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Blog by Dr. Shimon Samuels published in The Jerusalem Post
31 May 2020

What is deemed as an attack on a fundamental ethic of Judaism can be construed as an assault on the Jewish people.

31 May 2020
Brit mila (photo Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post).

Last fall, the US-based NGO Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (ARC) convened the “Brussels Collaboration on Bodily Integrity,” at which Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was equated with other forms of circumcision, including Jewish brit mila.

One of the more than 90 papers presented at the conference was titled “Medically Unnecessary Genital Cutting and the Rights of the Child.” It stated, “[circumcision] does not only apply to female minors, but rather non-consenting minors of any age irrespective of sex or gender... cutting any person’s genitals without their informed consent is a serious violation of their right to bodily integrity. As such, it is morally impermissible.”

Papers, arguably written in a vacuum, show little understanding of the role of brit mila, from Abraham to the present, as one of three steps from circumcision at eight days, to bar mitzvah at 13 years, to eventual marriage. On the contrary, the same paper claims, “Many reconsider and reject the cultural traditions or religious beliefs with which they were raised.”

Another paper in the series – “Female Genital Mutilation and Male Circumcision: Should there be a Separate Ethical Discourse?” – registers a perplexing contradiction. “In Judaism,” the paper states, “only the boys are allowed to seal the divine covenant, so this is sexist on its face.”

ARC director and attorney Steve Svoboda suggests in his book, A Rose by Any Other Name, “In the United States there is a hesitant but visible tendency for secular and reforming Jews to question the necessity of the rite.”

In a letter to the author, this writer wrote, “This observation could be read by some as encouraging a split in Judaism.”

One may consider even more worrying Svoboda’s saying, “Physician Abraham Wolbarst had the genius to perceive that the surest way to preserve male circumcision as a religious rite within the Jewish community was to generalize it throughout the whole society as a necessary health precaution.”

The reader may view such a statement, even if certainly unintended, as open to abuse by conspiracy theorists.

In 1930s’ Nazi Germany, Jews continued brit mila as an act of resilience and resistance. In 2012, a Cologne court sought to ban it. The German Jewish community, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other Jewish organizations, protested their outrage to Berlin at such a law in Germany, 67 years after the Holocaust. The ruling was quashed, with a new law to protect the right to religious freedom.

The ARC now seems to be politicizing the issue, first at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, and in 2019, on a Brussels platform – the seat of the European Union – with the slogan “Medically Unnecessary Genital Cutting and the Rights of the Child – Moving Toward Consensus.”

Indeed, the above quoted paper suggests what appears to be a policy program, with phrases such as: “clear ethical statements from professional medical bodies”; “social campaign geared toward education and consciousness-training”; and “moral and material support for dissenters from within practicing communities.”

The following statement from the article that claimed “circumcising only Jewish boys is sexist” raises further questions: “Male circumcision is never ‘just a snip.’ It is a frequently traumatic intervention: it is usually extremely painful, even in hospital settings... I suggest that readers of this commentary [use] this video, [which includes] a Jewish circumcision.”

The context for the video follows a gory description by Nelson Mandela of his African youth circumcision ceremony in sickening conditions.

My question to Svoboda received no response. Since mailing him, however, I receive a constant flow of unsolicited essays on circumcision. None can be considered antisemitic, but they can arguably be considered contributing factors.

Thus, what is deemed as an attack on a fundamental ethic of Judaism can be construed as an assault on the Jewish people.

The writer is director for international relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.