Anti-Semitism and Opposition
of Anti-Semitism and Opposition to Circumcision (Modern Day “Intactivism”)
Intactivism was founded on our deep concern over pain and trauma inflicted upon infants. We have faced a far more complex, intertangled “can of worms” of issues than most of us could have ever possibly fathomed. Maternal/paternal protective instincts, vulnerability of infants, body ownership, personal rights, sexual sensation and function are all interlaced with ancient myths, medical authoritarianism, cultural identity, aesthetics, religious dogma, and connection with nature. Most of us have followed a long and often painful journey to untangle something so paradoxically simple. People of other cultures where circumcision is virtually unknown would find this facet of American/Western culture ridiculous if not abhorrent.
People generally associate circumcision with Jews. In turn, Jews have been victims of persecution throughout the ages. As intactivists we hate genital cutting of all kinds, but we clearly do not hate Jewish people or Judaism itself. Jewish people tend to be highly sensitive, deep feeling, intelligent and questioning and a goodly number of Jewish people (among them, even some Rabbis) have joined our ranks, offering the “Brit Shalom” – a ceremony for the newborn infant without the cutting – as a more benevolent alternative. Yet the specter of Hitler and the Nazi holocaust, (by now for most of us a tragedy long over before we were born) hangs over us, confusing people’s perceptions of our intent and creating defensiveness where none need exist.
In our journey through life, most people inevitably encounter other individuals whom we specifically dislike for a specific reason. At a certain level of maturity one becomes able to separate the disliked deed or behavior from the person him/herself. Our Judaeo-Christian heritage commands that we love all other people, even our enemies. (Here is a springboard for a tangent of endless philosophizing, for love as an emotion cannot be produced on command, and few can feel towards strangers and casual acquaintances the same degree of love that we feel towards close friends and family members. I choose to express this as generally respecting the humanity of all other people.)
One absurdity of human behavior has been the tendency to generalize dislike towards all people belonging to a certain group that is different from ones own. This of course is simple bigotry – stereotyping and hating all representatives of a certain type of people based on race, nationality, country of origin, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, level of education, occupation, income level, even gender. Bigotry is a substitute for intelligent thought, and a great moral deficit for all of us. The hope for all humanity is that we can grow past this cultural blindness and all be united in our hearts simply as people all sharing this planet. Yes, this sounds “Pollyanna-ish”, and yet I’ve traveled through a life from my childhood in the 1950’s where the only black person (“Negro”) I ever saw was the elderly janitor of my elementary school, silently sweeping the halls, to today where an African American man sits in our oval office. Whether one supports or dislikes Obama himself, the symbolism does give hope that humanity can grow beyond the idiocy of bigotry.
Why Jews have been singled out as victims of bigotry is an age-old enigma. Is it jealousy because many have been successful in business? Is it fear over the belief that some have been dishonest in business dealings? Why has the term “jew” at times been a derogatory verb for trying to cheat somebody? Perhaps there have been some dishonest transactions, but doesn’t every barrel have its share of “rotten apples?” Once again it’s the bigotry compulsion of generalizing the group by a few individuals.
Then there’s the tired old canard of blame for the Crucifixion of Jesus which should be put to rest because only the Romans had the authority to crucify and according the Christian theology the crucifixion was supposed to happen as Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice for all humankind. Besides, why should any group be blamed for deeds done by their ancestors of centuries ago? And, oh by the way, Christians are supposed to forgive. Persecuting of others is total hypocrisy for any follower of Christ – diametrically opposite to any of Jesus’ moral instructions!
Why has circumcision sometimes been a part of anti-Semitic bigotry against Jews? Actually, among the many books and other discussions I’ve read about anti-Semitism, circumcision has rarely been mentioned, even when exaggerated visual stereotypes such as “big-hooked noses” or “beady little eyes” are discussed.
It is true that sometimes, under oppression of dictatorship governments, Jews have been forbidden to practice circumcision, with parents and their infants being put to death when they circumcised in secret.
