This essay originally appeared in The Times of Israel, July 3, 2012.
Is it too fanciful to imagine that Germany might wait, say, a thousand years, the length of an eponymously termedTausendjähriges Reich, before any governmental body in that country could feel sufficiently conscientiously liberated as to actually restrict a Jewish religious rite, i.e. circumscribe circumcision?
Is it too suspicious to note the general climate in which this German court ban was enacted? As both old and new anti-Semitisms swell, too often cloaked in critiques of Israeli policy, passions seem to be waxing against circumcision. How coincidental. Last year in the United States, there was for a time a growing campaign to enact anti-circumcision measures on the municipal level. Was it too perfect an example that the man behind the San Francisco and other ballot proposals, Matthew Hess, was revealed to be the creator, also, of the vilely anti-Semitic comic book Foreskin Man? There it is nonetheless.
Is it unreasonable to wonder about the political stance of many who now so vociferously oppose circumcision toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and from whence their passions regarding circumcision arise? For people’s feelings on the subject are part of this debate, and the presence and sources of those feelings are not to be ignored. If a person who has never before been especially politically engaged begins, it comes to pass, aggressively to campaign against illegal immigration, even to engage in vigilante patrol of the borders, others have a right to wonder about the origins – beyond simply whatever ideas are articulated – of that particular zeal. If an individual who never once raised the prospect of boycotting Russia because of its war in Chechnya, now considers economic ostracism of Israel to be the moral issue of our times, that moral ardor, too, needs to be questioned. People are answerable for their passions – not just their ideas, which they must defend intellectually, but their passions, for which they are accountable as people.
There are reasonable, which is not to say necessarily persuasive, arguments against childhood circumcision. There are reasonable arguments for the practice. But what drives the emotions involved for so many? Began Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest’s Via Meadia blog, in one of his recent posts on the subject,
Anyone skimming through the comments to my posts on the German court ruling outlawing the circumcision of (male) children, and therefore the practice of Judaism as it has been understood by Jewish parents for thousands of years as well as the practice of Islam, can see what passions this subject stirs up.
One passion seems to be over the notion of childhood bodily autonomy. This is a concept easily, though not properly dismissed. Still, we know that parents exercise out of necessity countless interdictions of a child’s autonomy, of even the bodily kind. Circumcision, it is to be acknowledged, is a permanent alteration of the body, but in all the furor among circumcision opponents over this violation of autonomy, it is rarely if ever observed that the human consequence of this parental decisionmaking in guardianship – how the children ultimately feel about the choice their parents made for them – does not escape us, as a mere theoretical. We can actually know.
As a circumcised Jew, I have an emotional stake in personal identity, aesthetic familiarity, and physical comfort in the matter. Few ardent public opponents of childhood circumcision offer a similar countervailing acknowledgement, beyond those who claim a physical or mental trauma, but one need only search a short time to discover how deeply emotionally – and antagonistically – invested so many anti-circumcision activists are. Yet, like many passions, the unacknowledged character of this one tends to reveal itself nonetheless.
Perhaps the most complete and revealing distortion of the issue is in the terminology employed by some circumcision opponents. Among those who responded with passion to Mead’s postings, was The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan has long been an outspoken opponent of circumcision. While some opponents have characterized circumcision as criminal assault and many label it “grievous bodily harm,” Sullivan has for years referred to circumcision as male genital mutilation (MGM).
Consider that the act referred to as female genital mutilation is performed with the focused intention of destroying the proper functioning of female sexual organs, to rob women subjected to it of sexual pleasure, and of the freedom and personal autonomy that comes with sexual pleasure. It is an act of domination and control representative of the most fundamental form of patriarchal subjugation of women. Whatever anyone’s opinion of the efficacy and wisdom of male circumcision, or of the violation childhood circumcision may be of the highly arguable personal autonomy of an infant, male circumcision is neither intended to have, nor has, any such or similar effects on the lives of the men on whom it is performed. To frame the circumcision procedure commonly performed on men in parallel terms to the procedure that, outside of some areas of the world, for very obvious moral reasons, is rarely if ever performed on women, is inappropriate in every way. It is both prejudicial to any kind of reasoned intellectual discussion of the issue and suggestive of an intensely emotional personal prejudice in the matter. It is, on its face, completely dishonest. Yet Sullivan has long persisted in using this term, even including it in the title of the blog post in which he first responded to Mead, and proceeding in the course of the short post to use some form of “mutilate” five more times.
Is it mere coincidence that Sullivan aggressively employs this offensive terminology, likening an essential Jewish religious practice to a barbarism, while at the same time in recent years maintaining similarly offensive criticisms of Israel and assertively disdaining warnings about the anti-Semitic alliances his new conceptions and current vocabulary invoke?
There may be an honest medical, cultural, and philosophical debate to be had on the subject of circumcision, but few if any public opponents of the practice, as reflected in the inflammatory and distorted language they use to discuss it, are engaged in that honest debate. Andrew Sullivan, for one, has clearly disqualified himself as a genuine participant in the discussion. And Germany is far from having requalified as the proper venue.
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