The asylum seeker says she was just following the traditions of her country. If she beats the child-abuse charges, she’ll set a legal precedent.
Most of the facts of the indictment aren’t in dispute. In March 2016, an asylum seeker from Eritrea whose name has only been given as A. circumcised her 4-year-old son, M. She did it herself in her home in Eilat and didn’t use the instruments used in Jewish circumcision rituals.
The question is whether the woman committed a crime. The State Prosecutor’s Office says she did. The indictment includes charges of grievous bodily harm and child abuse. If she is convicted of all the charges, the maximum sentence is 14 years in prison.
At the Be’er Sheva District Court in recent months, the woman has completely denied that she performed a forbidden or illegal act.
The woman’s lawyer, Moshe Serogovich from the Public Defender’s Office, says not only does no law exist regulating the work of mohels, Jewish ritual circumcisers, but A. acted according to her cultural heritage. This cultural defense, as it were, would probably set a precedent in Israel if it works. A ruling is expected soon.
A., 37, has been in Israel since 2008, after she fled the village where she was born in Eritrea. In recent years she has worked as a cleaner in a hotel in Eilat, where she lives.
“This is my son, my baby,” she told the court. “After so many requests I made to all sorts of places about how to do it, I took it upon myself and cut. In Ethiopian culture, Eritrean culture, anyone who knows how can do the circumcision.”
A. is not fluent in Hebrew. The transcript of her testimony was translated into Hebrew from Tigrinya, a language mainly spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.
The transcript provides a collection of cut-off sentences, so much so that Judge Aharon Mishnayot told the prosecutor “to consider very well the contradictions [in her testimony], because some of them are the result of a lack of understanding of the language.”
The dispute is over the meaning of the word “circumcision” − or to be more precise, over the conditions in which a circumcision takes place, when, who performs it and how.
“You can only imagine the outcry that would have come from Israel, all its organizations and institutions, and from Jews around the world if a foreign country put Jewish men or women on trial for crimes for conducting a circumcision on a Jewish baby,” Serogovich says.
Actually, one need not imagine. In late 2013, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution on “children’s right to physical integrity” in which it called on its 47 member states to place restrictions on circumcision.
It urged countries to “adopt specific legal provisions to ensure that certain operations and practices will not be carried out before a child is old enough to be consulted.” In addition to circumcision for religious reasons, the resolution covered female genital mutilation, corporal punishment and the submission to or coercion of children into piercings, tattoos or plastic surgery.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry called the resolution a “serious moral stain” and “an intolerable attack both on the respectable and ancient religious tradition that lies at the base of European culture, and on modern medical science and its findings.” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the director of the European Jewish Association, called it another embarrassing attempt to interfere with Jewish tradition accepted for thousands of years.
In October 2015, the council dropped its efforts to ban male circumcision and accepted the custom as part of religious freedom in Europe.
Not regulated by law
As sources in the State Prosecutor’s Office put it, the indictment against A. stemmed from the need to “draw red lines” − not everyone can carry out a circumcision as they please. But Serogovich says it’s hard to draw such lines without a law or regulations requiring training to conduct a circumcision.
According to the indictment, “The defendant held the complainant in her hands and instructed him to sit in silence,” and “the defendant did not respond to the complainant’s crying and appeals, and continued to cut his skin in the upper part of the sexual organ.” As Serogovich puts it, this could be applied to any circumcision, regardless of religion or nationality.
Circumcisions are not regulated by law. Because it is a religious ceremony, it is not required to be performed or supervised by a doctor, and all attempts to legislate the matter have been defeated.
A joint committee of the Chief Rabbinate and the Health Ministry is responsible for licensing mohels, but those who have not completed the licensing process are still allowed to perform circumcisions, says Yacoov Alter, an attorney and the spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate. The Rabbinate estimates that in addition to the 350 or so certified mohels, another 250 or so are unlicensed.
woman could face 14-years in jail after circumcising her four-year-old son.