It is doubtful that forbidding of circumcision had anything to do with any of the issues that intactivists embrace such as concern for their sexuality, pain and trauma inflicted on their babies, or risks of complications. (An oppressive group would scarcely care whether a Jewish baby would live or die, much less experience pain or blunted sexuality.) There has been speculation that the myth that circumcision could confer increased fertility may have been a factor, i.e. circumcision theoretically meant more future Jews. More likely it was just another expression of picking on a disliked group by forbidding one of their practices – much like an old time U.S. law found on the books that made it illegal for a man to wear his hair in a long braid down his back – a common practice among Chinese males during the 1800’s and early 1900’s.
When I interviewed an elderly Jewish Rabbi while writing my book “Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma”, this man spoke of how his people had been persecuted for centuries, and sometimes forbidden to circumcise their infants, which led them to practice it in secret. He spoke of how the persecution resulted in the Jews being more determined than ever to continue their practice.
As an American I experienced a deeper understanding for this phenomenon following the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (I had just visited New York City two weeks before and have family living there.) During the next few months our nation experienced a flurry of American flags and patriotic unity everywhere. I have never been any supporter of mindless flag-waving, yet I too felt the strength of this phenomenon. I am also an artisan/craftsperson and I decorated my collection of crocheted snowflakes with patriotic colored ribbons and flowers to sell at upcoming shows, in unity with other Americans. Aside from political differences, if red, white and blue were the colors that we needed to heal our grief and express our unity – so be it. It was healing to be a part of this.
So has it been mere reverse psychology that has ultimately been to blame for the perpetuation of circumcision among Jews? Even many Jews who only seem marginally attached to their heritage, rarely attending synagogue services, gladly eating pork and other non-kosher foods, or even professing atheism, still cling to circumcision as part of their identity. Our Gentile, bigoted ancestors accomplished the opposite of their goals. My own father’s grandparents were German immigrants to the U.S.during the late 1800’s. Then Germany became the enemy during WWI and WWII, so all German heritage and language was totally suppressed. “We’re just Americans now!” was what my grandparents would say. I have virtually no ethnic heritage connection. I recently spoke to a Jewish friend who had done a great deal of on-line research of his European ancestry and had learned a great deal including entire villages that were obliterated. I told him, “I don’t want to know who my ancestors are. Chances are some of my ancestors or distant cousins killed your ancestors!”
There is also a human tendency for people to rally around and support a group once it has been recognized as persecuted. At one time homosexuals were virtually universally ridiculed and despised. When the specter of AIDS presented itself and we saw beloved celebrities and others admitting their gay orientation and now dying horrific deaths, the world experienced a surge of sympathy, support and understanding among much of humanity. Yes, anti-gay bigotry still exists, but we’ve all watched the tide turning. (How on earth could anyone else’s sexual practices between consenting adults in private have anything to do with my own life or marriage?!!)
Similarly, the horror of the Nazi holocaust is still too close in our historic past. Our hearts go out to Jews as victims. Jewish people still carry an understandable fear, a justifiable paranoia, a never ending closeness to the unfathomable evil of the recent genocide. We cannot change the past. Very few people alive today experienced it directly. Can this ever be healed?
As intactivists we hold a different set of victims in our hearts. We hear our infants, Jewish and Gentile alike, screaming and suffering in pain. We feel the pain of parents hearts, cruelly violated over the torture of our infants. We grieve for the countless babies critically damaged or killed by circumcision complications. We feel the anger and frustration of men – forever aware that a sexual body part was taken away unbeknownst to them at a time when they could not consent. (Denial of this reality being merely the flip side of what we know.) What sensations and functions could have been there, they can never know. We are fighting a different holocaust here. Of course the suffering from circumcision pales in comparison to the Nazi atrocities. But the Hitler holocaust is history. However horrible, it cannot be changed. Infant circumcision still goes on every day. It is a different arena, different people, and a different set of issues. The two only clash when fear of anti-Semitism rears its ugly head.
