Iceland is on course to become the first European county to ban bris milah and other forms of religious circumcision. The move has raised concern among European Jewish communities, as well as among Muslim groups who also hold the practice as part of their religious tradition.
Despite the fact that Iceland, one of the world’s least populated countries, has a tiny Jewish community, the proposal has raised fears that passage could set off a wider trend in the region.
“It could be a major threat, especially to Scandinavia,” Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, told Hamodia. “Anti-Semitism is politically incorrect these days, but measures like this basically forbid having an organized Jewish community in a country. What it means practically is that young Jewish families can’t live there.”
The legislation, recently introduced in Iceland’s parliament by Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, a member of the center-right Progressive Party, would impose prison sentences of up to six years on anyone preforming circumcision on a child that is not for medical reasons.
Jewish and Muslim groups, as well as the central European body for the Catholic Church, have all decried the bill as an infringement on fundamental religious rights.
Proponents argue that the legislation is an attempt to protect “children’s rights,” and openly dismiss religious freedom as a defense.
“Everyone has the right to believe in what they want, but the rights of children come above the right to believe,” said Mrs. Gunnarsdóttir.
In statements about the bill, she seemed to confirm opponent’s worst fears when she said that “if Iceland backs this, I think other countries will follow,” and claimed that the measure had wide support in both of the country’s major political parties.
The proposal, Rabbi Goldschmidt said, was initiated by a Danish based “child’s rights” group, but focused on Iceland rather than its home country due to the strength of religious groups in Denmark. Iceland’s population of 336,000 is overwhelmingly secular. The Muslim population is estimated at 1,500 and there are thought to be around 250 Jews there.
The bill states that while children would be able to undergo the procedure once they are older, it is considered an infringement on their rights for parents to have it performed on them.
While opposition to religious circumcision methods in some European countries has often been mixed with attempts to limit or discourage growth of immigrant Muslim populations, Rabbi Goldschmidt felt Iceland’s attempt had more to do with ignorance.
“We are fighting this proposal at many levels, but I think there is a genuine misunderstanding about what bris milah is and that is something that we have to explain,” he said.
Milah has been attacked in Europe by relatively small special interest groups, but the right to practice it has been widely defended. In 2012, when a local German court issued a ruling that threatened religious circumcision methods, the government later clarified the law and said that it would remain permitted on the condition that it is performed by those who have received special training to do so.
Kosher and halal slaughter methods have been under siege in much of Europe for several years, a convergence of the agendas of animal rights groups and anti-Islamic elements on the continent. Iceland is one of five European countries that presently ban religious slaughter methods. Last year, two of Belgium’s three provinces voted to do the same, a move presently being challenged in the country’s legal system.
Just a few weeks ago, Rabbi Avraham Feldman was named Chabad-Lubavitch’s emissary to Iceland, making him what is thought to be the island nation’s first full-time Rabbi for its small community.
Having spent Chanukah in Reykjavík, the nation’s capital, and planning to return for Pesach before settling permanently in the late spring, he said that he was “excited” to service the local Jewish population, and hoped his presence could play a role in fending off the legislation.
“We are looking forward to being able to help the community there celebrate Judaism,” he said. “The proposed ban on bris milah is a concern and we look forward to bringing awareness of its importance both to the local population and especially to lawmakers and people in decision-making roles.”