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Jewish Circumcision Critics Integral in National Circumcision Debate

This spring and summer Jewish circumcision opponents made important contributions to the ongoing debate generated by the San Francisco circumcision ban initiative. The following is a wrap-up of the recent public dialogue that has taken place as a result of an active and vocal community of Jewish circumcision detractors.

April 25: A story in The Jerusalem Report, entitled “Challenging the Circumcision Myth: A Movement to Challenge or at Least Question Circumcision Includes Many Jews” notes that many “leading activists against circumcision around the country are Jewish,” including Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., Miriam Pollack, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon, Laurie Evans and Mark Reiss, M.D., and author Lisa Braver-Moss.

May 5: J., the Jewish news weekly of Northern California, runs a story entitled “Both Sides of the Debate: Two Jewish Doctors Offer Opinions on Circumcision.” The circumcision opponent, the well-respected practical medical advice guru Dean Edell, M.D., is quoted as saying: “I think it’s an unnecessary operation...Infant girls have many times more [urinary tract infections]. You don’t alter a child’s genitals.”

May 6: Jewish filmmaker Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon publishes an editorial in The Jewish Daily Forward “Outlawing Circumcision: Good for the Jews?” in which he concludes: “one of the state’s primary responsibilities is to protect its citizens. And by allowing parents to permanently alter the bodies of their children, the state is failing to protect its most vulnerable citizens from bodily harm. It seems reasonable to draw a legal line when it comes to body modifications that have life-long consequences.”

May 31: Sexis Magazine publishes “The Circumcision Ban: Is Circumcision an Assault on Human Rights or Religious Rites?” I’m quoted here as saying: “I would like to see the decision to leave one’s child intact be fully accepted as a valid Jewish choice. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion... Jewish circumcision leaves an indelible, lifelong scar — which violates a right to live free from religion. If we, as a people, continue to define ourselves by a superficial scar on the male sex organ then Judaism is in great jeopardy.”

June 2 & 6: The Jewish Reporter publishes my opinion piece “Questioning Circumcision.” Thereafter I’m quoted in The South Florida Jewish Journal in an article of the same title: “I am a typical Jewish mom. Still, the idea of circumcision never sat well with me... It wasn't until I learned I was pregnant with a boy that I began to fully explore this issue. Once I took the time to really learn about the anatomy of the natural penis, and the biologic and sexual function of the foreskin, it clicked for me that circumcision wasn't just the removal of excess skin.”

June 8: Francis Kissling, a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, shows that discussions on the ethics of Jewish circumcision need not be confined to Jewish people to be worthy of consideration. On her Washington Post blog “On Faith,” Kissling writes the post “Circumcision and Change,” where she asks: “Why only a ritual for men and focused on genitalia to symbolize the covenant between God and the Jewish people? Are girl infants not part of that covenant? Why focus on male virility as the important element in the continuation of the Jewish people? Is not woman’s gestation capacity along with her contribution of the ova much more significant to the survival of the Jewish people than the mere contribution of sperm that comes from the man?” Kissling is Catholic and pro-life, showing that opposition to circumcision is not confined to any particular religious or political group.

June 14: Neil Howard and Rebecca Steinfeld, a young Jewish leader in the UK, publish an article for the UK Guardian, entitled "Time to ban male circumcision?" in support of the San Francisco circumcision ban initiative. Howard and Steinfeld stress that religious freedom does not trump the right to bodily integrity. On the medical benefits of performing circumcision, the authors ask: "If we favour removal of body parts to reduce risk of disease, why not remove breasts to prevent breast cancer?"  While Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights outlaws the kinds of harm that circumcision causes, Article 14 "forbids the discrimination that prevents baby boys from enjoying the same protection of their genitalia as baby girls." Howard and Steinfeld end their piece with a call to oppose all forms of genital mutilation, female and male.
Steinfeld's anti-circumcision stance leads to her swift removal as a board member at her family's modern Orthodox synagogue in West London. On July 4, Steinfeld publishes a comment "We Should Be Free to Debate" in The Jewish Chronicle addressing her termination and the surrounding controversy.

June 21: The Jewish Journal of Greater L.A. publishes a cover story “The Great California Foreskin Fight of 2011" which mentions Jewish circumcision opponents. Also that day, Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., executive director of the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center, convenes a Statement Task Force of several longtime Jewish people opposed to circumcision and issues a joint message to Jewish Americans which asks: “Has removal of infant foreskins really promoted commitment to Jewish identity in America? Are there not other less problematic and potentially much more effective approaches to ensuring that our children, male and female, will grow up to become proud contributing participants in Jewish life in America?” The group includes, among others, historian Leonard B. Glick, M.D., Ph.D. and pediatrician Paul Fleiss, M.D.

June 22: The Jewish Journal of Greater L.A. mentions the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center’s joint statement in “Coalition sues to keep circumcision ban off S.F. Ballot.” This article also includes an interview with Ronald Goldman, Ph.D., who asks: “The issue becomes should we have a law, or what should be done to stop a law... Where’s the discussion of the harm circumcision causes?”

June 27: Tikkun Magazine publishes a scholarly article by longtime Jewish circumcision opponent Miriam Pollack, “Circumcision: Identity, Gender and Power.” This article analyzes the practice of circumcision, going through its many aspects: social, political, religious, ethnical, sexual, tribal, and interpersonal. Pollack notes circumcision is “the weapon that not only destroys a boy's foreskin but also deftly excises maternal authority over the ultimate well-being of her child.” Pollack goes on to state that circumcision is a means to wrest the male child from matriarchal protection to patriarchal domination. Circumcision, she proclaims, is “the essence of patriarchy.” On circumcision being the defining characteristic of Jewishness, Pollack exposes the inherent sexism in this definition, for Jewishness is matriarchal. Pollack ends her piece by calling for an end to the ritual of circumcision, and calling on Jews to instead opt for the practice of brit b'lee milah, a “covenant without circumcision.”

June 28: Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz laments “circumcision is a marketing nightmare; outside of a deep commitment to Judaism, based on a biblical command, there’s no good reason to do it,” in The Jewish Week opinion article “Circumcision is Out of Vogue: An Orthodox Rabbi Agrees.

June 30: Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon publishes an interview with Matthew Hess, the creator of Foreskin Man, on the blog “Jew School” which is dedicated to progressive Jewish views on religion, politics and culture. Ungar-Sargon asks Hess the questions many Jewish people have been hoping to have answered about the controversial comic. When asked for his opinion of what the longstanding ritual of circumcision says of the Jewish people, Hess responds: “I don’t think it means there is something wrong with Jews in general. But I do think there is something not right when a person who is given all the facts refuses to acknowledge that forced circumcision is a serious human rights violation.”

July 1: “Beyond the Bris” runs an exclusive video interview with Jason Paige, the current lead singer of the rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears, where he discusses his botched bris and his desire for legislation outlawing circumcision. Paige expresses his satisfaction that the proposed ban on circumcision “has already spread awareness of this human rights crime to other states and hopefully will lead people everywhere to be more compassionate, thoughtful and rational not only towards their own fragile newborn children but to other fellow men and women as well.” His mother also speaks on camera about why she now regrets having her son circumcised.

July 5: Religion News Stories runs a feature story, “Jewish foes of circumcision sit out attempts to ban it,” which examines the reasons some leading Jewish circumcision opponents do not stand behind the San Francisco bill to ban circumcision. The story fails to provide the perspective that some Jewish people opposed to circumcision do support a ban. Ron Goldman, Ph.D., and I were quoted in this article, which focused on our dismay at the anti-Semitism charges and the strong need for education on this issue.