German court rules circumcision a crime

By Toby Axelrod, June 28, 2012
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Fighting back: Dieter Graumann

Fighting back: Dieter Graumann

A district court in Germany has ruled that circumcision may be considered a criminal act, raising alarm bells among Jewish institutions around the world.

According to the District Court in Cologne, circumcision is legally defensible only if is it medically required, not as a religious prescription.

The head of the Central Council of Jews (CCJ) in Germany, Dieter Graumann, called the decision “outrageous and insensitive”, and Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, said: “While the ruling does not appear to have antisemitic intent, its effect is to say ‘Jews are not welcome’.”

Mr Graumann called on Germany’s parliament to take action to prevent the District court case, involving a Muslim family, from setting a dangerous precedent that could endanger the religious life of both Muslims and Jews.

It is time to be wary, but not to panic, said attorney Nathan Gelbart, who is on the Central Council’s arbitration court. The district court decision is not binding “as long as there is no decision by the High Court of Justice or High Constitutional Court,” Mr Gelbart said.

The ruling, which was made earlier this week, related to a Muslim couple who had brought their four-year-old son to a hospital a couple of days after his ritual circumcision by a doctor. They were worried about continued bleeding but the child turned out to be well.

That apparently did not stop someone in the hospital from reporting the case to state prosecutors, who then brought charges against the doctor.

In a first trial, the court found that the doctor had done nothing wrong in fulfilling the wishes of the parents and upholding their religious freedom.

The prosecutors appealed, and this week came the judgment: although the doctor was acquitted because he had not known that his act was potentially criminal, the interests of the child came before those of the parents or any abstract religious freedoms.

In the UK, the vice-president of the Board of Deputies and chair of its defence division, Jonathan Arkush, condemned the judgment as “intolerant and ill-informed… it is deeply troubling”.

On the implications of the judgment for the UK, however, he said: “I do not anticipate any change in the lawfulness of circumcision in this country.

“The General Medical Council, which is the gold standard in terms of the guidance given to doctors, emphasises the importance of circumcision to Jews and Muslims.”

In Germany, the CCJ noted that circumcision of eight-day-old boys — performed by a doctor or medically trained mohel — is an essential part of the Jewish faith. The right to practise this ritual “is respected in every country of the world,” said the CCJ.

Holm Putzke, a professor of criminal law at the University of Passau and a prominent voice in the ongoing public debate about non-medical circumcision, said: “I can understand that the first reaction of Jews and Muslims might be that their religious freedoms are being threatened. But perhaps this is a first step to a debate… about what should be given more weight — religious freedom or the right of children not to have their genitals mutilated.”

“The issue behind this is religious freedom,” said Ulrich Kober, head of the integration and education department at the Bertelsmann Foundation.

“How could you argue that parents have to wait to influence their children about religion until they are old enough to freely decide? This is not how religious tradition functions.”

Last updated: 1:55pm, June 28 2012