An end to the agony
Jewish and Muslim children deserve protection from a hurtful, dangerous custom overdue for replacement. If it takes a court in 21st-century Germany to help us move beyond circumcision, I welcome that.
Germany's parliament may soon approve a law to protect religious circumcision, this to counteract a Cologne court ruling last June that pronounced the practice unlawful.
This is wrong - the German government should rethink. I say this as a Jewish parent from a proud rabbinic lineage, with relatives killed in the Holocaust; I say this as the maker of "It's a Boy!" - the 1995 British TV documentary that first broke the taboo on showing the hidden toll of circumcision. It demonstrated how a rite ingrained in Jewish and Muslim culture, and said to be divinely commanded, regularly results in acute suffering, injuries, mutilation and deaths.
The film triggered a furor in Britain by chronicling the near-death of a baby circumcised by a mohel, and I hoped this would start a phasing-out of the custom. Instead, at pulpits across the U.K., rabbis denounced "that film made by a self-hating Jew," and urged parents to ignore it.
Change in the community could not come on the strength of information alone; I saw that government involvement would be needed. It was especially disappointing because my Jewishness prizes dissent and open debate.
Now my 12-year-old daughter is looking forward to her bat mitzvah, and she hears that Israel's Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger has declared circumcision is "the root of the Jewish soul." "An amputation done with no pain control?" she says. "Done outside of hospitals, by people who are not doctors? A religious ritual only for boys? How can this be the root of the Jewish soul in 2012?"
Sadly, I explain that there is enforced ignorance, as was the case when our family was pressured into having her older brother circumcised as an infant. Only after we witnessed his agony did we realize we'd been bullied into betraying our protective roles. I explain that injuries and near-deaths are hushed up, though each day hundreds of such incidents occur globally among those who practice the rite (as research by the British organization NORM-UK reveals ). I explain that fatalities are rarely spoken of, though each day brings three or four. And the lost children have sometimes been erased from Jewish family trees, as my film attests. That can be comprehended perhaps as a legacy of the Talmud, which instructs that a mother may cease offering babies for circumcision after three of her offspring have died from it.
I recall the TV documentary I made against corporal punishment of children, and how I applauded countries like Israel and Germany, which were among the first to outlaw such punishment. It appears to me wholly contradictory that those countries protect a tradition that routinely inflicts greater suffering and harm. And none should take a lead from America, where it's still legal for parents to hit children, where pediatricians profit from a sideline in circumcisions of boys of all backgrounds. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the profession's trade organization, has issued yet another equivocal statement recently, about a practice that is a money-spinner for some of its members.
The Cologne court was right to rule that circumcision is an assault on a child. It is an amputation of a healthy, sensitive body part that is performed without specific medical need, without the patient's consent. Elected leaders of conscience should not support a custom that so obviously infringes principles enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In Israel, some young adults now choose to be tattooed with the Auschwitz numbers of their forbears. A moving tribute. But if a religious leader decided it was God's commandment that babies be tattooed, we'd halt that everywhere. Religious Jews manage without animal sacrifices, without polygamy, without a range of practices that enlightened rabbis found reasons to dispense with over the centuries.
Ironically, there was a time in Germany, long before the Nazi era, when some rabbinic leaders advocated abandoning circumcision; they termed it barbarism. Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, refused to have his son circumcised.
Given present knowledge of the pain and complications caused, an absolute ban is logical. But a sudden ban could drive circumcision underground. The law now should require that circumcision is only performed by doctors, in hospitals, using effective anesthesia, after both parents have been fully apprised of the risks. This will substantially reduce the prevalence of the custom, and will reduce the casualty rate and the suffering. With phased steps toward abolition, proponents of religious circumcision may put up less of a fight as the practice gradually falls out of favor.
I think about this positively: For my daughter's generation and those following, shouldn't Jewish and Muslim identities embrace children's rights? Nonviolent welcoming ceremonies would be equally meaningful for baby girls and boys. A handful of rabbis in America and Germany have been pioneering "brit shalom" ceremonies. These celebrate the perfection present at the birth of all children. That's the true praise for a Creator, after all, rather than "corrective surgery" for every newborn boy.
Despite Wednesday's decision by the German cabinet to approve legislation that would protect circumcision, it's still not too late to reverse course. In a letter I've sent Chancellor Angela Merkel my message is simple: Please don't undo the opportunity for change created by your courageous Cologne judge. Jewish and Muslim children deserve protection from a hurtful, dangerous custom overdue for replacement. If it takes a court in 21st-century Germany to help us move beyond circumcision, I welcome that.
Filmmaker Victor Schonfeld's documentaries include "Loving Smacks," "Shattered Dreams: Picking Up the Pieces" and "The Animals Film." "It's a Boy!" is available from www.itsaboythefilm.com.