Anti-circumcision campaign cut short

Male circumcision dates back to a deal that Abraham made with God, as far as I know; most Jewish and Muslim parents still circumcise their sons to show that they’re keeping their end of the bargain.  Of course, in many rich countries, lots of other people circumcise sons.  There’s some scientific evidence of some health benefits, particularly reduced transmission of AIDS, and some vigorous debate about adverse consequences.  Meanwhile, the percentage of newborns circumsized has declined over the past couple of decades.

But the cut itself is provocative, particularly when you think about it absent religious context.  In Santa Monica, Jena Troutman (above), a lactatation consultant, launched a campaign to ban circumcision in her town, making the cutting of foreskins a crime.  She started to collect signatures to get a proposition on the ballot for the November election, following a similar effort in San Francisco–where voters will address the question in November.

Initiatives and referenda are good tools for campaigns that can generate broad soft support, and good places for majorities to restrict what minorities can do.  (Witness the repeated referenda campaigns on same sex marriage.)  The populist legacy of voters making policy directly requires even more dramatic oversimplification of issues than regular politics.  Hyperbole and polemic are required elements of such campaigns, and the ballot initiative is a blunt instrument for making policy.

And activists against circumcision (“inactivists” is their preferred term) have a variety of reasons for their campaigns.  Ms. Troutman says that she’s just trying to save babies from harm, and explains her ideas, with music, on her website.  Baby boys, the argument goes, are born perfect, and the cut is cruelty.  By analogy, ritual circumcision of boys is very much like female circumcision, now almost universally called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and recognized as cruel, dangerous, and misogynistic.

But there’s a longer history of campaigns to ban circumcision, and it’s less about protecting babies than protecting society—from Jews.  Over hundreds of years, some states have banned the practice intending to isolate, stigmatize, and ultimately eliminate Judaism.   Jewish leaders were ready to see the referendum as a continuance of this anti-Semitic tradition, despite Ms. Troutman’s protestations:

For me, this was never about religion. It was about protecting babies from their parents not knowing that circumcision was started in America to end masturbation (Fox News report).

But Troutman was not alone in her campaign, and in movement politics, as elsewhere, you are judged by the company you keep.  Troutman’s ally, Matthew Hess, wrote the bill she was pushing, as well as the measure in San Francisco.  Hess is committed to the issue, and his comic book series that advances his position, Foreskin Man.
We expect movements to sharpen their arguments, often at the expense of complexity, and the comic book form isn’t the most suitable for nuance, but:  Hess’s books are filled with images that push obvious anti-Semitic buttons.    On the left, see Hess’s villain, Monster Mohel, sporting stylized beard, hat, and prayer shawl.  The heroes look conspicuously Aryanized.
The images, rhetoric, and Hess himself made the charge of anti-Semitism very credible.
So Jena Troutman backed off, abbreviating her campaign.  She and her allies will look for new opportunities to advance their claim without the encumbrance of Matthew Hess’s apparently broader agenda.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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