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Proposed circumcision ban rattles Jews, Muslims in Iceland

Image: A mohel arranges medical equipment a circumcision ceremony
Medical equipment is arranged at a circumcision ceremony. Copyright iStockphoto
Copyright iStockphoto
By Saphora Smith with NBC News World News
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"It's like they're closing doors for Jews and Muslims, that they're not welcome," one Muslim community leader said.


REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Jews and Muslims on this windswept island in the northern Atlantic Ocean find themselves united against a proposal to ban ritual circumcisions — jeopardizing a fundamental tradition in both religions.

"It's a bedrock of the Jewish people and of the Torah," said Rabbi Avi Feldman, 27, who moved from Brooklyn to Reykjavik with his wife and two daughters this year to become Iceland's first resident rabbi.

The bill aims to outlaw circumcision when not for medical reasons and was introduced by nine lawmakers from four political parties. It claims that any parent allowing the "irreversible" procedure disregards a boy's right to self-determination. Those found guilty could face up to six years in prison.

The proposal won support from around one-third of Iceland's doctors.

Rabbi Avi Feldman moved with his wife Mushky traded life in Brooklyn for Iceland earlier this year.
Rabbi Avi Feldman moved with his wife Mushky traded life in Brooklyn for Iceland earlier this year.Saphora Smith

Like much of northern Europe, circumcision is uncommon here, a country about the size of Kentucky and home to 348,000 people.

But the bill has rattled the Jewish and Muslim communities, with many saying it had been a shock in a place they usually find tolerant and inclusive.

"This is in its own way an existential threat to Jewish life"

"We are not used to these kinds of issues in Iceland," said Redouane Adam Anbari, who is responsible for religious affairs at the country's Grand Mosque. "It's like they're closing doors for Jews and Muslims, that they're not welcome in Iceland."

Julian Burgos, an Jewish marine biologist originally from Argentina who moved to Iceland nine years ago from the U.S., said the bill had left him perplexed. While he did not feel the motivation was anti-Semitic, he said there was a strain of anti-religious feeling in the country.

"I think you have to be a little bit blind to the side consequences of proposing a ban like this," said Burgos, 47. "For me it's like a little bit of a cultural blindness."

Julian Burgos.
Julian Burgos.Saphora Smith

Imam Ahmad Seddeeq of the Islamic Cultural Center of Iceland said some members of the Muslim community felt targeted by the law, believing it was introduced to make it difficult for Muslims to live here.

Seddeeq said he could not say what members of his congregation would do if the bill became law but speculated that some could leave Iceland, while others may continue to carry out circumcisions anyway.

"Lawmakers are supposed to make laws that will bring harmony and support tolerance in society and not make laws that will cause misunderstandings," he said, adding that the bill threatened to make people feel "marginalized or not welcomed."

'Sort of what happened in Nazi Germany'

The majority of Iceland's population identify as Lutheran, according to the National Statistics Institute. Some 20,000 — or one-in-17 people — said they had no religious affiliation.

There are around 1,000 Muslims living in Iceland, according to the agency. No official statistics are kept on the number of Jews, but estimates range from 50 to a few hundred.

Mike Levin, who until Feldman's recent arrival served as the de facto leader of Iceland's Jewish community, said he thought many people of his faith were reluctant to tell the government that they are Jewish. "That's sort of what happened in Nazi Germany. It was in your passport: 'Jude,' Jew."


The majority of the small number of Jews living in Iceland are not overly religious, according to Levin.

Mike Levin at his home outside Reykjavik, Iceland.
Mike Levin at his home outside Reykjavik, Iceland.Saphora Smith

Levin, 57, originally from Chicago, said the community has held meetings in a rented hall or a vegetarian restaurant. He said he would often struggle to gather 10 men on the Sabbath, a traditional requirement for Jews to read the Torah.

Reykjavik still has no synagogue — something Feldman hopes to change — and Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, was celebrated last week in a drab conference room at a downtown hotel.



