circumcision
A mohel performing a circumcision. Photo by Daniel Bar On
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In the course of the exhaustive research that preceded the writing of this column ‏(yes, I did a quick Google search‏), I learned a new word. Intactivism. My spell-checker may not yet recognize it but apparently intactivism is a growing movement. Its spiritual and organizational headquarters is in San Francisco but they are spreading globally, or so at least the various intactivist websites claim. If they have their way, the good people of San Francisco will have a chance in November to vote in a piece intactivist legislation and from the Bay Area, who knows where it will spread next.

Though it turns out that there are others vying for the crown of the intactivist capital: Members of the Swedish parliament were early adherents, passing their own law already 10 years ago. Oh, what is intactivism? It is believing so fervently in the right of baby boys to keep their foreskins intact that one is moved to actively agitating in favor of this position. It may be called in polite parlance circumcision and in most Jewish circles Brit Milah, but the intactivists are not having any of that word-laundering − it is forced mutilation of infant genitalia, and as such should be outlawed. Next week is the highpoint of their intactivities, with National Genital Integrity Awareness week in the United States.

This is probably the point where I have to clarify my own personal circumstances. I myself am an infant genital mutilator, a three-time offender. I didn’t personally carry out the act, but paid a proxy, also known as a mohel, to perform the deed. What’s worse, I had it done to my three sons, my very own flesh and blood, and invited friends and family to be present. It runs in our family. I am genitally mutilated. My father had it done to me and my brothers. ‏(In the town where I was born, the circumciser was also the ritual slaughterer‏).

Naturally, I was a bit squeamish about it at the time, certainly when it was done to me, but I have been socially conditioned, not to say brainwashed, into feeling no moral qualms.

When I heard by chance this week about the move in San Francisco to introduce to the ballot in November a ban on male genital mutilation, making it illegal to remove the foreskin of a boy under the age of 18 on the pain of a $1,000 fine and a year’s imprisonment, I knew I had to write a column about it.

“Just think of the fun I’m going to have with all the double-entendres,” I said to my editor. As usual, it was down to her to sound a wise word of caution. “Don’t overdo it,” she warned.

“Remember that on this particular issue, less is more.”

So I spent an amusing evening trawling through the intactivist websites, had a good laugh, and now, sitting down to write this column in the clear light of morning, I am forced to acknowledge that jokes aside, they do actually have a point. I could be arrested for smacking my children, but when I made a party to celebrate the cutting of my firstborn’s penis, I was showered with baby gifts and checks. Not that they I necessarily agree with the intactivists − actually they seem rather creepy − but we need a better case to defend the forcible removal of an intimate part of our baby boys’ anatomy than the ADL’s line that “this is a coveted ritual.”

Just use your imagination and think of the long list of atrocities and crimes against humanity that come under the heading of “coveted rituals.”

Neither am I impressed by the medical studies that purport to prove the health and hygiene benefits of circumcision. There is opposing research that supports the view that this is an unnecessary and potentially harmful procedure. I don’t expect doctors to be any less biased than journalists, and their scholarly papers reflect their own personal beliefs as much as their clinical trials and observations. And I have seen evidence of the potential damage when reporting on the case of Nissim Zeev, who was ordered by the Supreme Court to pay half a million shekels in damages to the parents of a baby who developed gangrene and suffered irreversible damage from a circumcision he performed in 1994. That did not stop him from becoming one of Shas’ most reactionary MKs and continuing to circumcise on a “charitable” basis.

Even if such cases are relatively rare and isolated, not enough is being done, in Israel and abroad, to prevent them and to prosecute the perpetrators. The New York mohel who allegedly caused the deaths of two babies from Herpes, transmitted when he did old-fashioned metzitza − sucking the cut on the baby’s penis, instead of using medically and rabbinically approved more hygienic methods − should have been hounded out of town and given up to the authorities, instead of being shielded by the Haredi leadership and by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

This is not a debate for logical or scientific arguments. I find it hard to articulate a sound moral justification, but I know that if I will again be blessed with a son, he will be circumcised. But only by a mohel who I know operates under complete medical direction and utilizes the latest in hygiene and safety implements.

The best counterargument to those trying to ban milah would be an international initiative by rabbis of all streams and persuasions to ensure that only such circumcisers be allowed to operate.

My real objection to the intactivists is not based on reason or religion, it is my gut feeling that they are infernal busybodies. They are the kind of people who under the guise of liberal values, want to invade my home, family and dinner plate and I feel it is our duty to stand up to them. No infant genitalia were harmed in the writing of this column, but I did go through half a pack of Marlboros, sitting and writing at an outdoor table of my local Jerusalem cafe.

All the butts were responsibly deposited in an ashtray and the second-hand smoke wafted harmlessly into the spring sky. Such conduct would have cost me a $500 fine in San Francisco. I’m sorry if that’s the best argument I can come up with, but I want to live in a country where I can choose to kill myself slowly with nicotine ‏(financing the health system with my cigarette taxes in the process‏) and be allowed to responsibly continue whatever family tradition I prefer.