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February 22, 2018 1:02 pm

Lawmaker Who Proposed Controversial Iceland Circumcision Ban Claims It Does Not Violate Religious Freedom

avatar by Benjamin Kerstein

Parliament House in Reykjavík. Photo: Zinneke via Wikimedia Commons.

The Icelandic lawmaker who proposed a controversial ban on circumcision told The Algemeiner in an interview this week that her bill does not violate religious freedom.

Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir of the Progressive party recently introduced the legislation in the Icelandic Parliament, where it is currently being debated. It proposes a blanket ban on male circumcision on the basis that it violates the rights of children. Violators of the law could receive up to six years in prison.

The bill has been widely condemned and opposed by Jewish groups across Europe.

Icelandic MP Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir. Photo: Framsókn via Flickr.

Defending the bill, Gunnarsdóttir compared male circumcision to female circumcision, saying, “In both cases the individual right of the child to choose, is taken away. Those procedures are unnecessary, done without their informed consent, non-reversible and can cause all kinds of severe complications, disfigurations, and even death. Thankfully, many do not have any complications, but some do and one is too many if the procedure is unnecessary.”

Gunnarsdóttir was asked by The Algemeiner whether she understood that such a ban would essentially make Jewish life in Iceland impossible.

She replied, “Banning circumcision does not go against the religious freedom of the parents. Jewish people will always be welcome in Iceland.”

In response to this statement, Chief Rabbi of Moscow Pinchas Goldschmidt — the president of the Conference of European Rabbis — said, “It is clear from the words of this member of parliament that she has not comprehended the ramifications of her proposal.”

Circumcision, Goldschmidt stated, “is a core principle in Jewish life. Proposing a ban is an affront to Jewish people who will have no other option but to leave the country in which they are legally prohibited from religious practice. … It is clear as day that once circumcision will be outlawed in Iceland, it will become impossible for young parents to stay in this country.”

“We call on Iceland’s lawmakers to fully comprehend the implication of this law,” he added.

Goldschmidt related the proposed ban to the overall rise of antisemitism and political extremism in Europe. “While open antisemitism has become politically incorrect in our time, we witness covert initiatives to rid countries of their Jewish populations,” he said. “This is another strain of populism, which threatens to disintegrate the very fabric and values which hold countries ascribing to Western civilization together.”

European Jewish Association Chairman Rabbi Menachem Margolin met with Iceland’s ambassador to Belgium on Thursday and raised the issue of the ban with her.

After the meeting, Margolin said in a statement, “The ambassador had a very common-sense and pragmatic approach to this issue, and her words were very reassuring. It is clear from this meeting that this is a party-led initiative and not one that enjoys the initiative or direct support of the Icelandic Parliament as a whole. This on its own is a good start.”

He added that there would be an ongoing dialogue with Icelandic legislators on the subject.

Margolin echoed Goldschmidt in relating the ban to political trends in Europe, saying, “It reeks of the type of populism that is all too sadly manifesting itself across the European continent at the present time. … The import of such legislation ever becoming law is that it sets precedents for other European nations, and normalizes the branding of the entire Jewish population as ‘criminals’ for performing this important, vital and precious rite of ours. It cannot and will not be allowed to happen.”

Dr. Moshe Kantor — president of the European Jewish Congress — expressed similar sentiments, saying in a statement to The Algemeiner, “The European Jewish Congress has always fought against any ban which infringes on the right to religious freedom. We have always said that an attempt to ban a basic Jewish practice is a crude way of saying that Jews and their traditions are not welcome and this is absolutely unacceptable.”

Kantor also defended the practice of circumcision, saying, “We call upon one of the world’s oldest legislatures to respect the values of openness and tolerance to an age-old practice for which there is absolutely no evidence that it is harmful in any way.”

From within Iceland itself, Rabbi Avi Feldman of the country’s new Chabad Jewish Center said, “This is definitely an area of concern, and something that is very much on our minds. … We are hopeful that the proposal will include a provision for people of all faiths to practice their religion.”

The proposed ban was also condemned by Jewish groups outside of Europe. Zionist Organization of America National President Morton Klein said in a statement, “To be absolutely clear, circumcision is not an obscure or dated Jewish ritual or a mere local custom of some Jewish communities — it is and has been a core practice of Jewish life in every land throughout the long history of the Jewish people. Any legislation that bans the practice is essentially saying to Jews — ‘You are not welcome in this country’ — because Jewish life is impossible without it.”

Klein also defended circumcision as a practice, saying it “goes back to the covenant between God and Abraham in the book of Genesis. Since that time, it has been a central ritual of Jewish life, affirming the ongoing covenant in Jewish communities in every part of the world.

“There is no good reason to ban circumcision,” he noted. “Medical studies over the years have found that it causes no harm to those who undergo it. Indeed, certain health benefits derive from the practice. It is a fact, for example, that African tribes that practice circumcision have far lower incidence of AIDS than tribes that do not. Accordingly, there is no valid or compelling human rights or medical reason to enact legislation that bans the practice.”

Klein called on the Icelandic Parliament to reject the “deeply deplorable” bill should it come to a vote.

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