Update on the Jewish Intactivist Movement in Israel
Intactivism—the movement to end circumcision—continues to win social acceptance worldwide, including in the Jewish state of Israel. Jews in the holy land are increasingly open to questioning circumcision, much more so than in the United States. In recent years, Jewish Intactivists have published articles and essays in some of Israel’s largest papers including Haaretz (Israel’s largest and most influential daily paper), 927mag, and the Jerusalem Post. A variety of active Intactivist groups such as Gonnen (Protect the Child), The Israeli Organization Against Genital Mutilation/Intact Son, and Kahal (a community group for parents of intact sons) have sprung up. The leaders of Kahal say that thousands of Israeli Jews are choosing to keep their sons intact.
We are Jews who are proud of our heritage and religion, and who see a need to make adjustments to protect the well-being of babies. Judaism is a religion of constant evolution and ethical advancement. Early in Judaism animal sacrifice was abandoned, and Rabbis chose to abolish capital punishment. Many Jews and Israelis recognize that it is time that circumcision shift into a symbolic ritual such as the well-popularized Brit Shalom. Over 100 Rabbis are willing to do a Bris ceremony without circumcision, and this includes some Rabbis in Israel.
“I am a Jewish filmmaker and I have been invited by the Council of Europe to its Parliamentary Assembly next week. By screening my television documentary It’s a Boy! For European parliamentarians I aim to help shore up their commitment to protection of children’s right to physical integrity – a key step toward ending ritual circumcision of boys….From a very young age attending Jewish schools my personal preoccupation was the Jewish thirst for justice and our empathy for suffering. Tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, the Jewish injunction to heed the distress of living beings, became the wellspring of the filmmaking I’m most proud of, including films about Israeli society, its past, present and future.…Had I known such facts earlier, my son would have remained intact, as is the case with increasing numbers of Jewish boys today, including thousands in Israel… Parents like me know from our remorse that it was wrong to make such an irreversible, painful and dangerous decision for our children. We owed our children protection, and we owe it to our communities not to be silenced when we have erred as parents. …boys from all backgrounds need the protection of the rule of law – secular law – wherever they may live. The necessity for this now in Israel is obvious. To deprive children of Jewish and Muslim descent in any country of full legal protection because of their lineage amounts to a most perverse kind of prejudice against those children. As for any attempt by real anti-Semites to latch onto this issue, that would be denounced publicly. But then real anti-Semites are not usually the people keen to protect Jewish children from harm, and real anti-Semites would probably like nothing better than continuance of a practice that stokes anti-Jewish feelings and for generation after generation inflicts suffering on Jewish boys. Children’s right to physical integrity should be what Israeli parliamentarians defend – rather than a brutal anachronism.”
Victor Shoenfeld, Circumcision – defending the indefensible, Jerusalem Post, 01/22/2014.
“There is a small but growing movement of Jewish parents who reject ritual circumcision, and I think it’s going to spread fast because they’re saying out loud what so many Jewish parents are thinking: ‘Why?’ And this, I believe, is the best answer to the problem: Stand up for your kid and say no. If you fear and abhor the ritual, don’t let anyone perform it on him. He’ll still be Jewish if you raise him Jewish – whatever anyone says.”
Larry Derfner, Stand up for your son: Say ‘no’ to ritual circumcision, 972mag (Israel), June 29, 2012.
“Hard though it may be to hear, irreversibly removing a healthy body part – in this case, part of a boy’s genitals – without consent, violates a person’s right to bodily integrity, a cornerstone of post-Holocaust human rights law. It also undermines that child’s right to an open future….
Supporters of circumcision also say it’s an ancient, meaningful practice. But neither longevity nor meaning is usually accepted as sufficient moral justification to override individual rights. As one Orthodox Jewish father, Elie Jesner, puts it, “Mankind has been doing horrendous things for thousands of years: slavery, capital punishment, condemning homosexuals, oppressing women. That is not a club of actions I want to be part of.”
From a Jewish perspective, there are other issues. First, circumcision does not confer Jewish status. As Shaye Cohen, professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, explains, “Male and female offspring of a Jewish mother are Jewish by birth under Jewish law; the male offspring are Jewish by birth even if they are left uncircumcised.” Second, biblical circumcision was not as extensive as today’s variant, which is actually an innovation of rabbis in the Hellenic period trying to stop Jewish men from restoring their foreskins. Evidently, definitional Jewish practices can and have evolved.
