Last week, I had the privilege of leading a delegation of European imams and rabbis to meet with Council of Europe (COE) Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland at COE headquarters in Strasbourg, and to present to him a petition signed by more than 500 European Muslim and Jewish leaders calling for revocation of a recent resolution passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) urging the nation states of Europe to consider banning the circumcision of boys.
The meeting of our delegation with Secretary-General Jagland on January 20 was especially timely in that it took place only days before the PACE Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development is scheduled to launch new hearings on circumcision on January 28. These hearings are considered likely to re-affirm the chilling premise articulated by Committee's retiring chairman Lilliane Pasquier in a recent op-ed article the Washington Post, that "There is not, and cannot be, a 'right' to circumcise young boys" and urging that Europe should "consider making 'children's rights to physical integrity' a continent-wide standard."
Participants in our 10-member delegation, representing the Gathering of European Jewish and Muslim Leaders (GEMJL), an affiliate of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, solemnly informed Secretary-General Jagland that PACE's proposed circumcision ban is nothing less than an attack on our two communities and a fundamental violation of our religious liberties. The practice of circumcision is at the very core of our two faiths; mandated in the covenant between God and out common forefather, Abraham/Ibrahim. Both religious faith and millennia of tradition enjoin Jews and Muslims to circumcise our sons and we cannot do otherwise if we are to live according to the dictates of our respective faith traditions. If nation states of Europe were actually to ban circumcision, it would make Jewish and Muslim life impossible on the Continent.
Our delegation was heartened that in response to our appeal, Secretary General Jagland promised that no matter the outcome of the upcoming PACE hearings, "Nothing in the final response of the COE will go in the direction of banning circumcision or equating male and female circumcision," adding that "Efforts to ban circumcision will hurt our mutual mission to create a continent that thrives on dialogue." In a clear reference to the appalling history of persecution of Jews and Muslims in Europe over many centuries, the Secretary-General warned his colleagues in PACE that, "Starting to limit the rights of minorities is a very dangerous avenue to pursue. Europe has always been a continent of minorities and whenever we have limited their rights it has always led to catastrophe."
One can only hope that members of PACE will listen to the Secretary-General's powerful words and reconsider a disastrous course that is causing deep distress in Jewish and Muslim communities across Europe. Clearly, our two communities need to remain vigilant and engaged, for while PACE's resolutions have no legal standing, such resolutions have a powerful moral influence on European public opinion and may cause parliaments and governments across Europe to introduce anti-circumcision legislation.
While other leaders of European Jewish organizations have met with COE officials in recent months to speak out against the proposed circumcision ban, I am proud that our GEMJL delegation is the first to meet with the Secretary-General on behalf of both the Muslim and Jewish communities in countries across the Continent. Indeed, the advent of GEMJL represents the first time that an organized format has been created across Europe to mobilize the united force of the Muslim and Jewish communities in over 25 countries. We intend to stand together and fight for the rights of both communities, not only on circumcision, but also on other questions where there are legislative and judicial efforts afoot in Europe to circumscribe Jewish and Muslim religious rights; such as ritual slaughter and burial customs. We will oppose efforts to limit the wearing of religious headgear like hijabs and kippot, and will stand together in opposition to the dangerous rise of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in countries across Europe.
Working together in support of a common agenda, will augment the political power of the Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe and will put a stop to cynical efforts by politicians to play one community against the other. There is no disputing that the fates of the Muslim and Jewish peoples in the 21st century are closely intertwined. By advocating together on behalf of a range of issues vital to the well-being of both communities, we have an historic opportunity to put aside perceived differences and to ensure that the interests of Jews and Muslims are protected, not only in Europe, but around the world.
Rabbi Marc Schneier is President of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding