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Knives are out in Israeli row over corpses

IN ONE of the more macabre issues dividing religious and secular Jews in Israel, a dispute has arisen over the circumcision of Jewish corpses.

Strictly observant Jews will not permit tampering with the bodies of the deceased. The ultra-Orthodox forbid autopsies and the transplant of organs from the dead. But rabbis generally agree that removal of the foreskin may be performed even on a corpse - preferably with the permission of the family.

The matter came to light following revelations about practices in Haifa in the authoritative daily Ha'aretz. The paper reported that a number of corpses of recently arrived Soviet Jews had been circumcised.

Jews in the former Soviet Union were rarely able to fulfil Jewish ritual practices such as circumcision - normally carried out on the eighth day after birth to symbolise the covenant between God and the Jewish people - for fear of persecution. Ninety per cent of recent Russian male immigrants are uncircumcised and are under pressure to prove their 'Jewishness' by going under the knife. But many have declined - not least, because of the pain.

Under Jewish law - Halacha - all Jews must be circumcised or, after death, 'their soul will not enter the garden of Eden', as a former chief rabbi, Mordechai Elliahu, put it yesterday. 'We only want to assure the corpse has no cause for shame at the time of his death. Even the British Royal family carries out circumcision . . . '

As increasing numbers of new Russian immigrants die in Israel the question of whether to circumcise the corpse has become urgent. The job has been carried out by religious Jews charged with the ritual preparation of bodies for burial, according to a reporter from Ha'aretz, Yossi Barmucha, citing sources at the Haifa burial society and the Religious Affairs Ministry.

His report has caused uproar. Ran Cohen, a member of parliament for the left-wing secular party Meretz has called for an inquiry by the Attorney-General. 'It is a filthy practice. I am utterly ashamed that anyone in my country has done this kind of thing. It is against human rights. It is against the dignity of the dead person. It is an insult to the new immigrants from the former Soviet Union,' he said.

But Rabbi Shlomo Goren, also a former chief rabbi, attacked Mr Cohen as a 'leftist' and a 'spy'.