Banning the Snip: The Debate on Circumcision

Chancellor Angela Merkel has a plateful of matters to deal with, most of them of an economic nature.  Europe is stuttering and staggering, and the Dame of Austerity is finding herself with fewer friends by the day.  With the recent decision by the regional court in Cologne disapproving the legality of circumcision for underage boys, a storm has erupted that has given her another issue to worry about.  The debate may never have taken place had the doctor who performed the circumcision on the couple’s child not been charged with bodily harm.

The Chancellor’s sentiments were recorded in the Bild daily: “I do not want Germany to be the only country in the world where Jews cannot practise (sic) their rituals.  Otherwise we will become a laughing stock.” Both Merkel and Joerg van Essen, parliamentary floor leader of the Free Democrats, have suggested that laws overturning the effect of the ruling will be introduced over the autumn.

The first thing to note in this sea of hysteria is the limited nature of the ruling. The court’s jurisdiction is confined to the city of Cologne and its environs. The fear there, of course, is one of precedent.  Nor did the court expressly outlaw circumcision of underage boys.  The regional court emphasised that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.”

Religious groups who encourage such practices have predictably gone on to pillory the ruling, suggesting that, in the twenty first century, it is still one’s untrammelled prerogative to alter the genital makeup of underage boys. The Central Council of Jews in Germany has issued a statement that, were this ruling to become German law, Jews might find living in that country intolerable.  Ali Demir, chairman of the Religious Community of Islam in Germany, has even made the curious remark that the ruling was “adversarial to the cause of integration and discriminatory against all the parties concerned” (Guardian, June 27).  The issue has an even greater resonance in Germany, when the shadow of the Holocaust looms over any encroachment upon the rights of Jewish residents.

What has been well illustrated not merely by the case but the reaction to it is a yawning gulf – on the one hand, the seething outrage against female genital mutilation (hardly a case of integration), and on the other ‘legitimate’, condoned practice, be it for some fanciful religious or medical notion, of male circumcision.

Dr. Antony Lempert, chairman of Britain’s Secular Medical Forum, has expressed support for the ruling, seeing at work a distinct appellation of emotional blackmail that threatens to undermine it.  Don’t, he urged Merkel, be fazed:

We are shocked that religious groups deny the harm (caused by circumcision) and at the distorted and disingenuous claims made by those opposing the court’s decision, wrongly suggesting that it is an indication of anti-Semitism (Reuters, July 17).

The point is well made, and ignores the debate on circumcision within those faiths that practice it.  Ronald Goldman of the Jewish Circumcision Resource Centre has been happy to challenge the unquestioning assertions of the practice, noting that organisations can be found, even in Israel, decrying the snip.  If we want to blot the record with historical references, Goldman reminds us in “Circumcision: A Source of Jewish Pain,” that Moses neglected to circumcise his son, while Theodor Herzl did not give his son the treatment when he was born in 1891. To claim that the snip is a mandatory feature of authentic Jewishness is also false, given that one can be uncircumcised and still remain Jewish.

The other striking feature of the debate is one of age. Children’s rights have become something of a fetish in many states, a policy making boon for those seeking to control the interaction between adults and children.  If it’s in the best interests of the child, then do it.  Evidently, circumcising those who are incapable, and indeed often unaware, of what is being done to their genitals lies in a mysterious area of legal exceptionality.  Religious, cultural practices take precedence – at least if the child in question is male.  Again, to quote Lempert, “As it stands, the court’s decision ensures that today’s children will be free to grow up to make their own decisions.”  (The blood of religious figures must surely have run cold at the very thought of a freely informed decision.)

The German regional court did its part in igniting the issue with the assertion that circumcision amounted to grievous bodily harm.  It is hard to contest that as a fact – harm it is, wielded by a practitioner skilled in the arts of foreskin removal.  That’s hardly the view of such figures as Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who claims that the Queen chose to have HRH the Prince of Wales and his brothers, Andrew and Edward, snipped.  If the royals do it, so can commoners.

Catherine Bennett in the Guardian (July 22) adopted, rightly, a scoffing tone to the value of the practice:

While I wish the rabbi all the best, there seems no obvious reason why the royal family’s traditional aversion to foreskins should prove any more influential than its passion for polo, corgis and homeopathic remedies.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.