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that some Jews are questioning the practice. A 2006 online survey reported in Haaretz found that nearly a third of parents of boys would prefer to forgo circumcision, but have it done primarily for social reasons. Israel is now home to the intact support group Kahal, while in the United States, Beyond the Bris and Jews Against Circumcision have sprung up.
Jews who question circumcision from the point of view of human rights and medical ethics should be respected, not demonized. But all critics of circumcision must be vigilant about the company they keep, distancing themselves from anyone not exclusively motivated by child protection. There is no place for anti-Semitic arguments or imagery…
Meanwhile, the Council of Europe should stand firm. If it backs down and denies some children their rights because their parents adhere to the Jewish tradition, it would single out only those children for lack of protection. Now that really would be anti-Semitic.
Dr. Rebecca Steinfeld, It cuts both ways: A Jew argues for child rights over religious circumcision, Haaretz (Israel), Nov. 26, 2013.
“Israeli circumcision critic Eran Sadeh (featured in the above news broadcast) has been working hard to educate Jewish people in Israel about the downsides to foreskin removal. He is the founder of the Israeli group Gonnen Al Hayeled (Protect the Child) and he is also a Beyond the Bris contributing writer. There can be no doubt that Sadeh’s advocacy is playing a large role in getting Israeli parents to think critically about this once universally accepted tradition.”
Circumcision In Israel Not Taken For Granted Anymore, BeyondtheBris.com.
”After my exposure to the information regarding circumcision, I refuse to mutilate my baby. I don’t have the right and I do not agree! He was born whole and he will stay whole! His integrity is his full right! The Religious Court has no right to do that! No one in the whole world is authorized to force me to mutilate my son, to cut his penis!… In particular, religious oppression, unnecessary cutting of the penis of a helpless baby? A non-reversible surgical operation! A foreskin does not renew itself!
The baby can not express his own will. The right to decide is his alone. It is his body! The right, is not mine, nor anyone else’s in the entire world, but his own only!”
Elinor, Israeli Mom, Jewish Mom Makes Intactivist Case in Israel.
“When my beloved son was born I didn’t circumcise him. It was an easy and natural step, which I saw as an expression of my existence as a free man.
I’m opposed to circumcision, and also have reservations about the use of the term ‘brit milah’ (‘covenant of circumcision’). It involves cutting the infant’s sexual organ, and I am opposed to the cutting of the sexual organs of boys and girls. Until now, I have naturally focused my efforts at persuasion on the population of secular parents. After all, it’s quite strange that people without any religious faith anxiously keep track of every heartbeat of their infant in the womb, run with him to the monitor, sonogram and every possible pregnancy test, guard him carefully from the moment of his birth – and then hasten to cut his sexual organ.
The ‘Jewish circumcision,’ however, is performed by a mohel who is not necessarily a doctor, and always without anesthesia. This is an invasive and brutal act – abuse of a helpless infant, which I am certain will be outlawed in the future… According to Jewish law, a Jew is someone born to a Jewish mother and, according to a more progressive approach, anyone who sees himself as belonging to the Jewish people. There were periods and communities in Jewish history in which circumcision was not practiced – from the days of ancient Egypt up to the Communist bloc. Moses was opposed to circumcision and didn’t circumcise his son, and the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan into Canaan uncircumcised.
Circumcision does not determine that a person is Jewish, and non-circumcision does not determine that a person is not Jewish. So to come and claim that the preservation of Jewish identity rises and falls with the cutting of the sexual organs of infants? That this is the most basic symbol that guarantees the survival of Jewish society? That this is the strongest tie connecting the Jewish people to itself and its God? More than faith? More than the Torah and the Ten Commandments? More than the State of Israel and the Land of Israel?
In light of such groundless claims, both religious and nonreligious Jews should start asking themselves questions.”
Uri Misgav, Let’s talk about circumcision. The idea that Judaism is inextricably linked to circumcision must be challenged and corrected. Haaretz (Israel), Jan. 2, 2014.