German lawmakers propose barring circumcision before age 14


Some 50 lawmakers in Germany have signed on to a proposal that would bar ritual circumcision for boys under the age of 14.

The lawmakers — from the left-wing Social Democratic, Left and Greens parties — are hoping to preempt a bill that would allow Jewish and Muslim parents to choose ritual circumcision for an infant son under strict regulations including medical training for the circumciser and the use of anesthesia. The bill allowing ritual circumcision, which is awaiting parliamentary approval, was submitted last month.

Under the new proposal, the non-medical circumcision of infants would be prohibited and the procedure would have to be carried out by a trained urologist or pediatric surgeon, according to German news reports. The legislators reportedly insist that the child himself should be able to decide whether or not to allow “such a serious interference with his bodily integrity.”

The proposal was submitted to the Parliament by three lawmakers.The new attempt  is expected to meet vigorous opposition in the Bundestag.

The current campaign against ritual circumcision in Germany, which is led by a cadre of activists and boosted by some politicians on the left, picked up steam last May after a Cologne District Court ruled that the circumcision of a minor was criminal assault. The ruling came to light in the general public in June. In response, Jewish and Muslim leaders demanded a legal response that would protect their religious freedom. 

Though the bill submitted in October introduces new restrictions on a ritual practiced without interruption for centuries in Germany, Jewish and Muslim groups have praised it as a way to protect their religious freedom against increasing onslaughts by opponents of circumcision. The new measure would undermine that security.

Jewish groups sue NYC over circumcision rule


Orthodox Jewish groups have sued New York City to block a required warning to parents of the dangers of a ritual in which the circumciser uses his mouth to draw blood from the baby's penis.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in the Federal District Court in Manhattan by the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada, the International Bris Association and several individual circumcisers. It contends that the regulation, which conditions the ritual on parental consent, is unconstitutional and violates religious freedom by targeting a Jewish practice.

The rule, adopted unanimously by the New York City Board of Health last month, is aimed at reducing the risk that infants will contract herpes from the ancient ritual, known as metzitzah b'peh.

Using oral suction to take blood from the area of the circumcision wound is common in some of New York's ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

At least 11 boys contracted herpes from the practice between 2004 and 2011, according to city health officials. Two of them died from the disease and two others suffered brain damage, they said.

Under the rule, parents must sign a consent form that says the health department advises that “direct oral suction should not be performed” because of the risk of contracting herpes.

“It is important that parents know the risks associated with the practice,” City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said in a statement.

The lawsuit says the city's conclusion that the ritual increases the risk of herpes is based on a flawed analysis and is not statistically sound.

Germany’s Jews won’t be punished for circumcisions


Germany’s Jews and Muslims will not be punished for breaking the law if they carry out circumcisions on young boys, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said.

“For everyone in the government it is absolutely clear that we want to have Jewish and Muslim religious life in Germany,” Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said Friday according to Reuters. “Circumcision carried out in a responsible manner must be possible in this country without punishment.”

Earlier this week Europe’s main Orthodox rabbinical body held an emergency meeting in Berlin after a Cologne court ruling that said the religious ritual could be considered a criminal act. Regardless, the rabbis urged Jews in Germany to uphold the commandment to circumcise newborn sons.

The decision came in the ruling in the case of a Muslim boy taken to a doctor with bleeding after circumcision. The Cologne court said the practice inflicts bodily harm and should not be carried out on young boys, but could be practiced on older males who give consent. The ruling by the Cologne Regional Court applies to the city and surrounding districts.

In a press conference held Thursday at the Amano Hotel in central Berlin, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said his organization was ready to back Jews in challenging the May ruling by a Cologne district court, which Jewish groups see as symptomatic of a trend across Europe against some Jewish rituals.  Rabbi Goldschmidt did not give details about what actions his group could take.

The rabbinical conference also announced that it is joining with the Orthodox Rabbinical Conference of Germany to create an association of mohels, or ritual circumcisers, to be supervised by the Association of Jewish Doctors and Psychologists

Goldschmidt, who is chief rabbi of Moscow, told JTA he didn’t think “that 70 years after the Holocaust a German court would put a parent or a mohel in jail for performing a Jewish religious commandment.”

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has condemned the court’s decision and promised to work with German lawmakers to reverse the ruling. Muslim groups also have proposed bringing a test case to German courts.

Goldschmidt said his rabbinical group applauded the Central Council’s action and wanted to back it with moral and religious encouragement on a European level. He also said that the rabbinical conference had received assurances from Germany’s ambassador to Israel, Andreas Michaelis, that the German government will work on legislation to rectify the legal situation.

Seibert, according to Reuters, said that Merkel’s office would continue to work to resolve the legal issues.

