Europe's Shudder at Circumcision

In a society where most men are circumcised, e.g., the U.S., it's hard to imagine the European attitude that circumcised men are trauma victims.

The Council of Europe’s recent resolution on "Children’s Right to Physical Integrity (1952)," which was passed overwhelmingly at the beginning of October, makes for a very enlightening read.

On the one hand, the European Union is showing itself to be remarkably progressive in terms of threats towards an individual's gender, identity and physical integrity. It has addressed with care early childhood medical intervention in the case of intersex children. Its support of the LGBT community is clearly having an effect, as Moldova’s repeal of anti-gay legislation prior to its consideration for EU membership demonstrated. Taking a firm and united stance against the practice of female genital mutilation will undoubtedly aid in the termination of the practice throughout the continent.

While these provisos deserve universal approbation, the decision to similarly categorize male non-medical circumcision as an assault on an individual’s physical integrity reveals an alarming undercurrent in European society.

I am not of the camp that believes attempts to ban circumcision constitute anti-Semitism. In fact, I would go so far as to say that to make such a claim flouts objective reason. Circumcision is central not only to Judaism but to Islam as well and, while a well-known norm in North America, it is in Africa and the Middle East that the practice is most widely observed. In this light, the European Parliament’s castigation of circumcision is a cultural assault upon norms and traditions that have been embedded in many societies for thousands of years. Furthermore, it is indicative of the continent’s continued disposition towards cultural imperialism.

Central to the debate on circumcision is the context within which the arguments play out. There is an obvious reason why circumcision is a hot topic in Europe and not other Western societies like North America or Israel – because here it is uncommon. The science used to prove its harmful effects describes it as medical trauma. Among the widespread repercussions of the induced post-traumatic stress disorder – a mainstay of circumcision opponents - is the fueling of the cyclical nature of abuse. A father is abused as an infant, and therefore inflicts the same abuse upon his own son. It is not uncommon to dismiss an unknown and alien practice as dangerous or cruel. And it is true that there are men who, later on in life, undergo reverse circumcision in an effort to undo the procedure. However, in today’s society one would hope that, rather than condemning difference, governments would look to the wider international scene in an effort to understand the complete picture.

The American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that "the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks." As a native New York Jew, I can emphatically state that I have never felt trauma, shame or low self-esteem from the procedure. I have never felt it to be an impediment to me sexually and never have I come across circumcised individuals who feel differently. This, I believe, is rooted in the fact that I was raised in a society where the majority of men are circumcised.

I have now lived in Scotland for four years and whenever the topic of circumcision comes up (which happens more often that one would think), there is a collective shudder amongst the non-Jewish Europeans. Aversion to the practice is absolutely ingrained in Europeans because, on its surface, it isn’t pleasant. Outside of a context where it is the norm, it can appear a startlingly arcane practice. In the United States, I never thought twice of the fact that I was circumcised, whereas here it singles me out as being different – both Jewish and American – and someone in need of sympathy, a trauma victim.

Ultimately, while partisans continue to appeal to different "scientific facts" in support of their arguments, it is impossible to arrive at a non-objective conclusion; the decision to circumcise or not carries with it both positive and negative effects. Clearly, insecurities and anxieties over circumcision thrive in an environment where cultural minorities alone participate in the practice.

It is important, as the EU resolution states, to ensure that the conditions within which the procedures are performed meet necessary standards. However, to seek a complete ban on the practice is an attempt at enforced cultural homogeneity that is fundamentally at odds with Europe both as an idea and in practice. What’s more, I question what the effect on circumcised men is of the constant reiteration that they have been "mutilated;" what consequences that will have on their mental well-being. In my eyes, the repetitive assertion that circumcision is harmful fuels the cycle of trauma with greater surety than a controlled, and relatively minor neonatal procedure.

James McDonald is a displaced Brooklynite studying for an MLitt in Scottish History at the University of Glasgow.

'The Circumcision' (workshop of Garafalo, 16th century).