As more journalists report on Iceland's circumcision saga, the country gets a rabbi


Iceland, pop. 348,580, is smaller than many U.S. counties but it often makes news totally out of proportion to its size. I recently reported on the country’s attempt to become the first nation in the world to ban circumcision.

The post was inundated with a wave of comments from anti-circumcision activists who ignored the journalism question raised in my post. Tmatt says he spiked at least two dozen of these messages. So, before you read any further, please restrict any comments to the quality of news coverage on this issue, not your own views on the legal and religious issue itself.

But do read my article and the lengthy response by Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson on what the true issues are in Iceland about circumcision.

Then I learned a few days later that Chabad Lubavitch, possibly the most outreach oriented Orthodox Jewish group out there, plans to send a rabbi and his family (pictured above) to Reykjavik sometime next fall. Most of the coverage came from Jewish media, such as this piece by the Jewish Telegraph Agency: 

The Chabad movement is sending a rabbi and his wife to Iceland, an island nation with 250 Jews where ritual slaughter of animals is illegal and circumcision is likely to be outlawed as well.
Rabbi Avi Feldman, 27, of Brooklyn, New York, and his Sweden-born wife Mushky, are slated to settle with their two daughters in Reykjavík, the world’s northernmost capital city, later this year, the couple told JTA last week.
The country is not known to have had a resident rabbi servicing an active Jewish community there since 1918, the year it gained independence from what was then the Kingdom of Denmark.

The piece then updated readers on the circumcision debate in Iceland, then quoted Feldman’s response.

“We hope to bring awareness of the relevance and importance of brit milah,” the rabbi told JTA, using the Hebrew-language word for Jewish ritual circumcision, which is typically performed on boys when they are eight days old. “We hope to bring this awareness to local Icelandic people and especially to lawmakers in their decision on rules, which we hope will have a religious exemption clause.” has by far the most details on the new rabbi and Iceland’s sparse Jewish history

The Chabad Jewish Center will be Iceland’s first institutional Jewish presence; Feldman will be the country’s first permanent rabbi; and aside from congregations formed by British and American troops during World War II, theirs will be the first synagogue in Iceland’s 1,000-plus years of history.

It then names an American immigrant who has singlehandedly, since 1986, organized Jewish events in Iceland plus a recounting of how Chabad began sending visiting rabbis to the northern country in 2011 for Jewish holiday services. Most of Iceland’s Jews are expatriates, which means services tend to be conducted in English with some Hebrew.

Which answers my one question about whether anything in Chabad’s archive has been translated into Icelandic. Keeping things in the mother tongue is a major issue in Iceland as many computer devices (ie Apple’s IOS and Mac OS X operating systems) don’t operate in Icelandic.

So, if Chabad wants the natives to “get” Judaism, it might want to employ some translators. As for the circumcision debate, BBC brings us up to date:

MP Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir of the Progressive Party, who introduced the bill at the start of the month, said: "We are talking about children's rights, not about freedom of belief.
"Everyone has the right to believe in what they want, but the rights of children come above the right to believe."
Iceland passed a law in 2005 banning female genital mutilation, and supporters of this move have compared it to that law.
The latest bill (in Icelandic) says circumcision "involves permanent interventions in a child's body that can cause severe pain". If it passes its first reading, the draft law will go to a committee stage before it can come into effect.

As Robert George of Princeton University --  former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom -- noted in a series of tweets recently, a country banning circumcision effectively bans Jews from living there. Ditto for Muslims.

The Lutheran bishop of Iceland understands this, but it’s unclear whether many of her fellow Icelanders do. The Reykjavik Grapevine reports that since 2006, only 13 circumcisions have been performed in the country.

Watch for religious freedom to become a buzz word in this debate; an angle the Catholic News Agency has already jumped on

The British media is covering this issue far more than American media are and The Independent made an interesting discovery during its reporting. The aforementioned Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir told the newspaper she “didn’t think it was necessary to consult” with the island’s small Jewish and Muslim population before proposing the anti-circumcision bill, adding “I didn’t see it as a religious matter.”

Such tone deafness among the representatives of this highly cultured and educated populace is certainly newsworthy and that's one side of the public debate on this issue. And who is speaking on the other side?

All of this makes this subject a powerful topic for reporters to tackle. I’m hoping, as Iceland’s parliament continues debate on the matter, that more media have a go at it. After all, it came up on a ballot in San Francisco in 2011 -- before being removed on a technicality -- so it's not going away. 

Photo of the Feldman family courtesy of

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