I was sitting the other day with friends, studying for a university test in Islam. We were discussing festivals and the Day of Ashura came up. This is a day of mourning for Shi'a Muslims, and some of them (particularly in the Asian subcontinent) mark it by cutting themselves. One of my friends noted that some even go so far as to cut their infant children, so that they too can participate.
"Barbaric, isn't it?" He asked.
"Well," I replied, "at least they're not doing to their genitalia."
"And what is that supposed to mean," asked one girl,
"Exactly what I said, that at least they aren't cutting their genitals, as happens in so many places."
I got nothing but hushed glares from the people around the table and it slowly dawned on me, that they were offended as Jews because I was comparing the "barbaric" practice of cutting children on the Day of Ashura to the Jewish practice of circumcision.
The funny thing is, I wasn't trying to do that. I was actually thinking about female genital mutilation in East Africa and Asia, but their reaction made me realize that we probably should have the conversation that they thought we were having.
Circumcision has become a real no-go topic for Jews. We need only look at the reaction of Jewish communities worldwide to the recent proposal of a circumcision ban in California to see that. Anyone who approaches the subject runs a serious risk of being labeled an anti-Semite straight out of the gate.
Yes, there is much anti-Semitism in the circumcision debate, the "Monster Mohel " fiasco springs to mind here, but that doesn’t mean that nobody should be allowed to talk about it.
I'm not really opposed to circumcision, but sitting with that group did make me think a little and I realized that I've never really been given a good reason for it.
I understand the religious arguments, that it is symbolic of Abraham's covenant with god, but anyone who knows me can tell you that I - de facto - don’t accept scriptural arguments when it comes to things like this.
There's also the medical argument that circumcision helps prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Whilst there's some data to support this, it's not really relevant to infant boys that aren't sexually active, but rather an individual choice that adults should be allowed to make for themselves.
Some also argue that it's cleaner, more hygienic. I argue for soap, which seems to work just fine for the rest of our bodies.
Then there are the excuses, such as trying to pretend that it's just useless 'extra skin' anyway. Even if this were true, it's not much of an argument. The appendix is pretty useless, its sole function in to give us appendicitis, yet we don't remove everyone's appendix whether they like it or not.
Then there's the "it's strange for boys to not look the same as their fathers." Right, because all those people with different color eyes than their fathers miss out on a lot of bonding.
The sickest one I've heard yet is, "girls prefer it." If so, why don't we augment all women to at least a c-cup, because we all know that men like bigger breasts, and there's no reason to find people beautiful for not altering themselves surgically.
The funny thing is that I'm so socialized to the idea that I'm not really opposed to circumcision, even though I can't justify it logically. I just, as I said, don't think that we shouldn't be able to talk about it.
This is Israel, we argue about everything, no matter how taboo.
As such, I decided to just go with the flow of the conversation, and play devil's advocate.
"Why is it any more barbaric to cut your child's head for Ashura than to cut his penis for Abraham?" I asked the group.
"For one thing," said my friend, Jay, "they're doing it every year of their lives, we only do it once."
"Alright then, here's a choice," I said, "you can either get a small cut on your head once a year from me, or can I can remove a negligible percentage of your penis right now, but it's a one-time thing. What's your call?"
"Well," replied Jay, "when you put it like that."
Josh Mintz is completing his degree in International Relations and Middle Eastern studies and is the communications director at Friend a Soldier, an NGO that encourages dialogue with IDF soldiers.
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