The San Francisco circumcision ban

You’ve probably heard about it even if you live far from the Bay Area. It’s been a subject du jour for the New York Times, Glenn Beck and the Huffington Post, which pretty much covers the bases of modern America media. I’m talking about the initiative on the San Francisco ballot this coming November that would ban circumcisions of boys under age 18, with penalties of up to $1,000 and a year in jail.

An anti-circumcision comic book featuring "Foreskin Man"

When I was visiting my dad in New York recently, he asked how a city with such a history of open-mindedness and tolerance could ban something that is a standard medical procedure and a basic tenet of one of the world’s leading religions.

Well, first of all — San Francisco hasn’t banned anything yet. This is just a ballot initiative. I strongly suspect (hope!) voters will send it down in flames.

And second of all — San Francisco is tolerant but also left-wing. And while those characteristics often go hand in hand, sometimes they don’t.

There are certain issues where people veer so far left that they form a circle and end up in the same place as the right. Take the anti-vaccination movement. Driven by a reflexive fear of chemicals, scores of college-educated, eco-conscious moms ignore the medical literature and refuse to vaccinate their babies against deadly diseases like polio. Is this so different from the right-wingers who oppose fluoridated water as a Communist plot?

Now with circumcision, we have left-wing activists who see male circumcision as a human rights violation and a repressive attack on men’s sexual freedom and fulfillment.

Like the anti-vaccination activists, they have no solid scientific evidence to back up their claims — just emotion, personal opinion, and the echo chamber of the Internet. (Try a Google search for “circumcision,” and the top dozen or so sites will all be from anti-circumcision groups.)

And in their over-heated rhetoric — such as a recent comic book featuring a muscular, blonde “Foreskin Man” battling black-hatted Orthodox Jews — these left-leaning activists end up forming a circle with the worst right-wing anti-Semites.

Monster Mohel trading card by anti-circumcision activists -- classic anti-Semitic imagery

I mean — look at this image and language from an anti-circumcision trading card! “Nothing excites Monster Mohel more than cutting into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy.”  It’s hard to see this as anything but a 21st century version of the old European blood libel, where Jewish communities were slaughtered based on accusations of ritual murder of Christian infants.

But let’s step back from the overwrought rhetoric and imagery for a moment to talk about circumcision itself.

I’m admittedly ambivalent about it as a ritual. I remember the moment I first really thought about it. I was in Israel at age 18, visiting the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, which featured exhibits based on the phases of the Jewish life cycle. There, just beyond the entrance to the museum, was the exhibit on brit mila.

The opening display in a museum about world Judaism.  The first ritual in a male child’s life. The key commandment underlying God’s covenant with Abraham — preceding the Ten Commandments, preceding any laws of kashrut or sacrifice or even Shabbat. The biggest symbol of the connection between Jews as a people and God.

And it involved cutting men’s genitals!

This struck me as unbelievably Freudian. Unbelievably primitive. And of course sexist — building a religion around an act that is limited to men. Couldn’t we have come up with anything more subtle, more metaphorical, less patriarchal?

And I suspect that almost every Jewish woman has flinched when it’s time for her son’s bris. Who can bear to see their beautiful, fragile baby face any sort of pain, let alone intentionally cutting some part of them? My mother-in-law tells me that she almost fainted at Sam’s bris.

If Becca had been a boy, I wouldn’t have fainted but I might have looked away. I might have had the circumcision done in the hospital rather than at a home ceremony.

But I would have had it done.

It is such a fundamental tenet of Judaism. Every Jewish man I’ve known has been circumcised. Even Reform Judaism — which has felt free to abandon kashrut and tefillin, which smiles on driving to services on Shabbat, which marries gay couples and ordains women — even Reform Judaism doesn’t challenge the brit mila.

This is perhaps the only commandment that Reform Jews accept without rationalization, without historical or ethical explanations: We do it because our God/our faith/our tradition tells us to do it.

It would be different if circumcision were unhealthy — if science had discovered that circumcision promoted cancer or if, like female genital mutilation, it left people with permanent pain and dysfunction. But medical studies show that circumcision in fact helps prevent the spread of AIDS, syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases; reduces urinary tract infections; virtually eliminates invasive penile cancer; and  may possibly lower the risk of vaginal infections among female partners.

And while some anti-circumcision activists say the procedure scarred them emotionally or sexually, those are just a handful of personal anecdotes. I feel sorry for whatever emotional pain they are in, but who knows what in fact caused it? I can marshall anecdotes too. Of all the circumcised men I’ve slept with, I’ve never noticed any — um, how to put this delicately? — deficit when it comes to sexual pleasure or performance. But those are admittedly just my anecdotes against someone else’s anecdotes. On a scientific level, there is no evidence that male circumcision impedes sexual pleasure or creates any health risk. 

So what this comes down to is some people’s personal aversion to the concept of circumcision — and their attempt to impose that on everyone else through legislation.

I have no beef with parents who choose not to have their sons circumcised. That’s their decision, and I can understand the reasons behind it even if I don’t agree. Nor do I have a problem with people writing books or putting up Web sites presenting their arguments against circumcision.

But pushing for a law to ban other people from carrying out circumcisions? Making it a crime to carry out a procedure that is a key tenet of one religion (Judaism), a common practice in another (Islam), and has documented health benefits?

