Jewish foes of circumcision sit out attempts to ban it

July 5, 2011

(RNS) Though national and local Jewish groups have strongly condemned
San Francisco's proposed ban on infant circumcision, a small but vocal
movement of Jews is trying to convince more of their own to abandon the
practice.

What they won't do, however, is join the San Francisco push to
outlaw the practice in their pursuit of a circumcision-free world.

"It was a big mistake," said Dr. Mark Reiss, executive vice
president of Doctors Opposing Circumcision and an active member of his
San Francisco synagogue. "We are experiencing a tremendous backlash from
the Jewish community."

Reiss said the coercive nature of the measure, which is slated to go
before San Francisco voters on Nov. 8, recalls for many Jews the history
of Jewish suffering as a religious minority. "They feel threatened," he
said.

Major Jewish denominations consider circumcision a religious
obligation that welcomes a Jewish baby boy into the covenant between God
and the Jewish people. The vast majority of Jewish men are circumcised,
as are about 80 percent of all American men, one of the highest rates in
the developed world.

But Ronald Goldman, a Massachusetts psychologist who founded the
Jewish Circumcision Resource Center in 1995, said that more than ever,
Jews are open to the idea that circumcision is not mandatory.

"This is an act that inflicts pain and trauma," he said. "No longer
are we hiding all the emotional, intellectual and ethical conflicts
connected with circumcision in the Jewish community."

Still, Goldman, too, finds the San Francisco proposal problematic.
"This is so much more complicated than a legal question," he said.

"We can't control what other people do."

Education, he said, is the best way to help Jews who are bothered by
circumcision to consider an alternative for their sons -- a ceremony
that welcomes a Jewish baby boy into the community without cutting his
foreskin.

Major Jewish groups including the Anti-Defamation League and the
Union for Reform Judaism have condemned the proposed ban as a violation
of the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.

A group of Jews and Muslims, who also consider circumcision a
religious obligation, recently filed a joint lawsuit to remove the
question from the ballot.

"It's a primary commandment," said Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, director
of a Los Angeles-based program to train Jews to perform what in Hebrew
is called "brit milah," or the covenant of circumcision. She also took
issue with opponents' claims that the practice is cruel.

"There is no evidence of significant pain," said Adler. She called
the complication rate "miniscule."

Recent trends, noted by the Centers for Disease Control, show waning
circumcision rates in the United States. Advocates for the practice cite
health benefits, including decreased incidents of penile cancer and
sexually transmitted infections. Opponents dispute the health benefits,
however, and say risks include infection, psychological trauma and
decreased sexual sensitivity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that while some studies
have shown some medical benefits to circumcision, they are not
sufficient for the group to recommend it. Instead, it calls on parents
to decide.

Under the San Francisco proposal, anyone who performs a circumcision
on a male less than 18 would be subject to a $1,000 fine, a year in jail
or both.

Further fomenting the debate, especially for Jewish Americans, is a
series of cartoons, widely available on the Internet, that depict
"Foreskin Man," a superhero who saves infants from the claws of the
bloody "Monster Mohel." (A mohel is a person trained to perform a Jewish
ritual circumcision.)

The comic was created by Matthew Hess, a San Diego activist who
seeks local and national laws to outlaw circumcision. Opponents of the
proposed ban have likened it to Nazi cartoons that vilified Jewish
religious practices.

Hess, whose initial villain in "Foreskin Man" was a doctor, not a
mohel, said the depiction of the mohel is no more anti-Semitic than the
first issues were anti-doctor.

"It's true that all the villains in `Foreskin Man' are drawn to look
evil," Hess said. "`Foreskin Man' is anti-genital mutilation of
children, not anti-Semitic."

Rebecca Wald has noted the offense many Jews have taken to the San
Francisco proposal, and their feelings that anti-Semitism may be
motivating some of its proponents.

A self-described "typical Jewish mother" from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.,
Wald last year launched "Beyond the Bris," an online forum for Jews
opposed to circumcision. ("Bris" is a Yiddish word for the Jewish
circumcision ceremony.)

"When I first heard about the San Francisco proposal, I was excited
because I knew this would get people thinking and talking about infant
circumcision," she said.

But the political firestorm surrounding the measure led Wald to
question whether it is hurting or helping her efforts to encourage
Jewish people to rethink newborn circumcision.

"My fear is that the San Francisco initiative will turn otherwise
receptive people off," she said.

"People are going to be much less willing to explore the idea in an
open and honest way if they feel their decision-making capabilities are
being taken away from them."