Raphael Steinberg, an Israeli entrepreneur who moved to Iceland in 2012, explained the importance of the tradition even for more secular Jews such as himself.

"It's one of the very few things that keeps you really a Jew," he said.

Iceland is not the first European country to debate the pros and cons of circumcision, but none has outlawed the practice.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, the director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, told a conference on countering anti-Semitism this year that it was important to fight for the protection of the "elemental" religious practice of circumcision on behalf of the handful of Jewish people in Iceland.


He described the potential ban as "in its own way an existential threat to Jewish life."

It is estimated thatone-in-three men around the world are circumcised, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that some 80 percent of American adult men are circumcised.

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But the practice is uncommon in Iceland. The country's Directorate of Health said its records showed a total of 21 males under the age of 18 have been circumcised at hospitals or private clinics since 2006. It cautioned that its records on circumcision were patchy as some specialists refuse to submit their data. It could not say how many were for religious reasons.


Burgos, the marine biologist, said that the effect of such a ban on people living in Iceland who are neither Jewish nor Muslims would be "basically zero."

'Part of our faith'

Anbari, who is associated with the mosque, agreed that many people in Iceland did not appear to have a good grasp of Islam or the role of circumcision in the religion.

"This is not something new. This is something from the time of the Prophet Abraham," he said. "Now it comes to Iceland to stop it?"

Redouane Adam Anbari is responsible for religious affairs at the Grand Mosque in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Redouane Adam Anbari is responsible for religious affairs at the Grand Mosque in Reykjavik, Iceland.Saphora Smith

Yaman Brikhan, who owns three grill and shawarma restaurants in and around Reykjavik, said he thought it would be difficult for Muslim life to continue in Iceland if the proposal became law.


"This is part of our religion and part of our faith," he said.

Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, the lawmaker who is the lead author of the bill to outlaw circumcision other than for medical reasons, declined to be interviewed by NBC News.

Aides in her office said they did not know whether the proposal, submitted in January, would be introduced again in Parliament for consideration after the summer recess.

“Just because something has been done for thousands of years, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do.”

Gunnarsdóttir's questions for Iceland's minister of justice include whether the practice contravenes the U.N.'s Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights.


Her proposal's backers argue that circumcision is often performed without anesthesia and outside medical settings, leaving children vulnerable to infection.

The bill suggests that boys who seek circumcision for religious or cultural reasons wait until they have reached the "age and maturity" to understand what is involved.

An open letter signed by more than 400 Icelandic doctors said performing circumcisions other than for medical reasons was at odds with their Hippocratic oath to do no harm.



Dr. Eyjólfur Þorkelsson, who was the letter's lead author, said procedures should be carried out for sound medical reasons. "You don't take the appendix out just because," he said. "You have to have a problem."

Þorkelsson argued that while circumcision's religious importance should not be ignored, it should not trump other factors.

"Just because something has been done for thousands of years, doesn't necessarily mean it's the right thing to do," he said.

Benefit vs. risk

European medical groups are among the last arguing against the medical benefits of circumcision.


In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics said that the benefits of circumcision for newborns outweighed the risks. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also note the benefits include prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer and the transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

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But in response to the AAP's findings, a group of European doctors subsequently claimed such conclusions were influenced by "cultural bias."

Circumcision has been shown to protect men both from contracting HIV and from spreading it. WHO recommends circumcision to help fight the spread of the AIDS virus.


Levin argues that, regardless of medical considerations, circumcision is a basic principle of Judaism.

"It's the contract made between God and the Jewish people that all male children should be circumcised on the eighth day," he said.

Days before the Jewish new year, Feldman's wife, Mushky, gave birth to their third child, a girl, Tzivia.

Had Tzivia been a boy, the rabbi defended his right to decide whether circumcision was in the best interests of his child.


"It is something parents should be trusted with," Feldman said.

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