The German Medical Association has advised doctors to not perform circumcisions until the legal questions are resolved, according to Reuters.

Mohel performs 4,500th brit


A mohel in Ukraine performed his 4,500th ritual circumcision.

Rabbi Yaacov Gaissinovitch, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who also is a medical doctor, officiated at the landmark circumcision last week, the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk announced.

Gaissinovitch has served as a mohel for 13 years and often is required to travel throughout Ukraine and Moldova to perform a brit, according to Chabad.org. He sometimes performs five ritual circumcisions a day.

Chabad.org reported that Gaissonovitch once performed 22 in a day at a Jewish summer camp in Dnepropetrovsk—with parents’ permission.

“All the Jews of Dnepropetrovsk, as well as all the Jews of Ukraine … wish him and his wonderful wife, Lisa, a long life, success, good health, great joy from his family and his children, and the continual blessings of the Almighty,” read the statement.

Proposed circumcision ban not merely a parochial concern


Circumcision, or “brit milah,” has long been the stuff of cheap jokes and comedy. But in recent weeks, what used to be nothing more than harmless fare has taken on a much more serious tone. So-called “intactivists” on the fringe left of American politics have pushed the radical notion that infant circumcision is an act of genital mutilation, so unacceptable in fact that it ought to be illegal.

That such a notion should have garnered enough signatures to have qualified for a popular referendum in San Francisco (and potentially elsewhere) is deeply troubling. For even if, as expected, it will be defeated in the end -– like most such California ballots—that will offer scant comfort to the millions of Americans, Jewish or otherwise, who for good reasons circumcise their sons at birth. For to them – to us – it defies comprehension that in this land of liberty and justice for all, serious consideration can be given to outlawing the fundamental practice of Jews since the beginning of Jewish history.

We thought we had left such things far behind in our long journey through eras and lands of religious bigotry and cultural intolerance.

Proponents of the ballot argue that there is a state interest in opposing the consequences of circumcision. But to carry any weight, only state interests of the highest order and greatest clarity should be permitted to override religious liberty claims. And given the substantial medical evidence that circumcision has positive benefits, that standard cannot be met here.

The referendum has been couched as a vote on male genital mutilation. To frame our age-old practice as genital mutilation is manipulative and misleading, as it precludes any other interpretation of circumcision. To portray the issue, as the intactivists have, via a supposedly humorous cartoon featuring Foreskin Man battling Monster Mohel is worse than a bad joke. It is deeply offensive and beyond the pale of civilized discourse.

The concern, however, goes far beyond the right to circumcise Jewish or Muslim children.

Far more troubling and ominous is what would appear to be a gathering assault on the religious freedoms enjoyed by faith minorities in this land that so proudly celebrates the separation of church and state.

There are many examples: There are growing efforts to forbid adherence by Muslims to their Sharia law. Some hospitals and medical care facilities have adopted end-of-life policies that would violate the deeply held principles of minority faiths relating to life and death. Some corporate employment policies do not allow for “conscience clause exemptions” based on religious belief. There are ongoing challenges to accommodation of religious practices such as Sabbath eruv construction.

The list goes on.

Such crucial concerns should not be seen as merely the parochial concerns of some Jews. To the contrary, like the First Amendment that so critically ensured every citizen’s right to free exercise of religion, they reflect the long tradition of recognizing that the price of liberty, as Andrew Jackson said, is eternal vigilance. As long as the practices of any minority faith are threatened, we are all of us – religious or non-religious – at peril of the loss of our fragile freedoms in a world of increasing homogeneity and conformity.

And thus, to ignore or downplay the significance of anti-circumcision activist groups that would presume to oppose others’ faith or practices, no matter how frivolous or outlandish it might appear, would be not just folly but a clear and present danger to all of our freedoms. And thus the time to oppose them, in concert with all freedom-loving Americans, is now.

Rabbi Basil Herring is the executive vice president and Rabbi Joel Finkelstein is vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, a Modern Orthodox association.

Opinion: Circumcision wars in California


The attempt to make circumcision illegal, including those performed for religious reasons, is spreading beyond San Francisco, which aimed last week to become the first American municipality to ban the practice. Now, residents of Santa Monica have filed a petition indicating that they, too, intend to get a similar measure on the November ballot for their city. While these are the two most aggressive attempts to curtail the practice of circumcision, they represent an increasing trend away from the practice, or at least away from the presumption of its necessity.

Like most things associated with circumcision, it’s a very sensitive issue. In fact, as I write this, I know that whatever I commit to words here will be seen as brutal and/or betraying by many who read it.

