Circumcision under attack in Europe

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: A protest against circumcision in Chicago. Credit: Andrew Ciscel via Wikimedia Commons.

This week, as Jews across the world celebrate Hanukkah, they also remember the victory of the Maccabees against the brutal rule of Antiochus IV, designated “Harasha” (“the wicked”) by rabbinical tradition. Antiochus’s main aim was to Hellenize the Jews in the ancient land of Israel by forcing them to adopt Greek customs in place of Jewish ones. 

Among the Jewish customs that Antiochus banned was circumcision. Because it was the symbol of the covenant between God and the Jewish patriarch Abraham, Antiochus understood that if Judaism were to be comprehensively destroyed, circumcision would have to be outlawed. 

Almost two thousands years later, a campaign against circumcision has once again emerged, this time in Europe. It needs to be said at the outset that this is not a campaign in the style of Antiochus; no one has been persecuted or arrested, and the advocates of a ban on circumcision emphasize that their approach is based on persuasion, not coercion. Still, the historic echoes of cruel rulers like Antiochus, and later on the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who also banned circumcision, should partly explain why European Jews have been left incredulous at the site of yet another attempt to break this symbol of the divine covenant. 

During the last decade, we’ve become accustomed to viewing anti-Semitism in relation to the assault on Israel’s legitimacy. But in the last two years, Jews have faced another distinct threat in the context of an offensive against Judaic rituals. In countries as varied as New Zealand and Poland, the ritual slaughter of animals for kosher consumption has come under sustained legal attack. And from San Francisco, where anti-circumcision campaigners have gathered under the banner of a viciously anti-Semitic cartoon called “Foreskin Man,” to European countries like Germany and Norway, there have been similar efforts to place circumcision outside the law. 

It’s notable that much like today’s anti-Zionists, the anti-ritualists furiously deny that they are in any way motivated by anti-Semitism. Just as opposition to Israel’s existence is motivated by concern for Palestinian human rights, we are told, so opposition to Jewish ritual is grounded upon a commitment to the welfare of animals and the rights of infant boys.

All that—not to put too fine a point on it—is a load of bull. 

Let’s take the anti-ritualist discourse of advocates like Anne Lindboe, the Norwegian government’s child welfare advisor, at face value. Lindboe says her opposition to circumcision stems from a commitment to the rights of infant boys to be spared from a “procedure that is irreversible, painful and risky.” If that’s the case, then where are the mass protests of those—like myself and many of you reading this column—who have “survived” this same procedure? I don’t feel as if my rights were violated by my own circumcision, and I suspect many of you feel the same. In other words, we are not the Jewish equivalents of the thousands of Catholic children sexually abused by predatory priests, which resulted in a well-known and justified scandal that consumed The Vatican. 

“That doesn’t matter,” you might expect Lindboe, or the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, which also opposes circumcision, to reply. “Babies have rights, even if they lack the communicative means to express them.” Very well, then—are we to therefore conclude that parents have no jurisdiction over the bodies of their children? Are we to bracket circumcision, an essentially harmless operation with proven sexual health benefits, with the barbaric practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), as the Council of Europe does? 

What’s really involved here is an insidious attempt to curb the civil rights of both Jews and Muslims, who also mandate circumcision for boys. I can’t say for sure whether the anti-circumcision crusaders have realized that the logic of their position is a society where both Jews and Muslims are unable to live. But clearly, that’s not an outcome that overly bothers them.

We are, of course, a long way from a legal ban. Europe today is not the domain of Antiochus, nor of the Nazis, who famously banned kashrut three months after coming to power in 1933. Yet a practice does not need to be proscribed to become stigmatized. After years of baiting Israel, parts of Europe’s educated elite are doing the same to Jewish ritual. How long before we hear reports of Jewish schoolchildren being bullied simply because they are circumcised? 

Ben Cohen

No wonder that a recent European Union survey showed that almost 50 percent of European Jews have considered emigrating. Against this backdrop, who wouldn’t?

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Mosaic, and many other publications.

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Posted on November 27, 2013 and filed under Opinion, World.