Thursday, November 14, 2013

Circumcision in Europe

I have written to you in the past about the question of whether circumcision could conceivably be banned as an illegal infringement of a baby’s natural right not to have its body altered for non-medical reasons at an age when it cannot possibly consent to the procedure. (You can read that letter by clicking here or by going to and searching for the word “circumcision.”) That previous letter was written in the wake of initiatives both on the federal level and in California to ban circumcision, and also the publication of a comic-book-style diatribe against circumcision that resurrected the worst of anti-Semitic stereotypes to depict Jewish parents as bloodthirsty ghouls interested solely in spilling their sons’ blood for the sake of appeasing their no-less-bloodthirsty God. I expressed myself there about the issue, but only because the concept itself seemed fascinating to me and not really because I thought such a ban could ever actually become law.

Apparently, I was wrong. Or maybe I was right with respect to our own country—or I hope that I was—but I was clearly not at all right with respect to Europe, where a major, continent-wide drive is apparently underway to ban the circumcision of baby boys unless the procedure is medically indicated or requisite.  Let me present you with some details.
  • In Germany, fifty members of Parliament, all from the Social Democratic, Green, and Left Parties, have submitted a bill that would ban the non-medical circumcision of boys under fourteen regardless of their parents’ religious convictions. This, after the Germans finally approved a bill specifically permitting circumcision for religious reasons after a 2012 court ruling in Cologne that found the circumcision of babies to constitute a crime.
  • The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly voted last month for member countries to encourage its member states to “take legislative and policy measures that help reinforce child protection” in cases where boys are routinely circumcised to suit their parents’ religious convictions. I’ll return to this below.
  • Britain’s Jewish Chronicle reported last week that children’s ombudsmen from five Nordic countries are currently working with their national governments to achieve a ban on non-therapeutic circumcision of under-age boys. A motion to ban the circumcision of boys and young men under eighteen has been presented to the Swedish parliament.  Just a day or two ago, Norway’s health minister announced his intention to introduce new legislation “to regulate ritual circumcision” before next Easter. (Pegging the introduction of legislation that could effectively conclude the possibility of living a normal Jewish life in Norway to a Christian holiday was a nice touch.)  What the new law will entail he did not say, but his announcement followed renewed, ever more shrill, calls by Norway’s Children’s Ombudswoman to make the non-medical circumcision of underage boys illegal. 
  • A poll commissioned by the Jewish Chronicle yielded the result that a full 65% of Britons either support the prohibition of ritual circumcision or are undecided about the reasonableness of such a ban. The other 35% of the respondents opposed such a ban.
I’ve seen some articles lately on-line suggesting that these anti-circumcision initiatives have been fuelled more by anti-Muslim sentiment than by anti-Semitism. (To set that thought in perspective, consider that there are six or seven Jewish boys circumcised annually in all of Norway as opposed to about two thousand Muslim boys.) This, presumably, is supposed to be comforting…at least to non-Muslims. But it doesn’t feel that way at all. Let me add two statistics that will round out the picture from a Jewish point of view.  That same poll yielded the result that almost three out of four Britons either support or at least don’t oppose a parallel bill that would outlaw kosher slaughter in the U.K.  And, in a survey of 5,847 Jews from nine European Union member states (Sweden, France, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Romania, and Latvia) conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights and released last week, twenty-nine percent said they have considered emigrating in recent years because they did “not feel safe” living in their countries as Jews, according to Morten Kjaerum, the director of agency. Also worth nothing is that the figure for Jews contemplating emigration was particularly high in Hungary, France and Belgium with forty-eight, forty-six, and forty percent respectively saying they had considered leaving in recent years.
Still, the news isn’t all bad. François Hollande, the president of France, wrote just last month to the French Jewish community affirming his personal support for the right of citizens of France to circumcise their boys as they see fit. And Thorbjorn Jaglan, the secretary general of the Council of Europe, said in Berlin at a meeting of the Conference of European Rabbis, an Orthodox group, just this last Monday that the council has no plans to ban the circumcision of boys despite the anti-circumcision resolution that the council’s Parliamentary Assembly passed last month. And it is also bears noting that no member state of the Council of Europe, which includes all European countries other than Vatican City, Belarus, and Kosovo, has actually banned the non-medical circumcision of minor children. Yet.

