How One Tiny Schmeckel Shook Israel

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It was a boy. Born a year ago in Netanya, he would have been circumcised at eight days, like every Jewish boy, but a medical issue prevented it. Meanwhile, the family decided against it.

That is, until the parents divorced, and the father suddenly demanded that the rabbinical court force the mother to agree to a late circumcision. The mother - unwilling to “maim” her child, she said - refused. Last month, the rabbinical court found for the father and fined the mother 500 shekels (about $150) for each day the child is not circumcised. This was the first time the court has punished a circumcision refusenik.

“For a long time we’ve been witnessing public and legal challenges to circumcision in the United States and Europe, and the Israeli public unanimously stands against such phenomena as manifestations of anti-Semitism. What kind of message does it send if here, this is left for the individual to decide, according to his views?” the rabbis wrote in their ruling.

In any case, the Israeli High Court froze the rabbinical ruling, at the mother's behest, pending further debate. So far the facts.

And thus the child, blissfully unaware of the explosive debate about the integrity of his tiny shmeckel, came to be the center of a nationwide storm involving rabbis, politicians and pundits. Hearing some of the rhetoric, one might think the right of the Jewish state to exist was at stake.

Dubiety goes mainstream

Circumcision has symbolized the covenant between God and the Jews from the time of Abraham. Jews have fought to preserve this right. They have died for it, preferring to burn in the Inquisition rather than forgo this duty.

Resistance among a tiny few goes back to pre-Roman times but now is the Internet era and suddenly, for the first time in 3,000 years, this most basic tenet is being questioned widely. Suddenly some people might have a different answer to the eternal question “who is a Jew?” other than “a circumcised penis”.

Now, for the first time in 3,000 years, this most basic tenet is being questioned. Suddenly some people might have a different answer to the eternal question “who is a Jew?” other than “a circumcised penis”.

And mostly below the surface, some Israelis have started querying it too.

The Netanya case marks a turning point in the Israeli debate about circumcision, which Israelis had seemed to take for a given - until 1998 that is, when a landmark petition was submitted to the Israeli High Court demanding circumcision be outlawed. (The court refused.)

Meanwhile, In Europe and (to a lesser degree) in America, this debate has been ongoing at least since the late 19th century, and by the second half of the 20th century firm opposition had taken shape, represented by organizations such as the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers (NOCIRC) doing their best to “secure the birthright of male, female, and intersex children and babies to keep their sex organs intact”.

Of course, Jews aren't the only ones to circumcise male offspring. In any case, at first opposition was limited to the fringes of the Jewish and Muslim worlds, and to goyim decrying its “barbarity." But in recent years opposition has gone mainstream. Several European countries have debated (and so far rejected) circumcision bans.

New heights were reached in October, when the Council of Europe called on its 47 member states to ban ritual circumcision. Israel denounced the decision as a “moral stain that fosters hate and racist trends in Europe”.

Uncut but normative

There are no statistics in Israel showing how many parents refuse to circumcise, but Professor Hanoch Ben-Yami of the Central European University says he senses real change. Researching for a 1999 article against circumcision, he found less than 10 cases in Israel; but today, "normative Israelis choose not to circumcise," he told Haaretz’s Neta Achitov in 2012.

They are not a majority by any stretch. Most Israeli Jews circumcise their sons without thinking about it. Yet in June 2000, a support group formed, Kahal ("community"), to help parents who decide not to circumcise.

Because Israel is “the Jewish state”, the debate is super-sensitive. If the answer to "Who is a Jew" changes, the answer to “who regulates Judaism”must change too. In Israel - a country obsessed with defining and redefining itself and its Jewish identity - this has political implications that some tie to Israel’s entire raison d'etre.

Which might explain the panicked, over-the-top response to the recent case of the Netanya infant, from the rabbis making an example out of the Netanya mom to commentator Moshe Ravid accusing High Court judge Yoram Danziger, who ruled in favor of the mother, of “joining hands with marginal extremist groups in Israel’s society”.

Most vocal of all was Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of HabayitHayehudi ("Jewish Home") party. On Facebook, Bennett accused Haaretz of leading an “organized campaign against circumcision in order to erase Jewish identity of Israel”.

Yet even among the establishment there is fresh thinking. Reform rabbi Uri Regev supports circumcision but not under the court's gun, and deplores the anti-democratic aspect of rabbinical control. In an article in Israel Hayom he wrote: “This case is further proof that the monopoly the rabbinical courts have on marriage and divorce and the ‘race for power’ that has now spread to the issue of circumcision as well”.

Which is possibly the root cause.

Israel can be defined as a Jewish state, however Jews are defined. Beneath the religious justifications and apocalyptic rhetoric that inhabit this debate lies very tangible fear of religious authorities, which see themselves as protectors of Jewish identity, that they’re losing their power.

Judaism, it seems, is changing. Some people don’t like change. But does the key to Israel's right to exist lie with one little boy’s shmeckel? Probably not.

At an anti-circumcision protest in front of Washington Convention Center, 2005.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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