Thursday, October 18, 2012 | return to: views, opinions


Does circumcision debate show Germany’s true colors?

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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.

vtrupp_nameDoctors 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.


Posted by Perkeo
10/18/2012  at  07:48 PM
Appeal to reason, not emotion.

The author focuses on Germany on the circumcision issue for emotional appeal. She knosws reason is not with her in this argument.

She complains that people call male infant circumcision “barbaric” and that doing so is a sure sign of being antisemitic. I submit to you that reasonable people have a right to call cutting off part of the healthy genitals of a baby boy, “barbaric”. I’m sure Ms. Trepp thinks female genital mutilation (FMG) is “barbaric”, and she sees no moral dilemma in calling it as such. She probably has no problem trampling on the religious and cultural beliefs of the societies that practice FMG and feels self-righteous about it. Ms. Trepp would of course try to argue that FMG is much worse than infant male circumcision, which I will grant her. In the most extreme cases FMG is worse than male circumcision… but not in all cases. The difference is only one of degree, not of intent. Morally they are identical.

I quote from Part III Chapter 49 of the “Guide to the Perplexed” by the revered Jewish sage Moses Maimonides:
“The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable.”

Ms. Trepps also objects that circumcision is called a “Bronze Age” blood ritual. Sorry to point this out; but that’s simply a fact.

She objects that it’s called “mutilation”. According to Merriam Webster the definition of “mutilation” is:  “to cut up or alter radically so as to make imperfect.”

Circumcision fulfills all three aspects of that definition. The foreskin is not a birth defect, it and integral and functioning part of the male organ. It’s there to protect the glans and preventing it from drying up. During intercourse it aids in preserving lubrication and it also plays an important role in the mechanics of sex. A scientific survey published in England concluded that women experience more satisfaction and orgasms with uncut males.

The wildly exaggerated claims of “health benefits” can be easily addressed and shot down if anyone wants to bring them up. The reason for all these (mostly bogus) claims of “health benefits” is precisely because the procedure is patently immoral and unjustifiable otherwise.

The only argument in favor for circumcision that has some validity, is the religious argument, but even this is insufficient for such an immoral act as willfully cutting part of the healthy genitals of a baby.

How many of the 613 mitzvot do Jews no longer practice because they’re remnants of a different time and have no place in the XXI century? Does Ms. Trepp think that Jewish women have to marry their rapists if they are not married?

Is Judaism a living religion, one that is relevant to the times; or is it set of immovable rules?

Anyone moral person who sees one of the dozens of circumcisions available in YouTube, including those made by mohels (who in some cases claim to be infallible with the knife) cannot but feel indignation at the unnecessary pain being caused to those babies. Even more repellent is that fact that such an occasion is considered grounds to have a party.

I’ve heard Jewish women claim to be the “best” mothers… How can a good mother do that to her baby?

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Posted by MisterEquality
10/20/2012  at  05:15 PM
I agree

Most articles I’ve seen against a ban on male circumcision are exactly that…appeals to emotion and the anti semite card, etc.

Why don’t we all instead work together to preserve the body and rights of those we say we love and are sworn to protect? G-d created man in his image, not yours. Circumcision is Egyptian based and had no bearing at all for true Jews. Lets wake up people and stop cutting babies.

Just because it’s a rite doesn’t make it “right”.

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