of opprobrium not only in the modern world, which celebrates the rights of individuals to protect their bodies, but also in ancient Greece, which saw the practice as an affront to the perfection of nature.
And in Christianity, Jews’ insistence on circumcision represented all that was wrong with “carnal Israel.” Instead of reading scriptures allegorically, the Jews insisted on literalism. But circumcision did not refer to the actual cutting of the flesh, as the Jews believed, argued Paul and other church fathers; rather, it referred to the circumcision of the heart – or an openness to God’s message through his messiah, Jesus. Because they read literally and believed carnally, the Jews failed to recognize their God when he walked among them in the flesh. In Galatians, for instance, Paul taught that literal meanings were not just irrelevant to those who had accepted the gospel, but positively dangerous. When gentile followers of Jesus treated circumcision as necessary, they placed mistaken emphasis on the material sign and revealed themselves as severed from Christ and spirit by desire of the flesh.
David Nirenberg, in his recently published masterpiece Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, showed how the Christian preoccupation with Jews and Judaism – not necessarily actual living Jews, but what they represented – is an integral part of Western culture. Paul-type claims regarding Jews’ carnality, their materialism, their preoccupation with letter of the law and with rituals like circumcision were also themes that seemed to obsess a wide range of secular European thinkers from William Shakespeare and Immanuel Kant to Karl Marx and Max Weber, to name just a few. And when, for instance, Friedrich Hegel launches a philosophical attack on Kant, he does so in terms of Judaism. Kant’s systematic philosophy, Hegel argued, was a fanatic “Jewish” formalism. And when, in turn, Arthur Schopenhauer attacked Hegel, he used the same tactic. Hegel and his followers were “Jews” because of the habits of philosophical thought they had acquired.
At one point, marveling at the power of these habits over pure thought, Schopenhauer even remarked that “men are born into the world uncircumcised – that is, not as Jews.”
IT IS impossible to determine the extent to which Western culture’s long and very negative obsession with Judaism continues to impact – whether consciously or subconsciously – Europeans’ perceptions and sensibilities vis-à-vis Jews. Reading through the report prepared for PACE by Marlene Rupprecht, a member of the German Bundestag for the Social Democratic Party, one gets the distinct impression of tendentiousness, as if Rupprecht’s real goal was to proscribe a basic practice of the Jewish faith and in the process did not allow the facts to get in her way.
In a section titled, “Arguments regularly presented in favor of male circumcision and its legal authorization,” Rupprecht rightly notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics Task Force on Circumcision in 2012 found “the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks” because it prevents urinary tract infections, acquisition of HIV, transmission of some sexually transmitted infections and penile cancer.
She also notes that the World Health Organization recommends circumcision because it “reduces the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men by approximately 60%.”
So far, so good.
But then, inexplicably, under the same section where she is supposed to be arguing in favor of circumcision, while discussing religious justifications for the practice, she refers suddenly, without warning, to circumcision as “the ‘dark side’ of their [Jews’ and Muslims’] own religion, traditions and finally, identity.”
So much for objectivity.
Perhaps influenced by Paul’s ideas about the need to allegorize and spiritualize the concept of circumcision, Rupprecht at one point recommends an alternative ritual, a “naming ceremony” in which no flesh is cut. She even argues that such a ceremony would be spiritually superior since it would be performed “with the appropriate mindset,” without all the “great emotional conflict, reluctance and regret” felt by parents who have their male children circumcised.
WHATEVER THE motivations, however, the recent offensive on circumcision and other ritual aspects of Judaism, such as shechita, represent a more serious threat to organized Jewish communal life in Europe than anti-Zionism ever did. Even secular Jews who are not generally affiliated with a Jewish community or Jewish institutions tend to have their male children circumcised as a basic rite of passage. By outlawing the practice, Europeans are essentially telling the Jews that they have no future in Europe.
At the very least, many Europeans seem to be willing to see the end of European Jewry as the price that needs to be paid in the battle against a growing Muslim presence. As Goldschmidt puts it, “Europeans are in the process of redefining ‘Europeanness’ right now. The question is whether that new Europeanness will have room for Jews.”