For Jews living in Germany, an old question has become relevant again: “Can we stay in this country?” Nothing over the last decades has been more unsettling than the debate that was kicked off by the ruling of a court in the city of Cologne declaring circumcision illegal. The verdict became the most debated national subject over the summer.
According to surveys, almost half of the German population supported the verdict. That might seem strange to Americans, especially American Jews. Why would Germans be that opposed to something fairly well known and so essential for the Jewish faith? But let’s forget about the numbers for the moment. One could even argue that the reaction was foreseeable because circumcision is not common in Europe, and because there is a strong trend of secularization in European society. Let’s focus instead on the content of these debates.
Doctors in favor of a circumcision ban talk about a “ritual of the Stone Age” and a “harmful practice.” Some politicians called it “mutilation” or want to overturn it as “we overcame the suttees,” the burning of widows in India.
Reader comments in newspapers and other media turned out to be the most disturbing. They were so revealing that, as a journalist, I got downright hooked on them.
Never before have I seen so much disdain, prejudice and hatred against Jews in the writings of ordinary people. Expressions such as “barbaric,” “brutal” or “inhumane” were common, as were statements such as: “How can people torture their own children?” “Don’t they understand that we had the Enlightenment?” “What kind of religion is it to command parents to harm their own children?” “If they can’t accept our constitution, let them go back to their country” Somebody wrote, “Our historic responsibility commands us not to once again ignore the rights of the defenseless.” I couldn’t help laughing.
In order to follow its commitment to ensure Jewish life in Germany, the government announced it would seek a bill officially permitting circumcision. However, this announcement was greeted with new protests. The debate got so malicious that Charlotte Knobloch, the former head of the Jewish Central Council in Germany, who was a “hidden child” during the war, said she now has doubts about her decision to stay in the country.
Is all of this life-threatening to Jews in Germany? No. And to most of them, the hostility of young Arab immigrants or neo-Nazis carries a greater risk of bodily harm. Jews have been spat upon, ridiculed and insulted. Most avoid certain areas in cities such as Berlin, and Jewish men and boys don’t show their kippot in public anymore. In August, Rabbi Daniel Alter was beaten up by a group of four young men while he and his 6-year-old daughter were walking through their calm middle-class neighborhood in Berlin. The men threatened to kill the child and broke Alter’s cheekbone. He was wearing his kippah. The police labeled the attack as anti-Semitic; they assume that the assailants, who still haven’t been caught, were Arab immigrants.
Incidents like these are dangerous. But the debate about circumcision has brought a paradigm shift. It has revealed the growing gap between an admirable and respected official policy in Germany of upholding the remembrance of the Holocaust and state condemnations of any form of anti-Semitism, and what the Germans call “volkes stimme” — the voice of the people. “It has opened the gates for all the anti-Semitic feelings people couldn’t find an outlet for before,” a rabbi told me.
The gap has been widening for quite a while. My late husband, a Holocaust survivor, more than once was confronted by the moaning of German non-Jews as soon as they found out he was Jewish and had fled the country. Without even asking about his fate, they would say: “Our parents suffered too …” There is a sense of “genug ist genug,” or, enough is enough.
At the beginning of this year, the German government presented a study on the rise of anti-Semitism in the country. The results were unsettling: About 20 percent of Germans harbor feelings of hostility and prejudice against Jews. Is this a problem in the country that initiated the greatest slaughter of Jews in history? One would assume so. But the question remains: What is Germany going to do about it?
Although most of his family had been murdered, my husband went back to Germany almost every year starting in the 1950s, to teach Judaism and help strengthen interreligious and intercultural understanding. But watching the developments in Germany at the end of his life, he wasn’t sure if his efforts were in vain. It saddens me beyond words if he should be proven right.
Gudrun Trepp is a longtime journalist who writes for the magazine Die Berliner Zeitung and the online edition of Der Speigel. She lives in San Francisco and is working on a biography of her late husband, Rabbi Leo Trepp.