Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Is Intactivism antisemitic?

Well, the short answer is, no. There is nothing inherently antisemitic about wanting to save innocent babies from having part of their penis chopped off. However, speaking as a man who is recovering from circumcision I can tell you there are a LOT of intense feelings out there about circumcision as well as antisemitism-- both justified-- and that is what has fueled this debate.

For most guys once they realize what they've really lost due to their circumcision, once they stop seeing that poor exposed, desensitized, centurion-shaped glans as the norm, they start to get angry. We start to ask, "Why was this done to me?" or "Who in their right mind could ever think circumcision was a good idea?" or "What gave you the right to decide what parts of my body I got to keep?" and so forth. I personally felt frustrated my parents had not protected me from circumcision, but I also placed some blame on the man that performed the actual removal of my foreskin. I felt a great deal of anger for this man and briefly considered tracking him down to confront him and ask why he thought he had the right to do this and to make sure that he knew I was not happy about it and blamed him. When I asked my mother who performed my circumcision she claimed it was Dr. so and so but he had already passed away. (I don't really see how she could know that. It's not like they exchanged Christmas cards or something. She just wanted to take the wind out of my sails in the hopes I'd just let the whole thing drop. I can understand that I suppose. My mother has a hard time admitted ANYTHING she does wrong so it's important to her to keep circumcision as far as possible outside the realm of potential conversation. But I digress.) The point is I was angry at the guy who cut me without my consent.

I began to feel anger toward any doctor who would do this regardless of parental consent. My anger toward doctors who circumcise only intensified when I heard about Doctors Opposing Circumcision and felt vindicated in my belief that physicians ought to be thoughtful enough and ethical enough to refuse to perform such a procedure. Then, eventually, I started to think about a friend of mine, Greg, who is Jewish. I thought of him being circumcised by a mohel and then of arranging his own son's circumcision by a mohel and I felt anger towards, wait for it...the mohel, not Greg or his faith or synagogues or the Old Testament or the Talmud or Passover or the Star of David or anything having to do with Jewishness outside of the circumcision ritual. My anger extended to the mohel alone. Do Greg's parents deserve some responsibility as well? Yes I believe they do, as do my own parents. The fact that they made the decision to circumcise based on religious reasons makes it no more or less defensible than the reasons my parents gave. It's still violence. The cutters likewise bare the same ethical responsibility for their actions be they mohels or MDs or both.

There are two problems I see here:
1) It's dangerous to label an entire movement antisemitic until you know what it's really about. This label can unfortunately become an effective smokescreen to keep people from having to deal with hard facts that people like Jonathan Friedman speak so eloquently about. (please see
The other issue is that I'm guessing mohels have the same inability for self-reflection that doctors who perform circumcisions do. No one wants to look back on their life's work and think, "Wow, I should never have done that. I HARMED all those children." Most of us humans are hard-wired to avoid this kind of internal criticism at all costs. It's part of our innate drive for self-preservation.

2) It's dangerous for people who are angry about their own circumcision to mistakenly believe that all Jewish people believe in circumcision or to believe that antisemitic sentiment (IE Hatred) is a constructive response to circumcision. Such sentiment should and will be rooted out and destroyed within the Intactivist movement in the few, isolated instances where it does exist.

I don't have a crystal ball and maybe this is wishful thinking but I believe that someday circumcision will be outlawed in the US, that religious freedom does not trump the rights of the individual, that babies deserve to be protected by the state, indeed if you ask me the state has a "compelling interest" in the legal sense to do so. These babies can sign up for circumcision at age 18 if at that point they are convinced it is an integral part of being Jewish or Muslim or whatever. The 1st amendment to the US Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." No Intactivist wants to prohibit the free exercise of Judaism or Islam, but dammit, if the Mormons can give up polygamy and still be Mormon, can't the Jews and Muslims still be Jewish and Muslim without circumcision? After all, we're not saying the boys can't sign up for a real bona fide circumcision ritual when they're 18. Is it my fault the mohels are going to have a hard time recruiting people at that point?

Thankfully many Jewish people are speaking out against circumcision and refusing to continue the perpetration of this violence on their own children as are many circumcised non-Jews like myself. The intactivist movement is one of the most welcoming I have ever participated in. Anyone who believes cutting infant penises is wrong is welcome to join regardless of religious, political, or any other affiliation. Besides these babies don't care what kind of God the person cutting them worships. All they know is that it HURTS!


  1. Yes but the intactivist movement does not give the Jews against circumcision the place they deserve. For instance:

    The Foreskinman cartoon ( depicts Superman's own brother rescuing baby Glick from circumcision by religious Jews. Sarah, the mother does not want the procedure, her husband Jethro wants it. Fortunately, the blond and white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Foreskinman comes and saves both the child and the mother.

