10 years of circumcision debate in Germany

In August 2022, I participated at the INTACT 2022, an intactivism conference that took place at the Georgia Tech Conference Center in Atlanta, USA. Because of my 60th birthday at the same time, I couldn’t be there myself. So I asked Peter W. Adler to read my talk to the audience which he did exellently.

Here is the video of my contribution presented by Peter. The original text follows below.


I am Ulf Dunkel, a German intactivist since 2012. I am the editor of the IntactiWiki and have translated various intactivism books into German since then, books by Lindsay R. Watson, Ronald Goldman, and Rosemary Romberg. Because I turned 60 yesterday and had to celebrate my birthday with my family, I am sorry that I cannot speak to you myself. Therefore, I thank Peter Adler for reading my talk at this conference.

What happened in Germany in 2012?

In mid-2012, I saw an outrageous accusation on social media: the whole of Germany would be anti-Semitic if a certain “Cologne verdict” were to hold. I immediately became alert. I grew up pacifist, aware of the atrocities which Nazi Germany committed against the Jews. I was a conscientious objector, had done civilian service and now I had many questions. What is the Cologne verdict? Why should all Germans be anti-Semitic? Who claims that? What is this all about?

It was about circumcision. In Germany, the common term is “Beschneidung”, which simply means “cutting”. A term I knew from school, where it was mentioned once in connection with Jewish and Muslim rituals. I knew it from my civilian service in a hospital, where I witnessed two phimosis operations of boys, during which the medical word circumcision was also mentioned. And I knew it from a botanical book that described how rose bushes are cut and pruned to make them bloom more magnificently.

But this was about the “circumcision” of a little boy, who then almost bled to death, why the treatment became a public problem in the first place.

What happened in Cologne?

A four-year-old boy of Muslim parents in Germany had been circumcised “for religious reasons”. They had hired a doctor in Cologne, who was also Muslim. He performed the operation in his practice lege artis,which means “according to the medical state of the art”. Nevertheless, there was very heavy bleeding. Two days later, his mother took the boy to the University Hospital in Cologne, where the bleeding was stopped. General anesthesia and a hospital stay of a total of ten days were required for these follow-up treatments.

A nurse from the University Hospital then reported the doctor so that the public prosecutor’s office became aware of the matter and filed a criminal complaint against the circumciser.

The matter went before the Township Court of Cologne, which acquitted the doctor. It assumed that the parents‘ consent to the religiously motivated operation was legally effective because it was in the best interests of the child.

Prosecutors appealed the verdict and still wanted the doctor convicted of assault. The case went before the District Court of Cologne, which passed a sensational judgment on May 7, 2012. Accordingly, this operation, which is not medically indicated and was purely motivated by the parents‘ religious reasons, is clearly bodily harm. The fact that circumcisions have been tolerated for a long time cannot be excused as “social adequacy”. The religious motivation of the parents would “also have no justifying effect” since the “parents‘ right to a religious upbringing of their children” does not take precedence over the “child’s right to physical integrity and self-determination”.

The district court of Cologne contradicted the judgment of the township court, but had to state correctly that the doctor could not be convicted because he acted “in an unavoidable error of law” and therefore could not be guilty.

Thus, the case could have been filed and the public would not have become aware of it. But the district court had also stated just as clearly that according to this judgment in future interventions in children’s right to physical integrity and self-determination no doctor or circumciser could no longer invoke error of law and would become a criminal offence. The “Cologne circumcision verdict” was effectively tantamount to an immediate ban on all non-medically indicated foreskin amputations, especially since it excluded further appeals.

The Cologne verdict was communicated in the media at the end of June 2012 and immediately harshly condemned. But not from the Muslim side, as one might have assumed, but above all from the Jewish side.

Serious allegations by Jewish speakers

At the beginning of July 2012, a conference of European rabbis took place, at which its chairman, Rabbi Goldberg, claimed that the Cologne verdict was the “severe attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust”. He also claimed: “Circumcision is the basis for conversion to the Jewish people” and called for disregard of the Cologne verdict. At the time he threateningly predicted: “If the law is passed, there will be no future for the Jewish communities in Germany.”

In doing so, he put pressure on all Germans who had learned from Germany’s inglorious, murderous history that injustice against Jews because they are Jews should never be repeated on German soil. His statements, and those of many others who took the same line, made it clear: A Germany that puts the well-being of young children above the well-being of the Jews, which had suffered so much from an earlier Germany, is against Jews because they are Jewish and perform Jewish rituals. Such a Germany is anti-Semitic.

The President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany followed suit and threatened to emigrate all Jews from Germany. He called on the Chancellor, the parliamentary groups and the prime ministers of all federal states to pass a law “immediately after the summer break” that would continue to allow ritual circumcision. In doing so, he accused everyone who stood up for children’s rights to want to create a situation in which Jews could no longer live in Germany, and thus also anti-Semitism between the lines.

Comedy nation Germany

In July 2012 all six parties of the Bundestag looked for positions and information to support these positions. They all simply believed that the “claimed Jewish rules” were true. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal point of view was quoted as:

“She doesn’t want Germany to be the only country in the world where Jews can’t practice their rites. ‘Otherwise we’ll make ourselves into a comedy nation,’ she said.”

So she set the political direction: In post-Nazi Germany, Jewish rites are more important than the basic rights of children.

Later in the debate there were repeated attempts to defuse this basic direction. It was pointed out that circumcisions are not only carried out for religious reasons. But let’s not delude ourselves: the political debate in Germany has always been about the right of Jewish parents to have their sons circumcised for religious reasons. Everything else was accessories and decoration. Even the law has failed to completely conceal this fact. Because it contains a special right for Jewish circumcisers to be able to carry out this operation up to the age of six months of the victim. Elsewhere, only doctors are allowed to do surgery in Germany.

