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When a court in Cologne, Germany ruled in June that circumcision should henceforth be considered illegal, those who are tasked with raising the alarm about signs of anti-Semitism spoke out. But cooler heads, including those who know Europe well, told us not to worry so much.
However, when prosecutors were petitioned to bring charges this week against a rabbi in Bavaria for performing brit milah—the covenantal rite of circumcision that is integral to Jewish identity—it was widely taken as a sign that this issue is not going away. Indeed, with hospitals in Germany, Austria and Switzerland now refusing to perform circumcision for fear of legal sanctions, it’s clear that this is just the beginning of what may be a long hard fight with no assurance of a happy outcome for European Jews.
It is true that the bris ban is a threat to Muslims as well as Jews, and optimists are cautioning horrified onlookers to see it as more a function of intolerance of any minority rather than a specific recurrence of anti-Semitism. But Jews and Muslims are in very different situations in Europe these days.
Prejudice against Islam has cropped up throughout Western Europe. But the sheer number of Muslims also works in their favor since, as is already the case in France, they have the potential to be a major political force. The scattered remnant of European Jewry has no such advantage. In the last generation animus against the state of Israel, often imported into these countries by Muslim immigrants, has given a veneer of faux respectability to traditional Jew-hatred now practiced by both intellectuals and street toughs. It is in that context of what the U.S. State Department has admitted is a “rising tide of anti-Semitism” that movements to ban circumcision or kosher slaughter in Europe must be understood.
What makes the circumcision ban in Germany so upsetting is that it was assumed that fear of awakening the ghosts of the Nazis would keep anti-Semites in check there. Laws and a culture of guilt about the legacy of past generations have served to keep expressions of Jew hatred on the margins of German society. But with judges and doctors and others openly attacking Judaism, it’s apparent Germans are increasingly undeterred by such factors.
To her credit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed that the German parliament will pass legislation legalizing circumcision in the fall. But negotiations over the language of such a bill have revealed that many in the Bundestag may push for restrictions on the practice, such as forcing the use of anesthetics or requiring a doctor to be present. Such a bill would be unacceptable since it would infringe on a tradition that is safe and causes no harm to infants. It would also be an intrusion into communal life by the authorities that might set an ominous precedent. Though campaigners against circumcision always claim they are only seeking to protect children, their hostility to Judaism and Jews is a badly kept secret. That was made clear even here in America when those seeking to put a bris ban on the ballot in San Francisco last year published an anti-Semitic comic book to promote their efforts.
At the moment, German Jews are hopeful that this problem will soon blow over. But even the greatest of optimists cannot look around Europe and pretend that Jew-hatred isn’t growing. Not even shocking crimes, such as the shooting of a teacher and three Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse, France in March by an Islamist gunman was enough to stifle anti-Semitism there. As Jewish groups report, anti-Semitic attacks on Jews have risen in France since the incident. There, as is the case elsewhere in Europe, hatred for Israel has become the excuse for more blatant cases of bias.
The bris ban may be the thin edge of the wedge for other problems that will crop up. Anything that chips away at the religious freedom of Jews will serve as a green light for the haters to become more violent. Though there was once hope that Europe would again be a place where Jewish life could thrive, as Israel and Judaism itself become the focus of more hostility, it is hard to envision that Jews have much of a future on the continent.