Different variations of female circumcision have been common in other parts of the world. Sometimes this is practiced on infant girls. Less extreme versions of female genital mutilation have been introduced in hopes of at least alleviating complications such as excessive bleeding. Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics proposed their approval of a slight form of genital nicking of infant girls as acceptable for immigrants of cultures who embrace this practice. Considerable public uproar arose which forced the AAP to rescind its recommendation. In most parts of the U.S. female genital mutilation has become illegal. While the two practices differ in some respects, female genital mutilation being statistically more dangerous than its male counterpart since a more vascular area is cut, some forms of FGM are less invasive than our common practice of amputating the male foreskin. Ironically, both male and female genital mutilation originated from the same mentality. – the urge to weaken and damage the sexual organs, however clouded in myths and justifications. Sadly, most Americans are culturally blinded. A recent attempt to pass a law in San Francisco to banish all circumcision, male and female alike, was thrown out by the mayor of that city. California subsequently passed a law making it against the law to attempt legislation to outlaw male circumcision. To our astonishment, the ACLU, normally a strong, if not controversial supporter of individual human rights, backed up their decision, perceiving attempts to ban male circumcision as infringing on people’s cultural/religious practices. (??? What about the individual rights of the infants, the males being circumcised, rarely by their own choice??) It is here that we find ourselves at the juxtaposition, the ever present evil shadow of the Nazi holocaust, with the fear of yet another spate of Jewish persecution. We are ever faced with the literal horns of the dilemma, for the underlying tenet of religious tolerance is that one has the right do practice or believe whatever he or she wishes as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else. Yet infant circumcision DOES hurt another person, the helpless infant being victimized.
I’m making a shift in thought here, to reflect on spirituality, religion, rituals and cultural identity and how they all intertwine. Seeking after the spiritual appears to be a universal human phenomenon. There is so much that even the most learned scholars and proficient scientists do not and cannot know. We all have a need to seek out and connect with a higher power, and this has found a multitude of expressions. It all intermixes with our identities, belief systems, who we are and how we behave. The entire Judaeo-Christian ethos has been the basis of much of western civilization. In a way I have felt that all Christians are “Jews” at heart in as much as the Torah and the Old Testament are the foundation for the New Testament and the Christian faith.
There is a difference between personal, inward spirituality and “religion.” Spirituality comes from within ones heart, and from a personal relationship with a deity. Religion is an already established structure of systems and beliefs, superimposed on the individual, that some embrace and others reject. Both tremendous benevolence and horrific evils and absurdities can come out of religion. I am forever haunted by the image of the ancient Mayans who built huge stone temples and captured enemies by the thousands to slaughter them in their religious rituals, holding their still beating hearts up to the heavens in sacrifice to what they perceived as their “god.” Of course this blood-curdling horror ranks far more grisly than mere circumcision, but human sacrifice (and there have been many variations worldwide) is akin to both animal sacrifice and human body part sacrifice in its mentality. The “why” of human ritual behavior absurdity is an unanswerable riddle. The urge in human hearts to connect to a higher power beyond our temporal existence is universal. The concept that such a deity would need or benefit from any purported “sacrifice”, be it burnt up animals or severed body parts, is an unsolvable absurdity.
Yet all such practices do end. Ancient Hebrews at one time ritually burned animals and birds on stone altars as sacrifice to God. This has long been abandoned, with no Jew feeling any need to revive this. In light of the reverse psychology covered earlier, if PETA or some similar animal rights group had been present raising a hoop-la about cruelty to animals, would Jews have then felt a greater determination to continue the practice and still be doing it today?
I pose no final answer for the enigma of circumcision. If there was some simple answer that would change people’s hearts and minds so that people would cease hurting their babies, I would have found it long ago. The only hope here is for a continued and emphatic voice from the Jewish people themselves who share our thoughts and feelings and support the Brit Shalom alternative to genital cutting.
Rosemary Romberg (A Gentile, Christian, liberal, married to a Jewish man)
(Revised – 2013)