German government okays bill to legalize ritual circumcisions

Bundestag widely expected to vote the proposal into law soon, freeing ‘mohels’ from the threat of prosecution

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Tools for a circumcision procedure (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Tools for a circumcision procedure (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The German government on Wednesday approved a bill that will legalize ritual circumcisions if they are performed by a medical professional, three months after a local court criminalized the rite and started a nationwide and international controversy about religious rites versus children’s rights.

The legislation, which would mean that Jewish circumcisers, or mohels, would be able to resume performing the rite without threat of prosecution, was praised by German Jewish leaders.

“With this law we’re creating legal safety for the practice of religious traditions,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Wednesday. “The bill shows: Germany is and will remain an open and tolerant country. We want vibrant Jewish and Muslim life to be part of our society.”

After having been approved by the 16-headed federal cabinet, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, the bill will now be introduced to the Bundestag, where most analysts believe it will pass with a large majority in the coming weeks.

Jewish groups welcomed the bill, which was drafted by the Justice Ministry in Berlin. “It is a clear political signal that Jews and Muslims are still welcome in Germany,” said Dieter Graumann, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “We are happy that Jewish commandments and Jewish life are not being pushed into illegality.”

In July, all parties in the German parliament but one — the far-left Die Linke — voted in favor of a resolution calling on the government to ensure legal rights for those performing ritual circumcisions (mohels).

However, Deidre Berger, executive director of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, said she was “extremely concerned” whether the Bundestag will indeed vote the bill into law. “Public opinion seems to be against circumcision, and many parliamentary delegates from all parties are ambivalent. In addition, major medical associations in Germany are anti-circumcision and are likely to oppose the draft law,” she told the Forward.

Groups critical of ritual circumcisions have already come out against the bill. Deutsche Kinderhilfe, a children’s rights group, said the government acted blindly and denies children their legal rights, according to the DPA news agency. “It is creating more problems than it is solving,” the group’s chairman, Georg Ehrmann, said about the proposed law, criticizing that it accepts painkillers that in his view are insufficient.

“Newborns needs a special kind of anesthetics, which only physicians can administer properly. If mohels are allowed to continue performing circumcisions, the law approvingly accepts that the newborn will feel severe pains,” said Ehrman Wednesday.

‘Public opinion seems to be against circumcision, and many parliamentary delegates from all parties are ambivalent’

According to what is expected to become paragraph 1631 of the German Civil Code, parents of newborn sons can agree to have someone carry out ritual circumcisions “if they are performed according to the rules of medical art.”

Ritual circumcisions can be performed by “a person chosen by a religious community who is specially trained” for such procedures, the bill says. In practice, that means that traditional Jewish circumcisers, or mohels, will continue to be able to perform circumcisions if they possess the necessary medical know-how.

“The performance of circumcisions by a person appointed for this purpose by a religious community does not require the authorities’ permission,” the 26-page bill’s explanatory notes state.

However, a few conditions have to be met, including informing parents of the risks of the procedure and having them state that they agree to it nonetheless. The person performing the circumcision is required to act with the utmost care to avoid unnecessary pain while performing the procedure, including using painkillers where applicable (such as an anesthetic skin-cream for newborns).

In June, the Cologne district court ruled that parents having their sons circumcised are liable for causing bodily injury, even if they did so for religious reasons. According to the judges’ decision, the constitutional freedom of religion cannot justify interventions such as circumcision.

The court ruling drew heavy criticism from Jews in Germany, who, in a first reaction, called it “an outrageous and insensitive act.”

Amid a heated public debate about the legality of ritual circumcisions, criminal charges were filed against at least two rabbis who had pledged to continue performing circumcisions. The Cologne ruling had led to legal uncertainty among the four mohels currently practicing in Germany, with a local rabbi lamenting that the decision had “enormously” impacted Jewish life.

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