COMMENTARY: Questioning circumcision isn’t anti-Semitic

RNS () — Earlier this month the Council of Europe agreed on a nonbinding resolution in support of “children’s right … Continued

RNS () — Earlier this month the Council of Europe agreed on a nonbinding resolution in support of “children’s right to physical integrity.” The purpose was to reinforce the protection of children’s rights, oppose violence against children, and promote children’s participation in significant decisions that affect them. Forced genital cutting of male and female children was mentioned among examples of violations.

The Council of Europe, founded in 1949, is an international organization that promotes cooperation in the areas of human rights, legal standards, and democratic development. The vote on this resolution was 78 to 13, with 15 abstentions.

Days later, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with traditional Jewish groups, denounced the resolution. The ministry statement said the resolution “fosters hate and racist trends,” denied that circumcision causes any harm, and strongly objected to any comparison between cutting of male and female genitals.

Others called the resolution anti-Semitic, a violation of religious freedom, and a “thinly disguised attack” on European Jews. This predictable reaction calls for a response.

For one, the Israeli ministry does not speak for all Jews, European Jews, or even all Israelis. The Jewish Circumcision Resource Center represents Jews around the world who question ritual circumcision.

Here are some relevant facts.

* Jewish circumcision is not mandatory; it is a choice. Some Jews in North America, South America, Europe, and Israel do not circumcise their sons.

* Circumcision is a topic of debate in the Jewish community and has been questioned historically and in various Jewish publications in recent years.

* In actual practice, most Jews circumcise because of cultural conformity, not religious reasons.

* According to the “Encyclopedia Judaica,” ‘’any child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether circumcised or not.”

* According to Jewish values, the human body must not be altered or marked, and causing pain to any living creature is prohibited. Some Jews believe that circumcision is not ethical. Jewish values place ethical behavior above doctrine.

By rejecting any merit in opposing arguments, defenders of circumcision suspect a hidden motivation. They also fail to differentiate between reasonable criticism of this specific practice and a more general unjustified hostile attitude.

It is possible to question the actions of a person or group without being categorically opposed to the person or group. Are those who question an American government policy anti-American? Questioning an action that one believes to be harmful is more likely to be motivated by good will than ill will.

Jewish authorities avoid the resolution’s central issue. They do not claim that children do not have a right to physical integrity, nor do they claim that circumcision is not a violation of physical integrity. Jewish authorities tacitly admit they have no direct response. Their verbal attacks on the resolution appear to be intended to intimidate critics.

Circumcision is an exception to accepted principles like the Golden Rule; adults would not tolerate circumcisions forced on them. If circumcision were introduced today, we would be horrified, as some are horrified when they first learn about the procedure. If any other body parts of children were cut off, we would adamantly object.

Religious freedom has its limits. For example, when a child’s health depends on medical treatment that a particular religion otherwise prohibits, courts may overrule the religious freedom of the parents for the safety, health and welfare of that child. Many people recognize that a child’s safety, health, and welfare are adversely affected by circumcision, and they feel empathy.

The harm starts the moment an instrument penetrates or clamps a healthy, natural, functioning body part — any body part. The belief that male genital cutting is unlike female genital cutting does not withstand scrutiny. Though circumcision defenders routinely deny harm, common sense and dozens of studies confirm significant physical, sexual, and psychological harm. We owe it to the children to be open to examining this harm. Medical opinions in support of circumcision are explained by psychosocial factors, serious omissions, and medical and cultural bias.

Jews have been circumcising their sons for thousands of years, but this does not justify or reduce the harm. It perpetuates it. Research on circumcision, trauma theory and clinical experience support the view that circumcision is traumatic. An iceberg of underlying emotional factors contribute to a compulsion to repeat circumcision trauma, generation after generation. “What’s done to children,” the saying goes, “they will do to society.”

We need to pay attention to and trust our intellectual, emotional, and ethical conflicts about circumcision. The world is gathering its courage to protect children. We need to continue this effort and work together with compassion, understanding, and persistence, for the children.

(Ronald Goldman is executive director of the Jewish Circumcision Resource Center and author of “Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective” and “Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma.”)

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  • markreiss

    Kudos to Ronald Goldman for an excellent article. Yes, the Torah (The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament) does mandate circumcision. But it also mandates slavery, stoning adulterous women to death, and denounces homosexual activity. Most enlightened Jews of the 21st Century reject these biblical mandates. And those of the Jewish faith who do not practice Kosher dietary habits, who violate commandments by working and traveling on the Sabbath — they are not considered antisemitic. Jewish parents who understand the deep physical and psychic trauma of circumcision, are knowledgable about the anatomy and function of the foreskin, and of the surgical complications (including death) of this unnecessary procedure, and who realize that circumcision is a human rights violation of the infant — when they refuse to circumcise their sons, should they be considered antisemitic? I think not.

    Brit Mila (commonly known as Bris) is a ceremony performed on newborn baby boys at 8 days of life, where they are given a Hebrew name and their foreskin is removed. More and more families are now having peaceful alternative Brit Shalom ceremonies, eliminating circumcision. Many of these genitally intact Jewish boys are growing up receiving a Jewish education, having a Bar Mitzvah at age 13, and ultimately taking their place in the Jewish community.

    Mark D. Reiss, M.D.

  • Miriam Pollack

    As a deeply committed and strongly affiliated Jew, I want to commend Ron Goldman’s brilliant and critical article differentiating criticism of circumcision from anti-Semitism. Circumcision is the removal of highly sensitive sexual tissue from a non-consenting minor. The pain of the surgery has been researched and replicated showing that heart rates, respiratory rates, cortisol levels, etc. are extremely elevated during this experience. Circumcision is sexual torture of an innocent new human being. This contradicts all Jewish values of holiness, protection of children and reverence for life. This world is full of anti-Semitism, overt and covert, but it is a terrible mistake to conflate those who challenge circumcision with those who want to eliminate the Jewish people or Israel. What is unethical, cannot be spiritual. Many Jews are opting for a brit shalom (welcoming ceremony with no circumcision). Check out It’s time we stopped this damaging and antiquated practice.

  • motherof3

    Dr. Reiss, the Torah is only part of the Hebrew Bible, which btw does not “mandate” slavery. What is translated as “slavery” in the Bible is more akin to indentured servitude. It was to have a finite duration, and in fact a “slave” (servant, actually), who refused to accept his freedom when it was offered was penalized. There were laws enacted about the practice of “slavery” which showed that the “slave” was a human being and was to be treated as such. For example, if the employer or “master” owned only one blanket and one pillow, s/he was to give them to the “slave”.

    There is no record that any adulterous woman was ever actually stoned. In fact, the bar for evidence against her (and against just about any violator or any law) was so high that it almost couldn’t be met.

    The Bible was not written by a bunch of barbarians. It was written by people whose neighbors often engaged in barbarous practices, for people who were accustomed to those practices, and laws were written with the intent of gradually weaning people from those practices, as they began to learn that they were harmful. You can’t legislate change overnight. And comparing the Mosaic law to the Code of Hammurabi is eye-opening.