Germany's Liberal Ban on Circumcisions

A German court’s decision to ban the circumcision of minors has quickly become the political equivalent of a viral sensation. After all, it’s hard to imagine that the judge at a provincial court in Cologne who ruled that the circumcision of a four-year-old Muslim boy constituted illegal bodily harm could have foreseen that Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis, would soon be calling his verdict the “worst attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust.”

As is the case with most viral hits, some of the hype is no doubt exaggerated. In reality, leading German politicians rushed to condemn the ruling as soon as it started to make headlines. Chancellor Angela Merkel assured Germany’s Jewish and Muslim communities that they would be able to perform their rites. In part at her urging, the Bundestag has already passed a non-binding resolution affirming its intention to give the bris and the khitan a clear legal grounding. Within a few months, a law officially overturning the ban on circumcisions is expected to come into force.

We can now confidently predict that the supposedly worst attack on Germany’s Jewish life since the Second World War will barely outlive the life span of an average YouTube hit. So should concerned observers forget all about the ban, and move on to the next political sensation? Not quite yet. While the temporary ban on circumcisions is unlikely to affect Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany for more than a few months, the outpouring of public support for it suggests that the rights of minorities may soon come under attack in different ways.

Just consider that, to this day, most Germans actually favor the ban on circumcisions. In an opinion poll conducted a few days after the ruling, 56 percent of Germans welcomed it; only 35 percent were opposed. Even now, after weeks of passionate discussion, a slim plurality of Germans remains intransigent: while 42 percent want circumcisions to be legal, 45 percent support the ban. What’s more, a cursory look into the comments section of leading newspapers suggests that the opposition to circumcisions is visceral—and has more to do with a continuing uneasiness about the presence of Jewish and Muslim life in Germany than with philosophical views about the rights of children. In fact, I myself quickly became the object of some of this ire when I complained about the ban on Twitter. “Germans don’t force anybody to stay in Germany,” one user immediately tweeted at me. “#AndGoodbye #Circumcision.”