The Knesset Presents: How Not to Protect Circumcision

A special Knesset debate on a resolution by the toothless Council of Europe to increase supervision of ritual circumcision reached heights of absurdity.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, an unelected body of representatives from 47 countries with no formal powers, passed last week a resolution calling upon its member-states to improve medical supervision of ritual circumcision practiced by Jews and Muslims.

This resolution caused a great deal of consternation within Jewish organizations, mainly due to its choice of words. It called circumcision “a violation of the physical integrity of children,” and recommended that states protect children “against violations of their physical integrity.” In addition, the resolution equated between female genital mutilation, a barbaric practice which is illegal throughout Europe, and the Jewish brit milah, claiming that circumcision can harm the health of young boys too. Israel’s Foreign Ministry also joined the chorus of condemnation, saying in a statement that the resolution “casts a moral stain on the Council of Europe, and fosters hate and racist trends in Europe.”

This was enough for President Shimon Peres to get involved and write a letter to the Council’s secretary-general, Thorbjorn Jagland, asking him to clarify their position. Jagland patiently replied that the resolution had no legal meaning beyond a general advisory capacity, that the assembly “does not represent the position of the Council of Europe as a whole” and that “nothing in the body of our legally binding standards would lead us to put on equal footing the issue of female genital mutilation and the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons.”

In a normal country, this is where the saga would have ended. But on Monday, as the MKs were returning from the Knesset’s summer recess full of vigor, the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs became their chosen platform to voice their outrage. Each in turn, they huffed and puffed. Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid) warned - without providing any proof whatsoever – against “a wave of anti-Semitic legislation” washing through Europe, while Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism) likened the mere idea of imposing restrictions on circumcision to the physical genocide of European Jews.

One of the more active speakers at the meeting was Shas MK Nissim Zeev, himself a mohel (a man who professionally conducts circumcisions). Ostensibly an expert on the issue, Zeev was convicted twelve years ago of malpractice after he caused irreversible damage to a baby in a brit milah gone awry. The case got as far as the Supreme Court because Zeev refused to recognize his responsibility and compensate the parents (he was ultimately fined NIS 750,000). Not only did he remain unrepentant, he continued conducting circumcisions without any intervention from the authorities – and on Monday went on to decry the European resolution, presumably because an invisible-hand policy on the matter had served him so well.

Also, Zeev called upon Jewish communities to cooperate with Muslims in Europe against the non-existent circumcision ban – quite an amazing gesture from one of the fiercest critics of the Arab MKs.

But it was committee chairman MK Yoel Razbozov (Yesh Atid) who trumped his peers and effortlessly clinched the prize for hubristic excess. If Jewish ritual circumcision is forbidden in Europe, he said, “we will instruct embassies to hold circumcision ceremonies on their territory, which is Israeli sovereign territory.”

This statement is ridiculous on so many counts; luckily, the Knesset committee is as powerless as the assembly of the Council of Europe. For a start, there is absolutely no prospect of prohibiting ritual circumcision in any European country, at least in the foreseeable future. It has been voted down in parliaments where such laws were proposed (though some countries such as Sweden and Finland allow only certified practitioners to perform circumcision) and in Germany, where a court in Cologne ruled last year that circumcision amounted to a “bodily injury,” the Bundestag swiftly responded by overwhelmingly voting in favor of a law explicitly permitting circumcision.

But Razbozov’s embassy circumcision proposal is more than just pointless grandstanding. It also assumes that Israel would actively and openly encourage citizens of other countries to break the law and provide them with the means to do so, which is as conceivable as an Israeli decision to cut off diplomatic ties with those countries. He is wrong also on the basic points of international law – an embassy is not sovereign territory of the country it represents, it remains the territory of the host-nation. Embassies simply enjoy immunity from most local laws and the police or any other official representative cannot force an entry. If circumcision was indeed to become illegal in a certain country, the police would not be able to enter the local Israeli embassy and prevent a circumcision from taking place but the parents and mohel would still be breaking the law and liable for arrest upon exit. Of course, they could stay in the embassy forever, the Jewish version of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, holed up now for a year and a half in the Ecuadorean embassy in London, but it would get very crowded after two or three brit ceremonies.

Razbozov did have one clever thing to say when he warned against allowing even the beginnings of discussion on such legislation. A pity he didn’t apply that to his own committee.

Ilya Melnikov
Tomer Appelbaum