Anti-Semitism and the 'intactivists'

I can't imagine that a month ago many reporters thought one of the stories that would be grabbing a lot of attention would be efforts to criminalize the circumcision of a male minor. But a voter initiative qualified for the November ballot in San Francisco, and suddenly a lot of people seem obsessed with a little bit of skin. I've yet to see an anti-circumcision story that is, ehem, a cut above. But at least most print reporters have avoided the obvious and obnoxious (and sometimes almost inevitable) puns.

There is, of course, a major constitutional question being raised by the proposed ban on what for Jews and Muslims is an act of religious obligation. Many news stories have focused on that angle. Few have delved into the religious and cultural implications -- regardless of constitutionality -- of such a ban.

The latter was more of the approach I took in a piece for the Wall Street Journal's Houses of Worship feature, "The Circumcision Wars."

The op-ed, which is really more news analysis, opens with a glimpse of the brit mila, unique for its almost universal adherence across Jewish movements, and emphasizes the religious significance of circumcision as a covenantal act between creation and Creator. It concludes with this:

From a Jewish religious perspective, the medical evidence is largely beside the point: Circumcision was ordered by God, so it requires no independent justification. Likewise for Muslims, who also circumcise per religious tradition.

The San Francisco measure would only prevent the circumcision of minors within city limits, and the practice would likely endure even there. “Circumcision is not going to go away because of this small, determined, angry group,” said Dr. Samuel Kunin, a Los Angeles-based urologist who promised that if the ballot measure passes, he’ll travel north to perform the first San Francisco circumcision.

The law also wouldn’t prevent a Jew from being circumcised as an adult, though that’s a much tougher procedure. To be sure, that didn’t stop thousands of Soviet Jews who were circumcised after they escaped persecution and arrived in Israel, the United States and elsewhere.

Still, circumcision doesn’t make a Jew a Jew. Family lineage or conversion (for which only the Orthodox widely require circumcision) do that. But, like baptism for those Christians who believe it is essential, circumcision is a declaration of a man’s covenant with God—a physical seal on that part of the body that passes traits to the next generation. No law, constitutional or not, can change that.

I mentioned in the WSJ piece that some have accused the "intactivists," as the anti-circumcisers call themselves, of being anti-Semitic. A leader in the group, Matthew Hess, told me the accusation was ridiculous. But then Debra J. Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle discovered a comic book that Hess created and drew as a bit of pro-foreskin propaganda. The "hero" is Foreskin Man -- check out that emblem on his chest -- and the villain is "Monster Mohel."

It seems like something out of Der Sturmer. Here's how Mitchell Landsberg of the Los Angeles Times describes the comic:

The image of a bearded, black-hatted Jew with an evil grin and a bloody blade seems straight out of the annals of classic European anti-Semitism.

In this case, however, it is straight out of the pages of a comic book that landed in the middle of a campaign to outlaw circumcision in San Francisco for males under the age of 18. "Foreskin Man," featuring a blond, buff hero who battles dark, evil Jewish characters, has added a strange and possibly sinister element to the November initiative campaign, which was already heated.

Landsberg couldn't reach Hess, who told Saunders: "A lot of people have said [the comic is anti-Semitic], but we’re not trying to be anti-Semitic. We’re trying to be pro-human rights." Hess told me something similar when we spoke late last month.

Regardless, I thought Landsberg chose a strong lede for this story. But he only partially follows it up.

Landsberg quotes the Anti-Defamation League and others condemning the comic as anti-Semitic, and he does a good job describing the depictions in the comic that give rise to that belief:

In the comic, the blond superhero takes on "Monster Mohel" — a bearded, black-hatted man wearing a prayer shawl. In the traditional Jewish community, a mohel is a person trained to perform circumcisions. The "Monster Mohel," who leers as he sets after a baby with bloody scissors, is flanked by gun-toting henchmen dressed in the traditional clothes of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Most of the "good" characters in the book have blond or light-brown hair and features that might be termed Aryan.

But Landsberg doesn't explain why those things are anti-Semitic. (They are.) In fact, quotes like this one from Abby Michelson Porth of the Jewish Community Relations Council raise more questions than they answer:

"The images, in addition to being offensive, are not particularly original," she said. "They're reminiscent of millennia-old stereotypes that have been used to persecute and oppress Jews."

Why are these images reminiscent of old stereotypes and how have they been used to persecute Jews? I know the answer. But do all readers?

Particularly missing is any reference to the blood libel or the related anti-Semitic belief that Jews crave the blood of gentile children. (Like in this bit of propaganda.) And, yes, I do think that is a gentile baby because blonde woman behind the mohel appears to be restrained by the "henchman."

On an odd side note, unrelated to the reporting, the LAT story includes a hyperlink to other articles tagged with the word "penis." Not sure if that is because the Times thought the other stories would be off interest to those reading about the anti-circumcision effort or because the LAT is written at an elementary-school level.

IMAGE: Courtesy of, via Saunders' Token Conservative

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