This week the German government sought to end months of protests by endorsing a new law legalizing circumcision. Circumcision had been allowed in Germany until this summer, when a regional court (in Cologne) effectively banned the practice, ruling it amounted to assault.
The government moved so quickly only for one reason: fed-up followers, in particular Jews and Muslims who protested to protect a practice that to them was sacrosanct.
This story is notable on two counts. First, it joined Jews and Muslims. Together they attacked the German government for intruding on their freedom to practice religion as they saw fit. Said Alman Mazyek, president of the German Muslim Council: “Circumcision has been a way of life throughout the world for thousands of years …. Only in Germany, unfortunately, does this become an issue.” Echoed Dieter Graumann, president of the German Central Council of Jews: “The ruling [in Cologne] is an unprecedented and dramatic intrusion of the right to religious freedom and an outrageous and insensitive act. Circumcision … has been practiced worldwide for millenia and is respected in every country around the world.”
And together they engaged in a public display deliberately redolent of historic resonance. In an unprecedented move, Jews and Muslims held a vigil last month in, of all places, Bebelplatz. Bebelplatz is the Berlin square that in 1933 was the site of the notorious Nazis book burning – the burning of some 20,000 books the Nazis considered un-German, including works by Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, and Thomas Mann.
The second reason this story is significant is because it so strikingly exemplifies the temper of the times – a time in which those who apparently are powerless are willing to take on those who apparently are powerful.
Think of how dramatically different was Germany, were Germans, in the 1930s, in the years after Hitler came to power (1933). Yes, some were at the extremes: a few had the temerity publicly to protest the Nazi regime. And a few were Hitler’s acolytes, eager slavishly to follow his every dictate. But, overwhelmingly, Germans were what I elsewhere called Bystanders. (See my book titled, Followership, Chapter 5.) Bystanders are observers, not participants. They make a deliberate decision to stand aside, to disengage from their leaders and from the group of which they are members. This withdrawal is, in effect, a declaration of neutrality – which amounts to a tacit endorsement of the status quo.
Not this time. This time neither Germany’s 140,000 registered Jews nor its nearly 4 million Muslims stayed silent in the face of what they experienced as unwanted and illegal government intrusion. Their refusal to keep quiet explains why the government beat a hasty retreat. This was, after all, a case that threatened to remind the nation and the world of Germany’s dark but not so distant past.