    The whole problem is that in spite of the fact that we are in "God’s own country", there is a strong movement of Jews against circumcision that is totally absent of Mr Matthew Hess's story. We have to conclude that our friend is affected by unconscious antiJewism. How may he, in his just fight against the primitive barbarity of sexual mutilation, ignore the existence of his Jewish comrades? This is very unfair. We do not challenge the sincerity of his activism for the human rights of the helpless, we cannot but expose his arrogant ignorance of the existence of those who have been fighting against circumcision for millenia, much before American intactivists.

    I also need to tell that this cartoon appeals to violence rather than persuasion.

  2. When I read the comments section of any given MGM initiative story on sfgate, I get the impression that a lot of people just take it for granted that a law against circumcision of minors would violate the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause, and that's where the whole conversation begins and ends for them. I think given the way political discourse has been going in this country, it's really difficult to have a conversation about the idea that our personal freedoms have limits, and our personal freedoms sometimes butt up against other people's personal freedoms, and our legal system has to decide whose rights prevail.

    You might like to say "Freedom of religion doesn't mean you get to chop pieces off of your baby because God told you to." but what that sounds like to somebody who thinks in sound bites is "I hate freedom and other people's religion."

    I think the way to get past that sound bite thinking is for people like you and me to speak out about our own personal experiences. Nobody can argue with a personal experience. They can tell you you're crazy or you're delusional or they can say "How dare you say 'masturbation' on the Internet?!" but they can't argue with your story, because your story is your story. You own it.

  3. @Sigismond, you say “the intactivist movement does not give the Jews against circumcision the place they deserve” but no one owns the intactivist movement, no one is running the whole show. The Jews against circumcision have a really great group ( and they can become more outspoken & visible in campaigns if that is the direction that they choose to take.

    I think it also needs to be said that Matthew Hess and his Foreskin Man cartoon does not represent the whole intactivist movement. Some people like the cartoon, some do not. Really, what he does is very small in the grand scheme of things.

    However, I think that some people in the pro-circ movement have latched onto Hess & his cartoon, blown up parts of it in the media, and attempted to claim that it represents THE intactivist movement. In a country like ours where headlines and sound bites do influence more of the population than I’d like to admit, a negative smear campaign against intactivist may just prove effective for the pro-cutters, at least in the short term. Those who are fighting to keep circumcision the "norm" want to keep people's attention off the human rights of the individuals (i.e. the babies) by invoking a fear of our “agenda.” ‘Oh my, just look at how anti-Semitic they are! We have to fight to save our religious freedom! Etc, etc, blah, blah, blah.’

    Please. I’m not anti-Semitic; I love my Jewish friends; my other friends who happen to be intactivists are not anti-Semitic; and 99.5% of the things I read from intactivists never mention anything negative about any religious group. The prevailing focus is on protecting children and about educating people about the function of the foreskin. Period.

    I, and most intactivists, understand a lot about the various harms of circumcision and the emotional nuances of the issue, and so we speak with great care. However, I do occasionally read something so vile, sarcastic, and full of hatred… written by an “intactivist”… about parents (who made the mistake of allowing sons to be circumcised) or about the cutters themselves, or (even more rarely) about Jews. That literally makes my skin crawl. People writing hatefully like that will turn off moderates and push them AWAY from helping us. Nothing will be solved with hate and blind blame. The best we can do is always choose our words with care and the best intentions, AND point it out to other intactivists when they are actually hurting our cause with their thoughtless words. And like kurt_t mentioned above, keep sharing our personal experience.

  4. I thought I should add a clarification, when I mentioned people writing things that were "vile, sarcastic, full of hatred, & blind blame" I was NOT talking about writers who explore their anger about circumcision & how it has affected their lives, explore issues of blame & responsibility, or try to bring some humor into their writing. Mostly I was thinking of those quick, mean comments that people add at the end of an article or to a Facebook thread that; for one example, dismiss all mothers who have made the mistake, as heartless, spiteful bitches that hurt their kids on purpose. I just read Jeff's two "Dr. Demented" blog entries and, while sometimes difficult to read because of my own issues, I still found them valuable. I too have a big mistrust of doctors and the "preventative" model after having circumcision affect my family so negatively... AND from "well baby" visits & interventions that did more harm than good.

  5. Intactivism isn't ANTI-semitic, it's PRO-human rights. It's a terrible shame that religious groups etc. get this same old knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone questions something that they consider to be established tradition:

    "Oh, waaah - you're discriminating against me."

    I'm sure Jewish parents (and any other parents for that matter) are very glad for the laws that protect them against discrimination and harm - so why don't they want a law that would give their own children the same protection? I guess they just can't conceive of the idea that a newborn baby might not actually be able to comprehend what's happening to him or what it is supposed to represent when they chop off his most sensitive body part. I guess they don't consider that from a baby's point of view, circumcision is just a hugely painful trauma that mum and dad should have protected him from but didn't.