Last week a Times journalist admitted that she finds the practice of male circumcision to be “abusive and barbaric”. What gave this revelation an additional charge was the fact that it came in an article about antisemitism, writes Glen Poole.
Deborah Ross is a secular, cultural Jew who has experienced anti-Semitism herself and says it is in the Jewish character to be “poised for and fearful of anti-Semitic repercussions”. At the same time, she freely admits she didn’t circumcise her son because she finds the practice abusive.
Does this mean Ross is secretly antisemitic herself?
In some people’s eyes if you hold the belief that taking a knife to the foreskin of an eight-day-old baby boy without anaesthetic is barbaric, then you are antisemitic. According to the European Jewish Congress President, Moshe Kantore, for example, those who want to ban unnecessary male circumcision in Europe are “sending out a terrible message to European Jews that our practices, and therefore our very presence on this continent, is treated with disdain.”
Benjamin Albalas, President of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece also believes that trying to end the practice “is a sign of anti-Semitism” as does the columnist Tanya Gold, who wrote in The Guardian last year that a ban on male circumcision would be antisemitic.
The UKIP factor
I have no doubt that that Gold, Albalas and Kantore genuinely believe that ending unnecessary male circumcision is antisemitic, it is their heartfelt, subjective belief. And if we looked closely we could no doubt find some antisemitic people who are also anti-circumcision. Last year, for example, the Jewish Chronicle reported that people who vote UKIP (a party that has faced continued accusations of racism) are more likely to oppose circumcision and if we dug deep enough we might find some antisemitism behind that statistic.
Taking the nation as a whole, 38% of people support a circumcision ban and 35% are against it, with 27% still undecided. Does this mean that nearly 40% of the British public is antisemitic? Of course not, because being anti-circumcision is not the same as being antisemitic. You can be both, neither or one or the other. You could be an antisemitic Muslim, for example, who stands shoulder to shoulder with his Jewish brothers when it comes to defending the right to perform religious rituals on boys’ genitals.
Are Jews who oppose circumcision antisemitic?
In reality, there is no one singular Jewish view on the practice of circumcision. Some Jews campaign against it; some will only perform it in medical settings with anaesthetic; some want to continue circumcising boys without anaesthetic in religious settings and some still defend the practice of Metzitzah B’peh where blood is sucked from the circumcised baby’s penis.
Attitudes towards male circumcision sit on a continuum ranging from those who believe anything goes to those who believe in an outright ban, with various compromising (or compromised) positions along the way. Tanya Gold, for example, believes that the practice of Jewish mohels (ritual circumcisers) sucking on baby’s circumcised penises and giving them herpes in the process is “repellent”. She says “no circumcision should be performed without medical qualification; those who disagree, including Jews, should think again”.
The anti-circumcision campaigners that she calls antisemitic would agree with her, but they think that regulation and legislation should go further still. Meanwhile, the orthodox Jews who want to preserve Metzitzah B’peh may think Tanya Gold is antisemitic for wanting to ban their ancient Jewish rituals.
People have a right to think differently
What some people along the continuum of circumcision beliefs, like Tanya Gold, are essentially saying is that if your belief is more interventionist than mine, then you must be antisemitic. This is an unsustainable position to take. Jewish campaigners against circumcision, like Eran Sadeh who wrote for us last week are not antisemitic, they just dare to think differently and that is a freedom that all good people should fight to preserve.
Anyone with a decent dose of empathy can understand why this is an emotive subject for Jewish communities to confront and everyone with a rational mind should also be able to reach the conclusion that daring to think differently about male circumcision does not make you antisemitic.
Acknowledging that people have a right to hold different beliefs is the antithesis of antisemitism. When we think that other people’s beliefs and actions are causing harm, it is our duty to speak out. If your think that circumcising Jewish boys is harmful to Jewish boys then raise you voice, it isn’t antisemitic to want to protect a Jewish baby from harm.
And the same applies to Muslim boys, American boys, African boys and other boy who is at risk of unnecessary male circumcision. If you think it’s harmful, speak out, it isn’t wrong to have an opinion. And if anyone tries to label you antisemitic, tell them that the Jewish journalist Deborah Ross thinks circumcision is “abusive and barbaric” and she said so in an article all about antisemitism.
—Photo credit: flickr/emmanueldyan