The Israeli government is wading into the burgeoning European debate over circumcision and receiving a mixed reception from the continent’s Jews.
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On December 11, Israel initiated a motion in defense of circumcision at the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organization devoted to enhancing cooperation among its 47 member states. Intended to offset a nonbinding October resolution approved by the council’s Parliamentary Assembly that condemned non-medical circumcision of boys, the Israeli initiative will be reviewed in January and possibly put to a vote by the assembly.
The earlier resolution shocked both Jewish and Muslim groups and threatened to internationalize an anti-circumcision campaign that, until now, has been waged mostly by local activists working in individual European countries.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs got involved following the passing of this resolution because claims that milah [Jewish circumcision] hurts boys go against the essence of the State of Israel and its responsibility for the fate of Jews everywhere,” said Nimrod Barkan, Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, who spearheaded the motion.
The growing campaign to limit ritual circumcision of boys has generated considerable concern in Israel. The chairman of the Knesset committee on the Jewish Diaspora, Yoel Razbozov, said in October that if bans are enacted, circumcisions should be performed at Israeli embassies in such countries. But Israel’s incipient role as defender of European Jewry is dividing local activists, with some warning that Israeli involvement could complicate the lives of Jews in Europe.
“Jewish communities don’t want to mistakenly be regarded as an extension of the political State of Israel,” said Rabbi Lody van de Kamp, a well-known Dutch Orthodox figure. “Any involvement from the state in religious issues in the Diaspora communities’ work in that way [is] counterproductive.”
Representatives of Jewish groups active on the circumcision issue in Europe say that as an observer state at the Council of Europe, Israel has every right to lobby on issues of concern. But in off-the-record talks, some Jewish activists expressed worry that Israel is getting involved in an issue that does not directly concern it and with which it has limited experience.
“It’s not always beneficial to have the Israelis wade in,” one European activist said on condition of anonymity, citing a need to maintain good working relations with Israelis. “They do things differently to how we would.”
The activist recalled a vocal disagreement that leaders of Germany’s Jewish community had last year with Eli Yishai, who at the time was Israel’s minister of internal affairs, and Yona Metzger, who was then Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi. (Metzger has since been arrested in Israel on fraud and bribery charges.) Germany’s Central Council of Jews said that the Israelis had done more harm than good in their response to a German court ruling in Cologne that said circumcision amounted to a criminal offense.
“Metzger said there was no reason why we shouldn’t have a doctor present at every milah. That’s not a message we want to spread,” the activist said. “He said unhelpful things and put us in a difficult position.”
The 2012 ruling in Cologne, which was reversed earlier this year, was one of several recent high-profile actions aimed at limiting the custom across Europe. Most of the anti-circumcision activity has been led by secularists who believe the practice violates children’s rights or nationalists seeking to limit Muslim or Jewish influence in their countries.
The Cologne ruling prompted brief bans in Austria and Switzerland and led several Scandinavian politicians and health officials to express support for banning circumcision. Many Jews believe those statements could be a prelude to restrictive legislation in Scandinavia and beyond.
Shimon Cohen, who advises the British Jewish community on resisting measures to limit ritual slaughter and circumcision, said that large European Jewish communities are equipped to handle such threats. But in countries with very small Jewish communities, a ban could get through without anybody noticing and have a precedent-setting effect.
“One of the major advantages to this Israeli involvement is that, no matter what the size of the local Jewish community, there’s likely to be an Israeli embassy present with politically intelligent insight and open channels of communication with senior government officials,” Cohen said.
For Barkan, the Israeli UNESCO ambassador, spearheading the pro-circumcision motion at the Council of Europe has been an opportunity for rare cooperation with Muslim partners — particularly Turkey, but also Albania and Azerbaijan, whose representatives signed on fairly quickly, he said. As for the criticism from Jewish activists, Barkan chalks it up to cultural differences.
“European Jewish communities have very complex considerations to accommodate, and I understand that,” he said. “But I grew up in a place that taught me that if I wanted to achieve something, I better to go ahead and try.”