No to a ‘brit mila’ ban

The rights of San Francisco’s Jews should be carefully safeguarded against anti-religious fanatics with a distorted conception of human rights.

circumcision brit mila 311 R (photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
circumcision brit mila 311 R
(photo credit: Gil Cohen Magen / Reuters)
San Francisco, California, that bastion of progressive thought, has become a case study of what happens when a radical interpretation of human rights combined with hatred of tradition can blind better moral judgment.
In November, citizens of the US’s 13th most populous city will go to the ballots to vote on a measure that, if passed, would make circumcision – brit mila in Hebrew – a misdemeanor. Anyone convicted of circumcising a boy under the age of 18 could be fined up to $1,000 or sentenced to a year in prison, effectively outlawing the biblical commandment, adhered to by Jews, to circumcise baby boys at the age of eight days.
“Intactivists,” crusaders obsessed with keeping foreskins intact, managed to muster 7,700 valid signatures from San Francisco’s residents, well over the 7,168 signature minimum needed to qualify for the ballot. This will be the first time that such legislation will come up for vote in America.
“Intactivists” might sound like a fringe group hopelessly unable to convince reasonable San Franciscans to ban a practice as ancient as the Jewish people, but a campaign of lies might yet succeed in duping the uninformed. In a disingenuous attempt to conflate circumcision with the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation – rightly prohibited in the US – promoters of the initiative call it the “MGM” or “male genital mutilation” bill.
“Males need protection as females do,” The Economist quoted activist Lloyd Schofield as declaring, without questioning his comparison and while helping to strengthen it by referring to female genital mutilation by the innocuous term “female circumcision.”
In public debates, prominent journalist and intellectual Christopher Hitchens has also equated brit mila with female genital mutilation. In his best-selling book God is Not Great, Hitchens, referring to circumcision, writes, “If religion and its arrogance were not involved, no healthy society would permit this primitive amputation, or allow any surgery to be practiced on the genitalia without the full and informed consent of the person concerned.”
Though the distinction between slicing a woman’s clitoris and the removal of a baby’s foreskin should be obvious to all not blinded by irrational hatred for religion, we quote from the World Health Organization’s 2008 report on female genital mutilation. The practice, states the report, “is known to be harmful to girls and women in many ways.” It is painful and traumatic, it makes childbearing “significantly” more risky and it leads to higher rates of post-partum hemorrhaging and infant death.
In contrast, Laurence Baskin, chief of pediatric urology at the University of California, San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital, told AP that while he was neither for nor against circumcision, claims that it constituted mutilation or caused significant pain when performed properly were false. He also cited published research indicating that circumcision can reduce the incidence of AIDS among heterosexual males, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases, penile cancer and urinary tract infections.
And though it might be difficult to obtain quantitative proof, many circumcised men would beg to differ with the claim first put forward by the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides and later conveniently taken up by Hitchens and other brit mila bashers that the pleasures of sex are in any way diminished with the removal of the foreskin.
Opposition to brit mila dates back to ancient times.
Romans, normally tolerant occupiers, were particularly hostile to the practice before and after the destruction of the Second Temple. Tineius Rufus, governor of Judea, took vigorous, cruel measures to enforce the ban, which historians say probably sparked Jewish rebellions against the Roman conquest, including the failed Bar Kochba revolt.
Defacing the male sexual organ was seen by the pagan Romans as an attack on the Hellenistic adoration of nature, considered perfect and a reflection the will of the gods.
Perhaps a similar pagan sensibility in the Bay Area provides inspiration for the proposed circumcision ban. As The Economist pointed out, “The culture of the San Francisco Bay Area often exalts anything natural, from birthing to eating. So it is no coincidence that Marilyn Milos, a former nurse who has been called ‘the mother of the American genital-integrity movement,’ is based in Marin County, just north of San Francisco.”
By marking his most impulsive organ, man makes the unequivocal statement that he is not an animal governed by the laws of nature. Rather, man is a creation whose horizon of aspirations lies far beyond the satisfaction of his natural impulses. The right of San Francisco’s Jews to pass on this religious message to their children, in a practice that experts say does not cause undue pain, has not been proved to dull sexual enjoyment and which might have medical benefits, should be carefully safeguarded against anti-religious fanatics with a distorted conception of human rights.