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Circumcision Battle Coming to Scandinavia

A growing attachment to the male umlaut

Adam Chandler
August 21, 2012
Danish Jewish Museum(DJM)

After a trip to the Danish Jewish Museum this morning, I couldn’t help but leave in bolder spirits after learning about Denmark’s history with regard to its Jewish population. Like Berlin’s Jewish Museum, which I visited last week, Denmark’s Jewish Museum in Copenhagen is designed by Daniel Libeskind, whose work (no matter how well you know the history) manages to elicit an emotional response because of how the design interacts with the historical themes.

In Berlin, the museum has windows and cracks looking out into voids and a tower with a ladder that’s just out of reach. In Copenhagen, the museum is designed in a jagged shape that includes the Hebrew letters “מצוה” to symbolize the “mitzvah” of the Danish rescue of its Jewish population during World War II.

To recap, in October of 1943, Hitler ordered the arrest and deportation of Denmark’s 7,000+ Jews. Aided by the Danish resistance and ordinary Danish citizens, all but 481 of the Danish Jews were hidden or sent by boat across the Sound to Sweden where they were safe.

To drive the point home, the museum uses birch wood from Sweden for its paneling and (this one is really impressive) the museum is situated on the former boat house of the Danish King Christian IV, who first invited the Jews to Denmark in the early 1600s. Since their arrival, Jews have, by and large, lived well in Denmark (although, as James Kirchick wrote last week, Danish tolerance does have its shortcomings).

Despite all of this, tolerance of Jewish tradition remains a mutable dynamic. Yesterday, the JTA reported that the Jews of Scandinavia are now preparing to engage in what may be the newest front in the battle to ban circumcision.

Untrained rabbis mutilating hysterical babies while black-clad men stand around praying: The description of a Jewish circumcision in the mainstream Danish media indicates the xenophobia creeping through Scandinavia, some Jewish leaders fear.

“Around the baby stand ten black-clad men – a must in every Jewish circumcision,” the text declares. “As usual in Judaism, women aren’t allowed to be present. An untrained rabbi mutilates the baby, who cries and bleeds profusely as the men pray.”

The words typify “the level of the current debate on circumcision in Denmark,” said Finn Schwarz, president of the Jewish Congregation of Copenhagen.

Schwarz says the false account of a Jewish circumcision indicates the increasing intolerance toward the ritual, couched in xenophobia. Buttressed in recent bans elsewhere in Europe, Schwarz worries that a Danish push could turn into parliamentary action on circumcision in Denmark as early as this year.

Across Europe and North America, there is a cultural shift against the practice despite (or perhaps because of) its centrality in Muslim and Jewish customs. Some have attributed it to xenophobia amid waves of immigration, others to a more vocal atheist set or even the boredom among legislators in the summer.

We’ll see how it plays out.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.