Jackson Doughart
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Are opponents of circumcision Anti-Semitic?

The Holy Post, 15 June 2011

The movement to ban male circumcision in San Francisco has been dealt a critical blow after the recent publication of controversial cartoons about the practice. The online comic strip depicts a white-skinned and blond-haired super hero who rescues children from the antagonist Monster Mohel, a Jewish circumciser who is portrayed as a caricature of a stereotypical Orthodox Jew. On June 3, the Anti-Defamation League condemned the cartoons for containing “grotesque anti-Semitic imagery and themes.”

Matthew Hess, the illustrator of the cartoons, has denied any Judeophobia, claiming that the cartoons accurately describe the brit milah, the religious ceremony in which an eight-day-old boy is circumcised. In response to outcry from Jewish groups, the San Francisco anti-circumcision campaign has distanced itself from Hess, who authored the November ballot measure to ban all medically-unnecessary circumcisions in the city. Additionally, a similar proposal to put the legality of circumcision on the Santa Monica ballot has been withdrawn due to the incident.

Evidently, opponents of the bill are using the cartoons as an opportunity to advance two points which are critical to their defence of the practice. First, it allows them to frame the debate over circumcision as religious in nature, and thus within the purview of protections for religious freedom. Second, they claim that the cartoons prove what they have been saying all along — that the intactivism movement is not about the protection of children but rather a disguised attempt to advance hatred of Jewish people and to restrict their ability to practice Judaism.

The central premise of the intactivist persuasion is the desire to protect each child’s right to choose his own circumcision status when he is old enough to do so. The fact that intactivists also want to extend such protection to the children of Jewish or Muslim parents does not entail religious or antireligious motivations, but rather areligious ones. The goal is to apply the same restrictions on everyone, irrespective of faith, based on shared ethical terms. Incidentally, true anti-Semitic motivations would lead intactivists to treat Jewish people differently than the rest of the population by making an exception in their case, which is exactly the sort of attitude that forms the basis of discrimination.

If there is any religious issue to be resolved within the debate on circumcision, it is a subsidiary of the already-established problem: a conflict of liberty between parents and their children. It should be noted that an atheist or Christian’s desire to circumcise his or her children may be equally strong as that of a Muslim or Jew, even without theological encouragement. The need to protect the right of the child in both cases is equal, as the child’s input is nil, irrespective of motivation. The irreversibility of circumcision and the ability to perform the operation in adulthood provide even more justification for allowing Jewish and Muslim males to make their own decision about conforming to the circumcision requirement of their parents’ religion.

Furthermore, the notion that intactivism is intrinsically anti-Semitic is ridiculous. If anything, the movement has generally avoided criticizing the religious justifications for circumcision and has instead focused on eliminating cultural circumcision. This strategy suggests that intactivists are not racially or religiously motivated, as far more attention is paid to the non-religious and to Christians, who significantly out-circumcise Jews in North America.

However, as the objections to the zero-tolerance policy of the proposed measure demonstrate, we are oriented to avoid ethical examination of practices which are associated with religion, which has allowed both the Jewish brit milah and Islamic Khitan to go unchecked for so long. Thankfully, cultural circumcision is a practice which, unlike the religious rite, is deemed socially acceptable to criticize. Instead of shying away from the ethical questions raised by religious circumcision, we should fully engage them as we would for any moral issue.

Opponents of circumcision are frequently slandered as perverted individuals who take some sort of twisted pleasure in discussing the matter. For example, the Virginian Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel accused the supporters of the San Francisco initiative of being “obsessed with foreskin” in a response to the cartoon publication. Also, The Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente referred to intactivists as “batty” and to their arguments as “hysterical” in her June 7 article “The big flap over foreskins.” But the intentional and ritual mutilation of the genitals of children is nothing about which to be relativistic. If one’s level of perversion is a legitimate ground for criticism, it is surely those who participate in and apologize for the barbaric practice of removing perfectly healthy skin from non-consenting children who have much on their conscience.

While Mr. Hess’s cartoons were doubtless drawn to legitimately illustrate the immoral nature of circumcision, they were in poor taste and have only served to strengthen the opposition to intactivism on grounds that have nothing to do with the ethical question at hand. It is necessary that those who are considering this issue for themselves do not fall into the trap of opportunistic scare tactics, which one can expect to be regularly employed by the opponents of intactivism as the debate over circumcision and genital integrity continues to intensify. The circumcision debate is not about religious liberty for parents, but rather the right of individuals to decide if elective surgeries will be performed upon them, which is a freedom certainly worthy of protection.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com