The Board of Deputies president, Jonathan Arkush, says he is “tentatively optimistic” about the future of brit milah in Iceland after taking part in an international interfaith conference in Reykjavik earlier this week.
The Inter-Faith Forum of Iceland, together with the Institute for Religious Studies of the University of Iceland, held a one-day discussion on “the circumcision of boys” which brought together both those who oppose the practice in Iceland and those who want it to continue, both Jews and Muslims.
Those giving presentations, besides Mr Arkush, included the co-sponsor of the Private Member’s Bill currently being considered by the Icelandic parliament’s Judicial Affairs and Education Committee, Dr Olafur Thor Gunnarssson. He is a physician from the country’s Green Party and said that since female circumcision had been banned in Iceland in 2005, a ban on male circumcision was as much a matter of equal rights as anything else.
Mr Arkush said it was the first real opportunity for supporters of brit milah to voice their arguments in a public forum in Iceland. He was accompanied in Reykjavik by Rabbi Moshe Lewin, vice-president of the Conference of European Rabbis; Yaron Nadbornik, president of the Council of Jewish Congregations in Finland, and also representing the Nordic Jewish Communities’ Council of Presidents; Sweden’s Rabbi Ute Steyer, and the chief rabbi of Denmark, Yair Melchior. A number of Muslim clerics and medical specialists also attended.
Outside the framework of the conference, Mr Arkush met the chair of the Judicial Affairs and Education Committee, Pall Magnusson, and said he found him both “open-minded and receptive”. He also had a meeting with the Icelandic prime minister’s foreign policy adviser, a meeting secured by Britain’s ambassador to Iceland, Michael Nevin. “I was able to set out the arguments in favour of brit milah”, Mr Arkush said, adding that his clear impression was that the Icelandic government had been taken aback by the international adverse publicity in response to the proposed ban on male circumcision.
Iceland’s Jewish community is minuscule, only around 30 people, with no synagogue, and it is understood that only 10 circumcisions have been performed in the last 15 years. However, Chabad has decided to send an emissary to Iceland, a rabbi from New York. “He came to Reykjavik at Pesach and held a seder with 200 people”, Mr Arkush said, “but quite a lot were local Icelanders. The Jewish community itself has welcomed help from abroad”.
Mr Arkush said he was “tentatively optimistic” that the government understood the arguments in favour of brit milah more clearly.