I myself was 100% convinced that the Cologne verdict was absolutely correct. I contacted all Bundestag politicians in order to convince them that this post-war Germany in particular would do well to stand up for human rights for all people, including all children, and in doing so to show that it had learned from its evil history.

If this country were to show now that it can stand at the forefront of the new era and stand up for the universal human rights adopted by all the world, it should gain all the respect in the world for this purification and development. But if Germany were to disregard the human rights of children of Jewish and Muslim parents because they are Jews and Muslims, wouldn’t that itself be anti-Semitism and Islamophobia? Treating Jewish people worse than others because of their religion is nothing more than the very anti-Semitism that Rabbi Goldschmidt saw in treating Jewish people the same as everyone else.

Misinformation, lies and attacks

The German Constitution says: “The undisturbed practice of religion is guaranteed.” But that does of course not allow religious people to harm other people.

In my personal and written discussions with members of the Bundestag and religious speakers, I was increasingly confronted with claims that had long since been refuted, as I learned then by doing my own research. It frightened me that these people were either completely uninformed or shamelessly spreading untruths. You all know these false claims and myths. But one argument shocked me the most: Children of Jews and Muslims are “not other people” per se, so that the basic rights do not apply to them at all. This attitude showed me that some of these groups live in a completely different era, not in 2012 or later in a democratic constitutional state in which the UN Human Rights Charter and the Children’s Rights Convention apply. Children are not owned by their parents and are not legal objects to be dealt with as one pleases. Children are legal subjects and enjoy the same basic rights as adults. That’s the theory.

Again and again and more frequently in all the discussions – albeit primarily under the protection of anonymity in the social media – the anti-Semitism club was swung and used to beat everyone who campaigned for the rights of children. There was talk of the fact that we Germans have had nothing to say to the Jews since 1945, that Muslims in Germany have their own rules, that anyone who thinks that ritual circumcision is genital mutilation is only expressing their anti-Semitic world view.

Of course, most of you are familiar with these bad debates. We all experience them every day. The debate hasn’t died down in Germany either, even after we became a comic nation in December 2012 as a result of the unconstitutional circumcision law. We’re kidding our male kids, we’re fools who claim to be a child-friendly society. Well, boys just had bad luck here in Germany until now.

Europe’s attempts

You are also familiar with the further development of the circumcision debate in Europe. After Germany, there have been moves in several Nordic countries to pass laws to protect children’s rights. Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have tried. In all these countries the same thing happened as in Germany. All people who worked to protect children were suddenly anti-Semites and haters of Islam. (This is of course complete nonsense.) Lena Nyhus from Intact Denmark went into this in more detail yesterday.

Unique opportunity missed

What annoys me the most and why I’m still an intactivist: Germany had the unique opportunity to take on a pioneering role in human rights for all people. The protection of defenseless children against an unfounded religious demand of adults must not be given up for fear of being accused of anti-Semitism. This massive accusation simply does not apply here. It’s about protecting boys from genital mutilation. All boys. To deny this protection to sons of Jewish parents because they are Jews would be anti-Semitism. To deny this protection to sons of Muslim parents because they are Muslims would be discrimination, too.

If Germany had decided in favor of children’s rights back then, we all would certainly be further ahead today – ten years later. Then the Nordic countries in Europe would surely have followed Germany and also legally protected their male children from genital mutilation, one by one.

And of course that wouldn’t have been the end of Judaism in Germany or Europe. On the contrary. I contend that Judaism, with its rich culture, its many facets and its creativity, would have grown from it. And many young Jewish parents would no longer be subject to the immeasurable pressures of their communities and would be able to welcome their sons into the world and their community with peaceful, bloodless rituals.

Many Muslim communities in Europe are harder to reach. Some of them live very isolated in parallel societies. And of course Muslims are not a homogeneous society, just like Jews or other groups. Indeed, children of most Muslim parents need a law that explicitly forbids their parents from circumcising children’s genitals. Circumcision tourism could also be prevented.

The main reason for statistically the most circumcisions in Germany is certainly still the misdiagnosis of phimosis. But there is hope. In 2021, the German Society for Pediatric Surgery published a new “Phimosis and Paraphimosis Guideline”. It states clearly that phimosis is basically natural in boys at first and that the time it takes for it to resolve completely, varies widely and can extend into adulthood. In the case of phimosis that is actually pathological, the guideline advises conservative, maintenance measures such as ointment therapy and cutting only as a last resort, preferring incision over circumcision.

Future prospect

Every important topic in politics has its hour. At the first attempt, Germany failed to stand up for the fundamental rights of male children although the major medical societies, the German public, and many intactivists argued against the Circumcision Law. The backbone of Germany is apparently not strong enough due to its inglorious history, which has actually been exploited by some religious advocates.

But the time will come when the first country will finally speak out clearly for equal rights for all children. Then we will experience a domino effect. Country after country will protect children’s rights, put religions back in their place, and reduce medical misdiagnosis through education and policies. I would have been proud if Germany had been the first country to prioritize child protection. And not despite, but because of its history. It’s on us to protect future children.

In his book “Circumcision Is A Fraud”, Peter Adler put it simply and correctly: The circumcision debate must stop. But not, as Chancellor Merkel said in 2012, to restore legal certainty for religions, but because there should be no debate about human rights violations at all.

For the good of all people. Children are people. Children are our future. They and we all benefit from intact bodies and souls, as individuals, as families, as communities and as nations.

Thank you for listening.