Berlin says ritual circumcision legal, if performed by doctor

The German capital has formally declared that doctors can legally perform ritual circumcisions on infant males, though it stopped short of authorizing a mohel to do so. In an exclusive interview with Haaretz, Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit said it is crucial "not to let this debate [on circumcision] create additional tensions in our society."

Berlin instructed its prosecutors not to file charges against any doctor who circumcised a baby boy, as long as the parents consented in writing and proved the procedure was religiously motivated. Parents also had to be informed about medical risks, and all possible means of reducing pain and limiting bleeding had to be employed.

"If medical standards are observed, circumcision at home or in a synagogue is also acceptable," said the state's justice minister, Thomas Heilmann. He noted however that the state government does not have the power to make it legal for a mohel to carry out the ritual, and that only federal legislation could do that.

Wowereit agreed that only federal legislation would end the debate for good and keep the issue from being discussed at the criminal level. "We must strike a balance among different fundamental values of our constitution: freedom of religion and bodily integrity," he said, "But we must not allow space for prejudice against the other."

Federal lawmakers pledged to introduce a law legalizing circumcision after a court in Cologne ruled in June that a doctor inflicted unlawful bodily harm by circumcising a 4-year-old Muslim boy at his parents' request. Although the ruling was only binding in a small region, doctors across the country halted the operations for fear of prosecution. Last month, a doctor in Bavaria filed a police complaint against a rabbi who performed a brit. Prosecutors are still considering whether to charge him.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told a Jewish daily that federal legislation would be announced soon. "It must be made clear that Jewish and Muslim traditions are protected in Germany," he said.

Two other German states also instructed prosecutors not to interfere if there was parental consent for circumcisions and they were conducted hygienically, though they made no formal declarations. Other states made no general decisions or were leaving the matter until federal legislation is passed.

As Berlin officials moved to ensure circumcision rights, the city's Jewish community is reeling from two recent anti-Semitic incidents.

Last week, Rabbi Daniel Alter was physically assaulted while walking with his six-year-old daughter. On Monday, 13 Jewish schoolgirls were surrounded and verbally assaulted with anti-Semitic slurs.

Alter assured Haaretz in an interview this week that the city's 12,000 Jews can live in Berlin without fear. Mayor Wowereit echoed that sentiment. Wowereit, 59, was photographed in a kippa for a German paper last weekend, as part of a campaign to show solidarity with the city's Jewish community in the wake of the attack.

It is not dangerous to be a Jew in Berlin, he insisted. "Berlin is a liberal metropolis where we don't accept intolerance, hatred of foreigners and anti-Semitism. Jews can live in peace and without danger in our city. They are important to us, and they make an important contribution to Berlin's cultural variety.

"The cowardly attack on Rabbi Alter was a contemptible act by individuals. It was an attack on the shared, peaceful life of everyone in our city. The spontaneous solidarity demonstrations that took place in the city over the weekend were a good sign that Berliners aren't willing to accept intolerance and violence toward residents of the city."

When asked what Wowereit was doing to make Berlin's Jews feel safe to wear kippot, he said police are using all available means to find Alter's assailants. "Above all, we're conducting an interfaith dialogue among our city's religious communities. Their communities and schools must implant the values of tolerance and a desire to live together in peace on a daily basis.

"I myself, like other politicians and public figures in the city, wore a skullcap as a sign of solidarity. No one can challenge the right to wear a skullcap."