A German Court this week declared that circumcision is illegal. The court decided that the time immemorial Jewish law—the mark of a Jewish boy’s covenant with God—is an inhumane act that does “grievous bodily harm” to young Jews and Muslims (the case actually originated when the parents of a four-year-old Muslim boy had him circumcised). But the Court’s ruling went further. According to Der Spiegel:
The court ruled that the child’s right to physical integrity is more important than the parent’s basic rights. The ruling stated that a mother’s or father’s right to freedom of religion as well as their right to determining how they raise their child would not be limited if they were forced to wait and allow their child to decide for himself if he wanted to be circumcised. The ruling states a child’s right to self-determination should come first.
The regional court in Cologne, Germany, held that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents.” You can read about the decision here.
This is an amazing decision for many reasons, not the least of which is that a court in Germany has basically said that Jewish and Muslim families do not have a right to practice their religious obligations, which for Jews include the requirement of circumcision as a mark of their covenant with God. A Jewish father who does not circumcise his son on the 8th day after birth is in violation of basic Jewish commandments. This prohibition on what is a fundamental matter of Jewish law and practice is especially shocking given Germany’s history.
The blogosphere has erupted over the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim implications of the decision, even as the U.S. mainstream press has ignored it. You can find a helpful and typically smart recap of the dispute over at ViaMeadia.
Beyond the questions of antisemitism and Islamophobia, the decision to outlaw circumcision reveals the frequently overlooked conflict between human rights and the basic rights of privacy. The German court’s decision imagines the parental rights to practice religion as a right to privacy—to determine how to raise their child. Against this right it balances the child’s human right to bodily integrity. And the court decides the matter on the side of human rights over the right of privacy.
This conflict between human rights and privacy recalls Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock.” Arendt’s essay on the school desegregation controversy has been roundly criticized. It has been less well understood. Arendt’s argument against forced-federal desegregation turns on her worry about the private realm. She makes four arguments:
1. Arendt is in favor of politically invalidating all laws supporting segregation.
2. She is against forced desegregation of social discrimination that in places such as vacation spots, which she argues are not relevant to the public life. In such spaces, integration may be desirable, but it is not publicly necessary.
3. She supports forced desegregation of social worlds that are publicly necessary (buses and hotels in business districts). Schools would of course usually fit here.
4. But Arendt is against forced integration of schools. Schools are different. Why? Because education is a question of how a parent raises his or her children, and this is the quintessential private right.
Arendt’s rejection of forced school integration was not based on a social defense of all discrimination since she clearly thinks that some kinds of discrimination are subject to forced integration. Instead, her rejection of forced school integration is based on her insistence on the need to preserve private rights. For many, her argument does not take seriously enough the public role of education. But Arendt insisted that education must be seen as part of the private sphere.
For Arendt, there is no more basic private right than the right to raise one’s children as one sees fit. Since education of one’s children is the quintessential private right, Arendt reasons that to deprive people of such a right is to eradicate the very idea of an inviolable sphere of the private realm. If we can tell people how to educate their children, what can’t we tell them about how to live their private lives?
Arendt clearly understands education as a private practice. It is in this sense similar to the rights of religious practice and circumcision that, likewise, go to the fundamental authority of parents to raise their children as they see fit. It is important to be vigilant against the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and those who have been critical of the German Court’s decision are right. But there is a more pressing threat that this decision raises, which is the desire to continually restrict or eviscerate the realm of the private in the name of humane and efficient regulation.
Private rights are deeply important. It is in the private realm where young people grow up and are led into the world by parents, teachers, and friends. If we value plurality, difference, and individuality, it is essential that we protect the private realm—that world in which individuals are formed in their singularity and uniqueness. As well meaning as human rights advocates may be, they are antagonistic to the private realm. They will forever seek to impose a world of humane conformity at the expense of the singularity suffering. This is the tension that Arendt provokes us to consider.
It is in such conflicts between the private and the social realms that Arendt takes her stand against the social conformity of the regulatory state. She makes fine distinctions that are too frequently overlooked. Thus, she defends the absolute right of mixed marriage (and also by extension gay marriage) as important rights to live privately and uniquely—since these are rights to live privately as one wishes. It is justified for the federal government to overturn discriminatory anti-miscegenation laws. She rejects federal intervention to combat discrimination in vacation spots, but supports such a federal role in matters of buses, hotels and business districts. But she would surely not defend the federal imposition of the right to bodily integrity when it interferes with the right to raise one’s child as one wants.
Reading Arendt reminds us that the real controversy in the German Court’s decision is less about antisemitism (although it is about that too) and more about the danger that a human rights agenda seeking to eradicate suffering poses to freedom and meaningful difference. It is easy (and right) to get riled up about antisemitism. It is also fairly easy (and right) to speak up for the right to circumcise one’s children for religious reasons. What is more difficult, and thus even more necessary, is defending private and often unpopular uniqueness from the social conformism of those who would eradicate suffering in the name of human rights.
There is no more clear-headed articulations of the need for a private sphere of uniqueness than Hannah Arendt’s essay “Reflections on Little Rock.” It is, this fourth of July weekend, your weekend read.