Dutch Jews and Muslims fight for circumcision right

Israel's Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu carries an eight-day-old baby during a circumcision ceremony in front of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem 10 January 2004. Jews in the Netherlands fear efforts to curb male circumcision are a threat to their faith

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Religious groups in the Netherlands have opposed a call from the Royal Dutch Medical Association (RDMA) for male circumcision to be discouraged.

Male circumcision is legal in the Netherlands but the body representing the country's doctors wants to end the practice.

The association is urging politicians to put it on the political agenda.

It is asking parents to think twice before having their sons circumcised because it regards the procedure as dangerous and unnecessary.

Yet others see it as the latest reflection of a political shift in a country that is increasingly pressuring religious groups to stop practising what they preach.

Growing opposition

The figures vary but it is estimated that globally 30% of men are circumcised, with about 15,000 boys undergoing the procedure here in the Netherlands every year.

Start Quote

We feel circumcision is a medically unnecessary form of surgery”

End Quote Gert van Dijk Medical ethicist

In much of Africa, it is seen as a rite of passage in becoming a man, with boys being taken "to the bush" to spend days hidden away in this ceremonial transition.

In the United States, it is still a relatively common procedure. However, there is a growing lobby opposing it in many parts of the US.

In some states, support for the practice remains strong - protesters in San Francisco have just lost their battle to have it banned.

The World Health Organization says circumcision can help prevent HIV and that, if done properly, there is little chance of complications.

But here in the Netherlands, some doctors disagree. Gert van Dijk is a medical ethicist and one of the authors of the RDMA's anti-circumcision advice.

'We feel circumcision is a medically unnecessary form of surgery. The patient has to give consent, but children can't give consent and we feel that is wrong and a violation of the child's rights," he said.

"In our code of medical ethics, it states that you must not do harm to the patient, but with this procedure this is exactly what you're doing."

Start Quote

Ibrahim Wijbenga

The motivation is plain Islamophobia. It's not a discussion about medical ethics”

End Quote Ibrahim Wijbenga Muslim from Eindhoven
Religious freedom

The RDMA are fighting against what is a deeply entrenched religious practice.

It is written in the Islamic text the Hadith that Muslim men should "cut the things that grow".

Ibrahim Wijbenga is a Muslim member of the Christian Democratic Appeal in the city of Eindhoven. He was circumcised as a child and, following the family tradition, he had his son circumcised too.

Ibrahim thinks claims that these discussions are medically motivated are nonsense and is campaigning to save the practice.

"It's not that we do something illegal or that we use a rusty knife. The boys in question are anaesthetised so they are looked after by the doctors.

"The motivation is plain Islamophobia. It's not a discussion about medical ethics, it's to make a lot of bad propaganda against Muslims and about our way of life and our religion," Mr Wijbenga said. "Basically, it's an effort to stop Muslims from entering Holland."

A man holds his son after circumcision at a clinic in Sadr city, Iraq Muslims see the anti-circumcision drive as an attack on religious freedom

Jews, too, fear these anti-circumcision discussions are a serious threat to their faith.

"It's written in the Torah, in the Bible, that we should circumcise the child when the child is 8 days old. What God tells us to do, we must do," said Rabbi Jacobs, one of the Netherlands' most senior religious leaders.

He said that being advised not to circumcise babies would have a dramatic impact on the estimated 30,000 Jews living in the Netherlands. For him, it is worse than being told they cannot cultivate kosher meat.

'I can import (kosher meat) or choose to not eat it, but with circumcision I'm stuck. Even if I take my child to a different country to do it, once I come back the doctor will see that there has been a circumcision and put me in jail.

"If you interfere with this practice, it will totally end the Dutch Jewry in the Netherlands."

Rights of the child

Start Quote

When you do it with a boy, there's no way back... It made me angry that somebody else decided for me.”

End Quote Michael Schaap Documentary maker

Even within the Jewish community, some - albeit a tiny minority - believe circumcision can leave a lasting psychological as well as a physical scar.

"He's grabbed, his legs are pulled apart, and they cut off part of his penis. Now what does it do to the boy's mind? I think it's wrong. I think boys or men have to decide for themselves."

Michael Schaap is speaking from experience. His Jewish parents had him circumcised as a baby. He believes it is "morally wrong to cut off any part of another person's body when there is no medical reason to do it. It's mutilation".

Michael made the controversial documentary "Mum, Why Was I Circumcised?" partly motivated by the anger he felt throughout his teenage years.

"When you do it with a boy, there's no way back. I don't know how sex would be with a prepuce. It made me angry that somebody else decided for me, to do something that I probably would not have done if I was deciding for myself."

Politicians here in The Hague have yet to respond to this increasingly intense public debate, which coincides with the imminent outlawing of ritual slaughter and the proposed burka ban.

Now many Muslims and Jews are concerned their fundamental traditions are under threat and that circumcision may be the next element of religious freedom to be withdrawn.

And that is essentially what makes this such a fiercely contentious issue: the rights of the child versus the rights of religion.

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