I’m sure there are people out there who oppose circumcision because they can’t imagine baby boys wouldn’t all be happier with their foreskins, and not because they hate Jews or Muslims. Similarly, I’m sure there are people who don’t see why animals shouldn’t all be slaughtered according to the same rules everywhere without taking anyone’s religious sensitivities into regard. Such people, presuming that they are not being motivated by feelings of racism and prejudice, do not need to be denigrated for their opinions. But neither can such people—even those who are genuinely well meaning—be allowed to prevail. This isn’t just about circumcision or kosher slaughter either. It isn’t even really about the ill ease many “regular” Europeans apparently feel with respect to their own burgeoning Muslim populations. (In a poll I noticed on-line the other day, I read that forty-six per cent of Britons who were presented with British immigration statistics thought there were “too many” foreign-born residents in Great Britain, as opposed to 23% in the U.S. and 13% in Canada who responded similarly with respect to their own countries.) In my opinion, it is about something else entirely.
For the most part and with respect to most pressing social issues relating to children, the Jewish citizens of most countries share their co-citizens’ opinions. We believe that children should be safe and that they should be vaccinated against terrible diseases. We believe that every child has the right to clean drinking water, to eat nourishing food, to breathe clean, unpolluted air. We believe that every child has a basic human right to be educated to the point of eventual self-sufficiency. And we believe that children have an inalienable right to be protected from abuse, from bullying, and from sexual and other kinds of predators. With all that we are in full agreement with our countrymen and women.
But it is when the camera pulls back and the larger picture comes into focus that we part company. The sense, basic to secular culture, that children are tiny pre-adults leads to the assumption that, for all they may well need to be protected because of their naiveté and their basic powerlessness, children nevertheless have the same rights, or some version of the same rights, that adults have. And foremost among those rights is the right to be considered an individual, to be treated as a citizen distinct and separate even from the nuclear family in which that specific child is being raised, and to be completely free to chart his or her destiny forward in life without being obliged to play a role in someone else’s play, in someone else’s drama.  How different is the Jewish perspective! For us, for Jewish people imbued with a sense of the Jewish present as a gateway in time between history and destiny…the concept of the child as independent agent could not be less resonant. The unity of the Jewish people—and the related notion of the specific role each individual Jewish soul is called upon to play in the pursuit of Jewish destiny by virtue of his or her membership in the House of Israel—is the core concept that underlies the eternal nature of the Jewish people and serves as the frame into which is set our own sense of our redemptive mission to the world. For us, circumcision is the sign of the covenant, the mark carved into the flesh of every Jewish man that marks him and the children he fathers as willing participants in the pageant of Jewish history. (Why women bear no such parallel mark is an interesting question. I have my own answer, but I can also recommend wholeheartedly the book of one of my own doctoral advisors, Shaye J.D. Cohen,Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised: Gender and Covenant in Judaism, which was published by the University of California Press in 2005.) But leaving that question aside—perhaps I’ll write about it on another occasion—the basic concept is that the covenant between God and Israel is the foundation stone upon which all the rest rests, the indispensable basis for the ongoing existence of the Jewish people. Opposing circumcision, therefore, is tantamount to opposing the existence of the Jewish people itself…and not a policy shift to which we could ever acquiesce politely or apathetically.  There is no question in my mind that Jewish people will continue to circumcise their sons and that this will be the case no matter what the Norwegian or Swedish parliaments do or do not decide. Whether there will be a future for the Jewish communities of Europe should these bans on the most basic of Jewish rituals become law is another question entirely, one unrelated to the future of the Jewish people itself.
Our children are ourselves. They are we no less profoundly or meaningfully than we are they; the barrier between generations is one set in time as parents cede their place in the front lines of Jewishness to their children, who in turn will eventually cede their places to their own children. But that barrier is not one that exists other than as a coordinating metaphor for the progression of the generations. You could just as reasonably argue that it barely exists at all, that the generations follow each other when set into the context of time past, present, and future but that the concept itself dissolves in the image of all Israel—including the unborn of all generations—gathered at Sinai to receive the terms of the covenant that would forever bind Israel to its God….and the parallel image of the Jews of all generations moving as one across the face of the earth in ghostly concert as the exile finally ends and the world experiences the knowledge of God washing over it as the waters cover the sea.
For us, the question on the table is an issue of cosmic consequence, not a medical detail or a question of baby’s civil rights. To argue that a Jewish baby has the right not to be formally set in place at the confluence of history and destiny at which every Jewish boy finds himself as he enters the covenant…is an idea that will only sound reasonable to people for whom the right of any individual not to be part of his or her people’s destiny overrides every other conceivable concern relating to that individual’s welfare. I suppose there are people out there who think just that. But those are not people who share our understanding of the mission of Israel!

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