Berlin circumcision protest
Judith Kessler and Tuvya Schlesinger at the Berlin protest yesterday. Photo by Ofer Aderet
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BERLIN − A few hundred Jews and pro-Jewish activists gathered in the Bebelplatz in Berlin yesterday morning to protest legal, medical and civic challenges in Germany to circumcision. The centrally located square was not chosen accidently for the protest. It was there, in 1933, that the Nazis burned some 20,000 books by Jewish authors. A monument, called the Empty Library, stands on the site, the work of Israeli artist Micha Ullman.

Ten police patrol cars provided security for the event. In one of these was a Jewish police officer, Tuvya Schlesinger, a leader of the Jewish community. As a member of the Berlin police force, Schlesinger was not allowed to speak to the press, but he happily had his picture taken wearing his skullcap and holding a shirt bearing the slogan “Are you Jewish? Yes.” He also held a doll on which was written in German: “Move ‏(the skin‏) put on a cap,” a pun connecting the skullcap, which many of the protesters were wearing, with the foreskin.

The provocative shirt was brought to the scene by Judith Kessler, editor of the Berlin Jewish community’s monthly magazine. “The protest is not only against the circumcision ban,” she said. Her friend, Tamara Guggenheim, who teaches Judaism in the Jewish school in Dusseldorf, explained: “We − the Jews − are a bit under pressure. There are many places where we don’t feel comfortable because of anti-Semitism. We are not prepared to be criminals just because we perform circumcision,” she said.

Max Dohlmann, a Jewish community activist, who was standing next to the women, tried on the shirt with the affirmative slogan. “We want to say to everyone: “We are here. Germany needs to accept different religions. Jews, Turks, together. The politicians are trying to set rules regarding circumcision, but we are here to speak to the public,” he said.

Ziggie Koenigsburg, another community activist, added: “There is no Judaism without circumcision. It is our basic foundation as Jews.”

Two anti-Semitic incidents took place last week in Berlin. In one, a rabbi was violently attacked and required medical attention. His assailants, whom the rabbi said he believed were Arabs, have not yet been arrested. Days later a few teenage girls, students at a Jewish school in the western part of town, were attacked. In that case, too, eye-witnesses said the attackers were Arabs.

This week it seemed that the tension in the Jewish community had declined after Berlin decided to allow resumption of circumcision − which had been suspended following a court verdict in Cologne two months ago. However, the city conditioned resumption of the practice on its being carried out by doctors, and set other limitations as well.

The Jewish community rejected the decision. Rabbi Itzhak Ehrenberg, who took part in the demonstration, told Haaretz: “This is a poor decision. It says ‘yes but...” and this ‘but’ in fact says ‘no.’ And so at the moment they are not allowing our mohels to perform circumcisions.”

Ehrenberg said the community would continue to perform circumcision, adding: “I believe in the German government, which undertook to bring more than 100,000 Jews here from Russia. There, the Jews were not allowed to circumcise. The [German government] will not prohibit us here from continuing Jewish life.”

Ehrenberg also said that Berlin’s State Justice Minister Thomas Heilmann had phoned him a few days before, following the criticism Heilmann had received for his decision to allow circumcisions under new rules. “He told me: ‘I am not an anti-Semite. I am pro-Jewish. I want Jewish life here and I am for the mohels, but my hands are tied.’”

The community is now waiting for a decision by the Bundestag, which is to legislate the issue on a national level.

Muslims, members of the Turkish community, were also at the protest. Germany’s official representative at the protest was Wolfgang Thierse, vice president of the Bundestag.

Someone had also thought to sound a shofar, in keeping with the upcoming High Holy Days.

There were many young faces in the crowd. One of these was Dieter Doneit, from Canada, who is now in the process of converting to Judaism. He was born Catholic, but a few years ago discovered his “grandmother’s great secret” − that she was Jewish, he says. He wears a skullcap and carries a prayer book and Torah in his bag. He has been living in Berlin for the past few years in the Wedding district, which he describes as “a good neighborhood with lots of Muslim and Arab neighbors.” He has taken a Jewish name and heads a popular pro-Israeli Internet news site.

The protest ended after about 90 minutes and the square once again filled with tourists, mostly Americans, who were receiving explanations about the dark events that had made the site famous. “Come tomorrow to the synagogue. There’s going to be a great celebration. You can write about it in Haaretz. Let’s hope the German television doesn’t come,” Ehrenberg said with a smile. “We’re continuing as usual.”.