President Shimon Peres sent a personal appeal to the secretary general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, on Monday, asking him to intervene against a recent European ban on the practice of circumcision.
Peres called for a rethinking of a resolution passed by Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe at the beginning of the month that declared male ritual circumcision a “violation of the physical integrity of children.”
“Dear Thorbjom, you have dedicated a large part of your career to defending the civil liberties of citizens across the world,” Peres wrote in the letter, dated Sunday but sent on Monday. “I know how much you value the principles of freedom of religion and trust that you will exert your considerable influence on the Council of Europe for the sake of these fundamental rights.”
Peres described the importance of the circumcision ritual to Jewish heritage and the impact that a ban on the practice will have.
“The ritual of male circumcision has been practiced by Jewish communities for thousands of years and is a fundamental element of our tradition and obligation as Jews,” Peres wrote. “The Jewish communities across Europe would be greatly afflicted to see their cultural and religious freedom impeded upon by the Council of Europe, and institution devoted to the protection of these very rights. I therefore urge the members of this distinguished assembly to reconsider this resolution.”
The resolution calls on states to “clearly define the medical, sanitary and other conditions to be ensured for practices such as the non-medically justified circumcision of young boys.”
Founded in 1949, the Council of Europe promotes cooperation between European countries on human rights, culture, law, and democratic values. Although, as a separate body from the European Union it does not pass any binding laws, the council oversees among others institutions the European Court of Human Rights.
The ritual circumcision of boys younger than 18 has come under attack increasingly in Scandinavia and German-speaking European countries both by left-wing secularists and right-wingers who fear the influence of immigration from Muslim countries.
In Germany a year ago, the government announced legislation that would legalize ritual circumcisions if they are performed by a medical professional, three months after a local court criminalized the rite and criminal charges were filed against two rabbis. The case elicited comments from a series of Israeli officials, including Peres.
At the height of the German circumcision controversy, the leaders of the Jewish community there criticized then-interior minister Eli Yishai and then-Ashkenazi chief rabbi Yona Metzger for their “unhelpful” involvement, saying their comments were a 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.
A report last year by a Jerusalem-based think tank about the spate of recent challenges to the religious rights of European Jews argued that intervention by Israeli officials could be seen as “foreign country interference and… may put local Jewish leadership in an uncomfortable position.”
JTA contributed to this report.