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The Circumcision Debate: No Issue for German Leadership

If there’s going to be a debate over the practice of male circumcision, isn’t there a better place to start it than Germany?

August 1, 2012

If there's going to be a debate over the practice of male circumcision, isn't there a better place to start it than Germany?

One might expect the Germans to be quite preoccupied with solving the euro crisis these days — a topic with tremendous implications for their own well-being and that of hundreds of millions of other Europeans, if not billions of people around the world.

But instead of pursuing a first-things-first strategy, the country has whipped itself into a collective frenzy over a topic that plays no role for the mainstream, but a substantial role for the country’s Muslim and Jewish minorities: the religious practice of circumcising little boys.

In polls, a near-majority of Germans rallied behind the verdict of a local court in Cologne that deemed the practice a form of bodily injury, triggering the entire debate. Lots of Germans who have little or no connection to the Muslim or Jewish communities or their traditions are expressing their outrage in countless comments in online forums.

The intensity of this debate is astounding — and may have to be chalked up as yet another curious sign of how Europeans deal with “non-mainstream” groups living in their midst.

At least the German political class is aware of the risks for the country’s reputation as well as its fraught relations with minorities. The government and the major political parties have pledged to find a legal way to protect the right to circumcision for these groups.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that Germany could become the “laughing stock” of the world. The Green Party’s European parliamentarian, Reinhard Bütikofer, is battling his fellow countrymen on Twitter. “@Doener,” he addressed one who has ironically derived his Twitter name from a Turkish fast food dish, “so you are trying to say that if we don’t protect these foreskins, Jews/Muslims will go too far in exercising their freedom of religion?”

The sarcasm is justified: A law banning circumcisions would make Germany the only country in the world where Jews and Muslims would not be allowed to follow an identity-creating rule of their faith. Germany of all countries!

This is not to say that a debate on this topic is not justified. It is important that the health risks associated with circumcision are taken seriously, especially when it is performed on older children. On the other hand, the World Health Organization expressly recommends circumcision in African countries with high rates of HIV infections, as multiple studies have shown that it reduces the risk of infection for men.

All this shows that it is more appropriate for medical doctors rather than judges to lead the charge. And why should German society as a whole choose to take up this matter?

It would be far wiser if this debate were started elsewhere in the world — perhaps in the United States, where it could not be cast as a case of the religious mainstream suppressing the views of the minorities.

After all, up to 80% of the male population in the United States is circumcised. This is so not for religious reasons, but out of societal conventions whose origins are probably uncertain to most people.

Circumcision has not been a tradition in mainstream Christianity (with the exception of some orthodox Christian churches). The anti-Semitic Roman Emperor Hadrian banned it by threat of death penalty. The Catholic Church condemned the practice in the Middle Ages.

Circumcision was only reintroduced into Christian cultures by the British upper class of the 18th century, where doctors argued that the circumcision of men (and women!) would discourage masturbation. The Puritans imported the method to the New World, where it prevailed for hygienic reasons and because it was thought to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

While the reduction of sexual pleasure (and general physical well-being) caused by the much more brutal and invasive practice of female circumcision is well documented by its victims and the medical community, circumcised men all over the world seem to live and love quite happily with their “mutilated” genitals.

The majority of Americans have no strong opinion one way or the other, with the exception of a few protest groups in San Francisco and New York. Even so, the number of circumcisions performed on newborns has declined in recent years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, weighing potential benefits against risks, says that there is not enough data to recommend the routine circumcision of baby boys in the United States at this point. Societal change needs time.

The uncomfortable part about the German debate is that its most active participants are uncircumcised white men. Sorry to bring up Sigmund Freud here, but it is hard not to be reminded of his psychocultural analysis. According to Freud, the suppressed fear of castration among uncircumcised male Christians was one of the main subconscious factors that gave rise to the Anti-Semitism of the 20th century.

Whether Freud was right or wrong, this is sensitive territory into which Germans, who are mostly outsiders to the tradition, should avoid. The best that Germany can do for the Jewish and Muslim children living in the country is to ensure by law the strictest possible medical supervision of the procedure.

A ban would not serve this goal. To the contrary, it would drive families to have the ritual performed underground or outside the country.

And asking the constitutional court in Karlsruhe, the highest court in the land, to resolve the issue, won’t help either. The judges should stay away from the circumcision case and focus their jurisprudential energy on their upcoming verdict on the European bailout fund and fiscal compact. That is a much more pressing issue for Germany, Europe and the world.


According to Freud, the suppressed fear of castration among uncircumcised male Christians was one of the subconscious factors that gave rise to Anti-Semitism.

Circumcision was reintroduced into Christian cultures by the British upper class of the 18th century, where doctors argued that it would discourage masturbation.