HOF, Germany — The doctor, the mother and the child all dealt with the physical complications from a circumcision on November 4, 2010. But no one was prepared for what erupted this summer, nearly two years later.
A seemingly simple case led a court to classify religious circumcision as assault, hospitals nationwide to prohibit the practice, a debate in now largely secular Germany about the primitive nature of religion, and Jews and Muslims to band together to protect a time-honored rite both believe to be central to their faiths.
The German Parliament is considering a variety of responses, from a nationwide ban to religious protections. Chancellor Angela Merkel has said the controversy makes her nation look ridiculous. But Austria, Finland and Norway are embroiled in similar debates.
Some commentators call this the most serious religiously motivated attack here since the Holocaust, when Nazi Germany murdered 6 million Jews.
Today, however, the concern began with Islam.
A 4-year-old patient of surgeon Omar Kezze, a Syrian Muslim who practices in Cologne, started bleeding several days after a circumcision. His mother rushed him to a hospital. The hospital, as required by law, reported the bleeding. German courts took the matter from there, acquitting Kezze of wrongdoing. But on appeal, the court condemned the practice of circumcision for religious reasons.
The July ruling doesn’t yet carry the weight of law, and the German public is evenly divided about whether it should, polls show. But it so worried German hospitals that their doctors could face assault charges if they performed the procedure that the hospitals stopped doing it altogether.
Then came the case of Rabbi David Goldberg, in the small town of Hof in Bavaria, the German state best known for parties, lederhosen and large mugs of beer.
Prosecutors there are weighing whether to file assault charges against the 64-year-old religious leader and mohel, a Hebrew term for a man who performs the Jewish rite of cutting the foreskin off an infant’s penis. He’s one of a handful in Germany.
The local prosecutor, Gerhard Schmitt, said charges against the rabbi would involve past circumcisions and were under review.
“This is a complex matter,” Schmitt said. “It could well take several weeks to decide.”
To Goldberg, it’s not so complicated. Suddenly, the ritual he’s proudly performed for 40 years in Germany, Israel and elsewhere could brand him a criminal. He thinks that the discussion alone is sinister enough.
“We have seen this before, from Germans,” the rabbi said.
At the very least, Fatih Eroglu, the chairman of Berlin’s Turkish-Islamic Union, said: “Doesn’t this again open the door to marginalization and discrimination through religious identity and religious symbols?”
Still, hundreds of doctors have signed petitions against the practice, saying it could bring physical pain and psychic torture to children.
Lawyers have followed suit, calling circumcision a human rights abuse because infants are too young to be consulted.
Dr. Maximilian Stehr, a pediatric urologist at the prestigious Kinderchirurgische Klinik in Munich, wants the debate to focus on the rights, and the pain, of the children. He said female circumcision was abhorred in much of the world, and that male babies deserved the same rights.
“A child has the right not to be mutilated, and this right supersedes the religious aspect.” he said.
“Religion can change over thousands of years. Can Jews and Muslims not consider a symbolic circumcision for children?” Stehr said.
In fact, he hopes the debate moves beyond Germany and into the United States.
Coincidentally, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines last month on male circumcision and concluded that its health benefits outweigh the risks.
In Germany, where only one in 10 males are circumcised – and a smaller percentage of the population than in the U.S. attends religious services of any kind – the ruling also has sparked a public discussion about the “primitive” nature of faith.
Online sites have even detoured into lively debates over whether the American and British predilection for circumcision was based entirely on Victorian anti-masturbation efforts.
Eroglu said the court ruling was nothing less than an attack on Islam, and religious freedom in general.
Germany has long had an uneasy relationship between a secular population and its new wave of Muslims. They came in large numbers after 1961, when Germany invited Turks as “guest workers.” But their continued presence has sparked controversy in everything from the ethnic makeup of schools to the construction of mosques.
For Jews, however, the debate has echoes of one of the most nightmarish periods in history. Indeed, newspaper columnists have wondered how Germany dares even speak of human rights abuses to Jews.
Calling circumcision one of the most important acts of being a Jew, Rabbi Goldberg said, “I do not say this lightly, but this ban is anti-Semitic.”
In ancient Erfurt, Rabbi Konstantin Pal, 33, serves a community of about 800 Jews. His office is a few cobbled streets away from his town’s first synagogue, which was built in the 12th century. The original Jewish families are all gone long ago, he said, having either fled or been murdered by the Nazis.
Still, in the debate over circumcision, the rabbi said the charge of anti-Semitism was unfair.
Christian pastors have expressed concerns to him that baptism and religious education could be next, and Pal sees a ban as an attack on faith itself.
“The trend here is to say religion is bad, old, ancient, that we don’t need it,” he said. “Banning circumcision is making a new law of man against thousands of years of old laws of God. This is not the right of the state.”
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