Review: Circumcision at the Jewish Museum Berlin

Circumcision has a long history of enabling Othering processes, i.e. society defining itself on the basis of what it is not. According the Duke anthropologist William O’Barr, the absence of circumcision in Michelangelo’s famous David exemplifies this bit: Despite David’s well-known Jewish roots, let alone his place as a key protagonist in the Jewish scriptural tradition, his foreskin remains seemingly intact; this David seems more Florentine, more like the dominant Europeans at the time, than Jewish.

David Michelangelo

Michelangelo likely had little experience with circumcision, given that this practice was historically reserved for the Jewish minority. The lack of foreskin thus served as a point from which the fringe of majority culture could be measured. Most Europeans at the time were simply not circumcised.

In Germany, circumcision is still a practice attributed to members of the Jewish and Islamic traditions. Given Germany’s immigration history, the practice also serves largely to distinguish more recent immigrants from your German with either Catholic or Protestant roots. In kind, the debate as to the legality and humanity of the removal of a child’s foreskin has taken on an us vs. them quality. The discussion has also tended to position ‘reason and modernity’ against ‘antiquated tradition’, as this interview with a German Green Party member indicates (a party, which gave strong support to legislation banning the practice among infants and young children). Just two years ago, a Cologne court ruled against the circumcision of youngsters. The decision was presented as an act in favor of the human rights of children – this logic continues to dominate.

In the United States, approx. 79% of men are circumcised, according to the Center for Disease Control. Many of these men do not belong to religious traditions that prescribe the practice; I doubt many parents would cite compliance with God’s covenant as the reason for their son’s procedure. Since its introduction during WWII as a matter of (presumed) hygiene, it never had time to become a pronounced public marker of difference.

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Jackson Pollock 1946, “Circumcision”

But even in the United States, the practice has more recently come under a critical knife, though more medical than cultural, as a recent Atlantic article on the subject illustrates. The more contemporary critique in the United States seems to be little more than an attempt to re-evaluate the merits of bodily modification, without going so far as to refer to this practice as ‘mutilation’ on the part of fundamentalist religions.

Given this background, the importance of context is undeniable in evaluating the discourse on circumcision from one place to another. In other words, the ‘who’s who’ in beschnitten vs. unbeschnitten may say much more about the state of society (and its latent tensions) than medical-ethical arguments against the practice immediately reveal. This begs the question if arguments against a religious practice, such as this one, can ever be purely about the rights of children, as German courts have decreed and German politicians argued. This question and the delicate history from which it emerges were the inspiration for the newest exhibition at the Jewish Museum Berlin – an institution known for programming on inclusion/diversity topics that extends beyond the docket of Jewish history and culture.

Haut Ab

The exhibit, “Haut ab!” or “Snip it!“, opened a little more than one month ago. Days before the exhibit’s scheduled reveal, I had the opportunity to take part in a preview for bloggers and tweeters. Our tour guide was the exhibition’s co-curator, an expert in Judaica. In addition to the objects’ historical significance, her comments revealed a recognition of the tightly-stretched contemporary fabric upon which the exhibit rests. The careful placement of artifacts, soundbites, and images transmits a similar message of a need to explain and take stock of a (perhaps unnecessarily) tension-filled topic, in light and because of history.

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Entering through the exhibit’s initial darkened spaces – final preparations being made, lighting not quite right – a historical narrative of a religion’s genesis and later adaptations in diaspora forms a quilt of impressions. The next rooms give way to the ritual’s place in Islam and the stark move from Christianity’s embrace of old Jewish tradition – as being sacredly tied to the life and times of Jesus – to artists’ depictions of Othered violence, even savagery, against children. Juxtaposed with a historical development are artifacts from the Islamic ceremony in which a young boy is inducted into a long Muslim lineage. For all Berliners, the following image is a familiar one: costumes for a ‘little prince’, complete with scepter and golden cap. But how many recognize this as part of a fundamental rite de passage, the commanded removal of foreskin? Images of the sons of German guest workers in the 1970s, little princes in-waiting, place the practice further back in German heritage than the media tends to convey. As Germany’s immigration history indicates, circumcision is nothing new. But this photograph of an eager little boy could have been taken last week, swimming in a hat much too big among a happy mass of friends and family.

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The final room of the exhibit greets visitors with an interactive arrangement of outside discourses on circumcision, clips taken primarily from American television. Images and audio insert diverse perspectives into what our guide calls ‘the polemical German frame’. Familiar cartoons and sitcoms cast blue light onto the carpeted floor. Scenes from South Park, Judge Judy. As we exit, a final work, the oeuvre of commentary, salutes its visitors: three figures, bodies identical, if not for the flags draped over three sets of genitalia.

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One could make the case that circumcision in Germany is more a stand-in for society’s difficult grappling with religious difference and demographic change. Perhaps more background is needed to do so, however. So to be more specific, as a recent study by the Berlin Institute for Empirical Migration and Integration Research indicates, a majority of Germans polled continue to see Islam as un-German – this despite the approx. 5+ million Muslims who have made Germany their home. To complicate things, Germany is one of the most secular countries in Europe, with most of its residents of so-called Christian heritage bearing little association to either church or faith in their daily lives. There is also a history of a certain institutional religiosity despite public secularism: for example, the prominence of the CDU Party (Christian Democratic Union) and the obligatory church-tax to Protestant or Catholic churches, even synagogues, while blatantly excluding Muslim houses of prayer.

As this new exhibit at the Jewish Museum Berlin demonstrates, circumcision in Germany is complicated, deeply embedded in the question of German identity and the norms that demarcate such a thing. I wonder, though, if the constant discussion serves only to create scandal out of culture. For where is Othered difference, when there is no longer spectacle?

“Snip it”/”Haut ab” at the Jewish Museum Berlin runs until March 1. It’s worth a visit.

By Kelly Miller

All images are linked to original source or were otherwise taken by yours truly.

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