The leaders of Germany’s Jewish community have criticized Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger for their “unhelpful” involvement in the German circumcision controversy, saying their comments constitute counterproductive interference in the affairs of an independent Jewish Diaspora community.

“The two both unnecessarily strained the debate and contributed to further uncertainty,” the heads of the Central Council of Jews in Germany wrote in a letter to Israel’s ambassador in Berlin, Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, the German-Jewish weekly Juedische Allgemeine reported on Monday.

‘Metzger is the chief rabbi of Israel, that is worthy of respect. But he isn’t the chief rabbi of Germany’

The dispute over circumcisions in Germany began in June when a Cologne court declared the rite illegal. The debate intensified last week when criminal charges were filed against a German rabbi who has performed the operation hundreds of time. Apparently worried about their co-religionists in Germany, Yishai and Metzger got involved. Metzger traveled to Germany, where he met with senior politicians and government officials, urging them not to touch the Jews’ right to conduct circumcisions as they please. Yishai wrote a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel in which he linked anti-Semitism in Europe with the trend to ban Jewish rites and urged her to intervene.

Eli Yishai, standing, attends a circumcision ceremony in Jerusalem (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

Eli Yishai, standing, attends a circumcision ceremony in Jerusalem (photo credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

President Shimon Peres also spoke up, sending a letter to his German counterpart, Joachim Gauck, in which he urged Gauck to safeguard “the rights of [Germany's] Jewish community to practice its religious customs freely.”

The letter to the Israeli ambassador, signed by Central Council of Jews in Germany President Dieter Graumann and his vice president, Josef Schuster, does not mention Peres’s appeal.

The council viewed Metzger’s involvement “with some surprise and discomfort,” the letter states. “This is an unprecedented act of interference in the religious and political affairs of an independent Jewish community outside Israel.”

Criticism has also come from some of Germany’s rabbis, Juedische Allgemeine reports. Henry Brandt, the chairman of the General Rabbinical Conference of Germany — a subsidiary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany — said Metzger’s involvement was unhelpful because he was assuming authority that he did not really have.

“He’s the chief rabbi of Israel; that is worthy of respect. But he isn’t the chief rabbi of Germany,” Brandt said. “We have here an intact rabbinate, both Orthodox and general, so we don’t need him to throw a wrench in the works.”

Think tank: Israeli response needed, but a delicate one

A Jerusalem-based think tank published a report last week that deals with the question of what kind of action Jewish and Israeli leaders should take to help European Jews as their religious rights are being called into question. The paper argued that “an immediate, coordinated Jewish — including Israeli — response is needed to thwart the possible implications of recent attempts to ban circumcision and limit other Jewish practices in Western Europe.”

“In a world that is becoming juridically globalized, and in which every legal precedent counts,” the authors of the Jewish People Policy Institute report write, “we must consider whether Jewish and Israeli policy makers should begin to coordinate a comprehensive professional response.”

This is not a time for Jews to stay idle and wait for developments, Nadia Ellis and Dov Maimon, who authored the report, said. The think tank’s president, Avinoam Bar Yosef, said he encourages Jewish leaders to “focus their attention on addressing this crisis before it gets out of hand. This is a case in which Jewish solidarity should be at peak performance.”

However, Maimon and Ellis do mention in their report that intervention by Israeli officials could be seen as “foreign country interference and it may put local Jewish leadership in an uncomfortable position.”