And then to promote that law through vicious anti-Semitic images and language?

Okay, I’ll stop ranting. Except for one more minor point. Think of all the truly serious problems in our world today. Poverty and hunger in the Third World. Climate change. Imprisonment of dissidents in China. Drug gangs that run entire cities in Mexico. Drug gangs that seem to be the only avenue of employment in many U.S. neighborhoods. Refugees, dictators, sex trafficking, terrorism, vanishing species, vanishing habitats, AIDS and cancer and malaria and diabetes…

And these people are spending time and money to make circumcision a crime?

One bright note: Confronted with charges of anti-Semitism, the supporters of a similar ban in Santa Monica called off their campaign earlier this month.

And here in the Bay Area, the anti-circumcision initiative has sparked a united opposition of Jews and Muslims and Christians, civil libertarians and doctors and religious leaders.

If only we didn’t need something so stupid to bring us all together.


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11 Responses to “The San Francisco circumcision ban”

  1. Judy Pace Says:

    Researchers studying AIDS in Africa have found that male circumcision lowers the risk of getting AIDS (through sex with women), but the naysayers claim this finding is a myth. This has been a huge problem, in Africa related to anti-Muslim sentiment.

  2. susie m Says:

    Thanks for this, Ilana. Very well put.

    I find the anti-circumcision initiative reminiscent of the abortion debate. My standard response to anti-abortion-ists is: “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one.” I’d have the same response with this.

    As the mom of three circumcised Jewish boys, I’d have to say going through it each time made me pause. I mean, we don’t celebrate Shabbat every week. We don’t follow many of the dictates of the Torah. Why did we follow this one? Finally, it came down to tradition, and a tradition our children would be loathe to undertake at an older age when they might “choose” to commit to it. Also, we had Chanan Feld z”l, the best and most wonderful mohel in the Bay Area, perform the ritual for us each time. They were blessed occasions for our family.

  3. Kim Rossi Stagliano Says:

    Hi, as Mom to vaccine injured children, I take umbrage with your cursory dismissal of us as “anti-vaccine”. I agree with you 100% that the circumcision “law” in SF is absurd. I believe in parental rights and informed consent in making health care decisions for pediatric health and safety.

    There is no ant-vaccine movement – just vaccine safety. The term Anti-vaccine is like calling pro-choice voters “pro-abortion” as a way to denigrate them. We have religious, medical and philosophical exemptions across the country for a reason. Here are over 900 stories of vax injury –

    To compare an elective surgery like circumcision to a legally/school mandated medical procedure required some 48 times before 1ast grade is a stretch.

    I hope the SF law disappears – it is frightening to know that someone whose beliefs or experiences are different from your own can take away your rights to care for your kids – isn’t it?

    Yours in health – thanks.

    Kim Stagliano
    Writer, HuffPo blogger, advocate

  4. Jim Says:

    Interesting how you liken “some” leftwing zealots to right-wingers – citing anti-Semitism as an example. My dear, MOST anti-Semitism in the world today is from the left. And in this country, the people who want to control us the most are from the left, and so they try to legislate how much salt can be in my food, and how much trans fat, and whether I have to have a helmet, and an air bag, and a seatbelt, and whether I can use plastic bags to carry my groceries up the stairs, and whether and where I can smoke, and what kind of light bulbs I can have, and how much water can flow through my toilets, and whether I can have a woodburning fire place, and on and on, not to mention all of the speech codes adopted by college campuses, I.e. Left wing censorship wake up!

  5. A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision Says:

    There is a movement of Jews who are questioning circumcision, and working to end this abuse of children. The movement ranges from the Orthodox to the secular, and includes mothers, fathers, scholars, historians, medical professionals, activists, and intellectuals.

    * Jews Against Circumcision
    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 1

    * The Current Judaic Movement to End Circumcision: Part 2

    * Jews Speak Out in Favor of Banning Circumcision on Minors

    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Thanks for sharing these resources! I don’t agree with your view that circumcision is child abuse, but I encourage people to think about this and make decisions for themselves — rather than having the government ban it.

  6. A Jewish Male Opposing Circumcision Says:

    The point is that there are many different Jews who question circumcision from different points of view. Most Jews opposed to circumcision are not in favor of laws banning it, but a few are, such as this new group Jews for the Rights of the Child.

    Some Jews feel the time has come for a symbolic bris without surgery.

    Jewish Groups for Genital Integrity
    * Jews Against Circumcision
    * Jews for the Rights of the Child
    * Brit Shalom Celebrants by Mark D. Reiss, M.D.
    * Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective by Ron Goldman, Ph.D.
    * Beyond the Bris: Jewish Parenting Blog

  7. A Jewish Male Says:

    For your information Reform Judaism does not officially require circumcision, nor does Humanistic Judaism. Elements in the Reform movement have sought to cease circumcision for close to 200 years! See Len Glick’s book Marked In Our Flesh to read about Reform Rabbis in Europe who sought to eliminate the cut over 100 years ago.

    In light of the San Francisco circumcision referendum being removed from the ballot, a new Jewish intactivist group has formed. More radical than before, this group believes that circumcision surgery should be made against the law.

    There are currently two Jewish intactivist groups calling for circumcision to be criminalized.
    In Israel –
    In America –

    Is this a good turn of events? Is this the best way for this issue to turn out?

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