Were I to begin with the fact that with the birth of each of our three daughters, I experienced not only profound joy but also a certain inchoate sense of relief at being spared the obligation to circumcise them eight days later, many readers would accuse me of betraying Jewish tradition for simply admitting my ambivalence. Were I to begin by saying that had we had sons, they would have been circumcised in full accordance with Jewish tradition, including the genuine celebration that accompanies the performance of this sometimes disturbing and deeply beautiful 3,500 year old tradition, I would be branded a barbarian by yet other readers.

Both propositions accurately reflect my feelings, and it is precisely that level of complexity that is rarely present in the ongoing debate about infant circumcision in America. Instead of admitting that the sensitivity of this issue is what makes it absurd to legislate and litigate, each side wraps itself in competing claims about the health, legality and morality of the issue in order to get others to see it its way.

In fairness, those opposed to circumcision are far more aggressive in the use of this approach, though I genuinely feel for people, especially Jews, who admit their ambivalence about circumcising their infant sons. Too often they are immediately lectured about the fact that if they do not do so, their kids will not be Jewish (not true), or that circumcision is clearly healthier and failing to circumcise their kids endangers them (a matter of debate, though most evidence still suggests that it is).

Meeting genuine questions with questionable assertions is hardly the way to go. There are many good reasons to circumcise our sons, but they are not strengthened by failing to seriously address the questions people have.

In fact, the intensity of the debate around circumcision, like so many issues in religion, is about much more than we let on. Anxiety about not circumcising, among Jews at least, is often about fear of assimilation as much as it is about the importance of one particular commandment. The same anxiety among non-Jews, for whom there is no such commandment, is often about the rights of parents to shape their children’s future. Those are big, important questions — ones that deserve to be discussed openly, not fought over by proxy.

On the other hand, there is something truly wrong with people attempting to strip parents of their rights as guardians and undermining the free exercise of religion. The legal experts will battle over that one, I am sure. But those seeking to ban circumcision don’t pursue banning other medical procedures that parents believe are right for their kids to have. This indicates that the fight about circumcision is really an expression of the opponents’ hostility to religion in general or to parents’ rights to make decisions that may shape their kids’ future identities.

It’s as if people fight about what to do with our kids, or, worse, what other people should do with their kids, because of what was done to us by our parents. That strikes me as a poor way to make decisions about parenting, public policy or the various spiritual paths we follow. 

Instead, I suggest that people focus on the hopes and aspirations they have for their own children, and pursue, as their consciences dictate, those practices they believe will aid in their attainment. Sometimes parents will get it right, sometimes not, but maximizing the freedom to give it their best shot – short of endangering the health or life of the kids involved — should remain, as it has for hundreds of years in this country, a sacred trust.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right,” and is the President of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Jewish groups condemn effort to ban circumcision


San Francisco-area Jewish organizations condemned a proposed ballot measure to outlaw Jewish ritual circumcision in the city.

The Anti-Defamation League, the local Jewish Community Relations Council, the Board of Rabbis of Northern California and the American Jewish Committee together issued a statement expressing “great concern” about the proposed measure, which would make the practice of brit milah, or ritual circumcision, on anyone under age 18 a misdemeanor carrying a $1,000 fine.

“For thousands of years, Jews around the world have engaged in this important religious ritual, which is of fundamental importance in the Jewish tradition,” the statement said. “The organized Jewish community is deeply troubled by this initiative, which would interfere with the rights of parents to make religious decisions for their own families.”

San Francisco resident Lloyd Schofield is spearheading the effort to collect enough signatures to get the anti-bris measure on the ballot next year. At least 7,100 signatures are needed to qualify. Schofield wants to ban the practice of male circumcision, including for Jewish religious purposes; female circumcision is already illegal. Likewise, Schofield argues, male circumcision on boys under the age of consent should be illegal, too.

“People can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else’s body,” Schofield said in a recent interview with CBS. “His body doesn’t belong to his culture, his government, his religion or even his parents. It’s his decision.”

While the proposed measure has drawn international media attention, the Jewish agencies who condemned the effort said they believed any such measure would be defeated at the ballot box.

“San Francisco has a tradition of embracing the diversity and respecting the religious customs of its citizens,” the joint statement said. “We trust that the voters of San Francisco will see this proposed initiative as an affront to that tradition and to their freedom.”

Briefs: Cancer helps Olmert poll numbers, Mrs. El Presidente in Argentina — still good for the Jews


Olmert’s Popularity Buoyed by Cancer

Ehud Olmert’s disclosure that he has prostate cancer edged up his approval ratings. A poll commissioned by Yediot Achronot after Olmert’s surprise announcement Monday found that 41 percent of Israelis “appreciate” his performance as prime minister, up from 35 percent last month.

