Sunday, November 17, 2013

Norway Moves Against Circumcision

by Ben Cohen

Almost one year after Chancellor Angela Merkel successfully leaned on the German parliament to pass legislation guaranteeing the rights of parents to have their infant boys circumcised, the practice is now under threat in another European country. This week, Norway’s health minister, Bent Hoie, announced that new legislation is in the pipeline to “regulate ritual circumcision.”

Hoie took his cue from Anne Lindboe, Norway’s children’s ombudsman, who believes that “non-medical circumcision”–in other words, circumcision of boys in accordance with the laws of both Judaism and Islam–is a violation of children’s rights. JTA quoted Lindboe as having told the leading Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten: “This is not due to any lack of understanding of minorities or religious traditions, but because the procedure is irreversible, painful and risky.”

Lindboe is certainly not a lone voice in this debate. A large number of parliamentarians from the opposition Labor Party have expressed support for a ban, while the Center Party, which controls 10 of the seats in Norway’s 169-member legislature, is officially in favor. Small wonder, then, that Ervin Kohn, the head of Norway’s tiny Jewish community of 700 souls, has described the issue as an “existential matter.” Clearly, the push factors that led nearly 50 percent of Jews in Belgium, Hungary, and France to confess, in a survey on anti-Semitism conducted by the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency, that they are considering emigration have manifested in Norway also.

The Norwegian developments follow the October vote by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a 47-member body that is not institutionally linked to the EU, recommending restrictions on ritual circumcision. The ensuing outcry among European Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians led a nervous Thorbjorn Jaglund, the council’s secretary-general, to assure the Conference of European Rabbis “that in no way does the Council of Europe want to ban the circumcision of boys.” But given that the Council of Europe has no control over national legislatures, that statement is essentially toothless.

The abiding question here is why hostility to ritual circumcision has become such a hot topic in European states. When it comes to circumcision, the kinds of survivors groups that push for tougher legislation on, say, child sexual abuse or violence against women simply don’t exist. Hence, if the vast majority of men who have undergone ritual circumcision aren’t clamoring for a ban, why the insistence on portraying them as victims?

According to Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the head of the Conference of European Rabbis, the anti-circumcision campaign is an integral component of a continent-wide “offensive” against Muslim communities, in which Jews represent “collateral damage.” There is some merit to this view, yet it ignores the fact that legal measures against Jewish ritual have a long and dishonorable pedigree in Europe. It’s widely known that the Nazis banned shechita, or Jewish ritual slaughter, three months after coming to power in 1933, but they were beaten to the punch by Switzerland in 1893 and Norway in 1930–and you don’t need to be an expert on European history to know that there were no Muslim communities of any meaningful size in these countries when these legislative bills were passed. 

Moreover, it can be argued that by grouping male circumcision with the horrific practice of female genital mutilation, which in Europe mainly afflicts women from Muslim countries, the Council of Europe was going out of its way not to target Muslim communities specifically. In a classic example of the cultural relativism that plagues European institutions, its resolution on the “physical integrity of children” listed as matters of concern, “…female genital mutilation, the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons, early childhood medical interventions in the case of intersex children, and the submission to or coercion of children into piercings, tattoos or plastic surgery.”

As this week’s edition of the Economist argues, this categorization is nonsensical:
Our intuition tells us that the circumcision of baby boys is probably okay, at worst harmless and culturally very important to some religions, while the excision practised on baby girls in some cultures certainly is not okay.
The same piece observes that, in any case, the determination of European leaders to prevent a ban on circumcision will likely foil any parliamentary legislation to that end. A similar point was made in a recent Haaretz piece by Anshel Pfeffer, who derided fears among Israeli legislators of a ban on circumcision as just so much hyperbole.

However, what’s missing here is the understanding that a practice doesn’t have to be proscribed for it to be frowned upon. Large numbers of Europeans already regard circumcision as a backward ritual, and the current Norwegian debate is likely to persuade many more that circumcision should be opposed in the name of human rights. Over the last decade, European Jews have watched helplessly as their identification with Israel has been stigmatized: with a similar pattern now emerging over Jewish ritual, an adversarial political climate that falls short of actual legislation may yet be enough to persuade them that their future on the continent remains bleak.

Ben Cohen


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