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While current California ballot initiatives to criminalize infant circumcision represent an unprecedented attempt to curtail the freedom of Jewish religious practice in America, it’s premature to label the initiative anti-Semitic. There are many reasons why people may object to circumcision other than hostility to Jews and Judaism – reasons including their discomfort with any alteration of the human body, not wanting parents to make decisions for their children, etc.
It’s easy enough to deconstruct those latter objections as the same anti-circumcision folks are not trying to criminalize ear-piercing, do not oppose other invasive discretionary medical treatments such as repairing “funny looking” ears, etc. Nonetheless, the assumption that the current initiative is being driven by anti-Semitism strikes me as both lacking evidence and largely unhelpful in resolving the current controversy.
Charging anti-Semitism is easy, and in our generally philo-Semitic culture, often generates great sympathy for those against whom it is practiced. Unless people want to abuse that reality – and ultimately so cheapen the charge as to render it meaningless, it pays to have more evidence than is currently available to explain the new initiatives. But that seems not to be the case with one of the initiatives leaders, Matthew Hess, for whom such evidence abounds.
Hess, the creator of the graphic novelette/comic book series Foreskin Man, employs grotesque imagery very similar to that employed by generations of anti-Semitic artists and ideologues. He portrays Jews as dark, leering figures who take advantage of unsuspecting children. The visual motifs of the blood libel are all there. The image of Jews, especially religiously observant Jews, as those who harm babies to satisfy some kind of bloodlust, are all too familiar.
Mr. Hess compounds his use of classically anti-Semitic imagery with a hero who looks as if he was copied from a Leni Riefenstahl photo collection. A large, well-muscled guy with thick blond hair sweeps in to save the innocent babies from the Jews who want to harm them. Perhaps he was not aware of what he was doing, but now that he has been alerted to what he is doing, Hess should figure out some other way to express his outrage over infant circumcision.
There is room for debate about the meaning and appropriateness of circumcision in this country, if for no other reason than such debate is central to the American way of which those on both sides of this debate are presumably proud. And even if that claim is contested, the real concern which increasing numbers of Americans seem to have about circumcision needs to be taken seriously, if only to create the context in which their resistance can be diffused. There is however no room for people driven by Jew-hatred, consciously or otherwise, in that debate.
I don’t know if Matthew Hess hates Jews or not. I don’t know if he hates Judaism or not. I don’t even know if he knows whether he does or not. I do know however that spreading hate and sharing hateful images – images which have cost millions of lives over the centuries, has no place in the current debate.
Matthew Hess should apologize for his work and step back from this whole issue, as should those who immediately assume that all opposition to circumcision is simply the newest form of politically correct anti-Semitism. This is a sensitive issue in which the thoughts and feelings of all involved should be carefully heard. This is an issue, like so many such issues, in which the choice of legislation over conversation will leave none of us better off, whatever our opinion on the issue may be.