Auf Messers Schneide: the circumcision debate and the good intentions fallacy

This is an interesting time for Muslim-Jewish relations in Berlin: while the current circumcision debate would seem to provide good cause for alliance between Germany’s two highest-profile religious minorities, it comes amidst heightened tensions between the two communities after an attack on a Berlin rabbi by Arab youths.  So this morning when I headed to Bebelplatz for the “Auf Messers Schneide” demonstration, which had billed itself as an interfaith protest against restrictions on the right to religious circumcision, I was curious about what exactly an interfaith event might look like in this context. The long list of event sponsors included Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Protestant organizations, as well as secular organizations representing immigrant groups. I arrived to find that the number of sponsoring organizations plus the number of reporters and police officers there probably exceeded the number of actual demonstrators on Bebelplatz. Altogether there were a few hundred people, though it was hard to tell who was and wasn’t there for the demonstration, since the book-burning memorial on Bebelplatz is a big tourist attraction and it was a nice Sunday in early September, so quite a few curious or confused tourists were milling around as well.

The majority of the speakers were from the Berlin Jewish community, and I got the impression that the majority of the crowd was too. This was consistent with the overall tenor of the German circumcision debate: although the Cologne court ruling that initially triggered the debate concerned a Muslim boy — and although Germany’s Muslim population is exponentially larger than its Jewish population — Jewish leaders have played at least as prominent a role as Muslim leaders in the ensuing debate. It was also striking that while the Jewish speakers included both rabbis and political leaders, all of the Muslim and Christian speakers were political figures; no  imams or ministers spoke.

Speaker Lala Süsskind, the former chairwoman of the Jewish Community of Berlin, accused the German media (a significant share of her audience on Bebelplatz) of fanning the flames of the circumcision debate to fill the Sommerloch, the summer slow period for news, and called the tone of the public discourse they’d conjured unerträglich (unbearable) for the Jewish community. Süsskind was also unhappy with Wednesday’s interim Berlin ruling, which, while more liberal than the previous Cologne ruling, permits circumcision only if both parents furnish written proof of its religious motivation and religious necessity, and if it’s performed by a medical doctor. Süsskind stressed that she wanted to continue living in Germany, liked living here, Jews would continue to practice Jewish life here. This sentiment — which several other speakers echoed — was voiced at least in part in response to an angry Sept. 5 editorial by Charlotte Knobloch, former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. Knobloch wrote that the current circumcision debate had made her question for the first time her decision to remain in Germany and all the years she’d spent defending Germany to friends and family abroad.

Apparently some Germans have suggested that religious minorities should go on Beschneidungsurlaub — i.e. if they want to circumcise their sons, they should fly to some other country to get it done, sort of like women trying to get around restrictive abortion laws. Speaker Kenan Kolat, the head of the Turkish Community in Germany (pictured above), resoundingly rejected this idea, to much applause. He also acknowledged the recent anti-Semitic attack  in Berlin, vowed that the Turkish community wouldn’t stand for them, and expressed solidarity with the Jewish community.

Yitshak Ehrenberg, an Orthodox rabbi, spoke of his recent conversation with Berlin justice official Thomas Heilmann, who announced the interim ruling that circumcision could only be performed by doctors. Apparently Heilmann had phoned Ehrenberg to say that his intentions were good and he wasn’t against Judaism or against circumcision or against the mohelim. “I believe he’s not an anti-Semite,” Ehrenberg said. “I believe him that his intentions are good. But unfortunately the results of the decision are not good.”

I find this exchange very telling, as it gets at what is in my opinion a key problem with how a lot of Germans talk about issues of ethnicity and religion – and what makes so many of the comments made in the circumcision debate so unerträglich to the Jewish community: the good intentions fallacy. The good intentions fallacy goes like this: If I have good intentions, if what I’m saying or doing isn’t Böse gemeint, that in itself is sufficient to guarantee that it isn’t racist or harmful. If I have good intentions and these [insert name of minority group] are nonetheless offended by my words or actions, then they have simply misunderstood. Rather than listen to their grievances, I must reiterate that they have misunderstood the all-important fact that I have good intentions.

Circumcision debate articles posted on German news websites have tended to draw hundreds upon hundreds of reader comments, the overwhelming majority of which are anti-circumcision; many of these comments run something like this: “Circumcision is barbaric and primitive. Obviously it is not anti-Semitic for me to state this scientific fact because it has nothing to do with who is performing the circumcision. I have nothing against Jews and think they should have full religious freedom to believe whatever they want. My position is shared by German doctors and is thus the factual position of science and enlightenment. Of course Jews* should keep living in Germany, they should simply stop practicing circumcision.” There are many ways these statements are maddening to the non-German observer. The assumption that in all the world’s religions belief is the only thing that matters, not practice. The assumption that the context of who is criticizing circumcision and who is practicing it — of the country responsible for the Holocaust taking on the role of global forerunner in the restriction of a practice central to Jewish identity — doesn’t matter. The utterly confident presumption by a person who’s probably never met a practicing Jew that of course it wouldn’t be any sort of big deal for Jews to just give up this little circumcision habit. The assumption that the opinion of the German medical establishment = Objective Scientific Truth, even when it doesn’t represent any sort of consensus opinion of the international medical establishment (e.g. the WHO). I’m not even going to get into the way the words barbaric and primitive are thrown around in this debate. But a lot of the things said in the circumcision debate are the good intentions fallacy at its worst, in a lot of different ways.

Pictured below is a protestor in a Beschnitten and you know it T-shirt with an arrow pointing at his crotch, whose picture was taken by about 50 media outlets and turned up in a lot of the news articles about this demonstration. I was glad to see his picture figure prominently in the German media, because one of the oddest things to me about the circumcision debate, speaking as a person from a country where circumcision is culturally normative, is that many voices in this debate assume that any boy who is circumcised as an infant or child will grow up to be angry at his parents for having maimed him and ashamed of his lack of foreskin. Which I guess is somewhat more likely to happen if he’s surrounded by people who believe circumcision is barbaric and primitive, but is still not exactly the experience of the world’s average circumcised male. So it was nice that this guy confronted them with the possibility that a man might, far from feeling himself to be a victim of bodily harm, be proud about being circumcised.

The other speakers at the demonstration were Berlin rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin; Özgür Özata, the editor of the BerlinTurk news site, who endearingly said this was the first political speech he’d ever given; and Wolfgang Thierse, a Catholic SPD politician. Ben-Chorin and Thierse both questioned whether a child’s well-being should be defined by medicine alone, and Thierse asked, “Should it become the norm that the state defines what is and is not a core part of a religious community?”

As an interfaith event, the demonstration was rather modest. Muslims and Jews did not join together in large numbers and link arms to march through the streets of Berlin. But it was a small-scale show of alliance and solidarity, and that’s something. It didn’t work any miracles, but there at least seemed to be more to it than just good intentions.

*”Of course Muslims should keep living here” is a sentiment encountered rather less often.

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