Olmert, whose popularity plummeted after last year’s Lebanon war and amid ongoing corruption allegations, also got high marks in the survey for his “bravery” in coming forward, an act that 61 percent of respondents said they found moving. Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed with Olmert’s decision to stay in office. But asked which among Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is most fit to be prime minister, 14 percent said Olmert, 17 percent said Barak and 35 percent said Netanyahu. Yediot did not say how many people were polled. The margin of error was 4.3 percent.

Argentine Vote Means No Change for Jews

Argentina’s new president likely will not change government policies toward the Jewish community.

The victory by current first lady and senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in national elections Sunday will be a continuation of official policies regarding Jewish interests, according to Aldo Donzis, president of the DAIA, Argentina’s Jewish umbrella organization. The government of her husband, Nestor Kirschner, was active in seeking justice for the terrorist attack on the Jewish community building in Buenos Aires in 1994, and initiated projects to fight anti-Semitism, discrimination and xenophobia.

The first lady and now president-elect was active in these efforts, according to Donzis. On Monday morning, with 97 percent of the election results calculated, Fernandez de Kirchner had garnered 45 percent of the vote. She needed at least 40 percent to avoid a runoff. In the capital city of Buenos Aires, where most of the Jewish community resides, she received 23 percent of the vote.

Alleged Syrian Reactor in 2003 Photo

A 2003 photo shows the alleged nuclear reactor Israel bombed in Syria last month under construction. The Sept. 16, 2003 photo, released by GeoEye, an aerial image archive in Dulles, Va., and published in Saturday’s New York Times, suggests that Syria’s nuclear weapons program long predates the Sept. 6 Israeli attack. Initial reports suggested that the reactor Israel allegedly targeted was in its nascent stage. Israel, Syria and the United States will not confirm the nature of the attack.

Rabin Killer Can’t Attend Brit

Yitzhak Rabin’s jailed assassin lost an appeal to be allowed to attend the circumcision of his first son. Israel’s High Court of Justice on Tuesday turned down a petition by Yigal Amir for a special furlough on Nov. 4, when his son is to be circumcised. Amir had argued that he should not be denied leave rights granted to other convicted murderers in Israel.

Amir’s wife, Larissa, became pregnant during a conjugal visit to the prison where Amir is serving a life sentence in isolation. She gave birth on Sunday. The fact that the circumcision will take place exactly 12 years after Amir gunned down Prime Minister Rabin at a Tel Aviv peace rally has stoked the ire of Israelis opposed to seeing the assassin enjoy any jailhouse leniency.

Terrorism Led Portman Into Activism

The anguish of a friend grieving over a terror victim in Israel led actress Natalie Portman to become an activist.

“When I was at Harvard, a very close friend lost someone to the violence in Israel,” the Israeli-born movie star says in a first-person essay that appeared this weekend in Parade magazine. “I felt so helpless watching her pain. I really wanted to do something, but I didn’t know where to begin. Coming from Israel, I know how polarized that part of the world scene can be.”

Portman called Jordanian Queen Rania, a Palestinian, who told Portman about the Foundation for International Community Assistance. The group, Portman says, “grants loans, mostly to women, to start small businesses. Rather than donate food, it helps people earn the money to buy their own food and gives women the opportunity to better their lives.”

Portman has since traveled to Central America and Africa for the foundation.

“It’s impossible to know the outcome of anything,” she writes. “You have no idea whether the life you impact will go on to bring peace to the Middle East or will go blow up a building. All you can do is act with the best intention and have faith.”

Israeli Film Takes Top Prize in Kiev

An Israeli film took the top prize at a Kiev film festival. “The Band’s Visit” received the Grand Prix and $10,000 at the 37th Molodist (“Youth”) International Film Festival on Sunday.

It was the first feature-length film by 34-year-old Israeli filmmaker Eran Kolirin. The whimsical tale, which has won other awards, follows the iconoclastic adventures of a band of Egyptian musicians who are lost in a small town in Israel’s Negev Desert. Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko participated in the festival’s opening.

‘The Tribe’ Hits No. 1 on iTunes

A documentary about Jewish identity is in the No. 1 spot of most downloaded short films on iTunes. Tiffany Shlain, director of “The Tribe,” a humorous look at American Jewish identity through the lens of Barbie, says she launched her film on iTunes Oct. 2, hoping to crack the top 10 list. It is now the first independent documentary to hit No. 1, Shlain notes.

“This says there’s an audience that wants to watch documentaries about American Jewish identity,” says Shlain, who lives in Mill Valley, Calif. “This opens the doors for other filmmakers and expands the options of what is available to download.” The other films in the top 10 are all by major studies such as Disney and Pixar, except for the indie “West Bank Story,” in the No. 7 spot, which won this year’s Academy Award for Best Short Film.

“The Tribe,” released in December 2005, was shown at 75 film festivals, including Sundance and Tribeca, and won nine awards. It is available at