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IOTM – Jonathan Friedman

FEBRUARY 2015: Jonathan Friedman was raised by a large Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. As a young boy, he witnessed many Orthodox Jewish circumcision ceremonies where metzitzah b’peh (oral suction to remove the blood from the baby’s penis) is a requirement.

“When I reached puberty,” Jonathan says, “I began to suffer from circumcision complications. Around the age of 16, my parents pointed out the man who circumcised me, and I immediately realized the chafing, bleeding and pain that I experienced was due to that mohel’s act performed on me as an eight-day-old infant.”

Friedman started researching circumcision during his engineering studies at The Cooper Union in New York City. He came across a video demonstrating the anatomy and gliding motion of the foreskin and shared it with his friends at school, many of whom were Jewish. “We all became really disturbed at what we learned,” he reports.

In January 2011, Friedman first learned of the intactivist movement through his closest school friend, who also was experiencing adverse effects from his circumcision. “I read as much as I could,” he says, and by Spring 2011 he published an article on Rebecca Wald’s website, Beyond The Bris, titled, “On Circumcision, Authority, and the Perpetuation of Abuse.” Shortly after, Jonathan launched IntactNews and joined Attorneys for the Rights of the Child as webmaster and newsletter editor.

Since becoming involved in intactivism, Jonathan has organized and participated in many demonstrations around the country, including NYC Pride, Genital Integrity Awareness Week in Washington, DC, and – in December 2012 – in Berlin, where he joined a protest against the impending German law enshrining circumcision as a religious right. He also joins the Bloodstained Men, spreading the message across the United States, and reaching thousands of people directly and many more through news outlets and social media. “The bloodstained suits are a powerful symbol, very effective at getting people’s attention,” says Friedman. “They express the deep trauma that we all carry, be it physical or psychological.”

“Coming out in public as an intactivist is very difficult, especially for someone of a Jewish background,” he says. “The movement has helped me deal with my suffering and I’m extremely grateful for that. I am also very optimistic about our cause.”

Regarding Intact America, Friedman says, “Intact America takes a professional approach toward raising awareness. I can always count on them to stay on top of important developments and to share well-researched knowledge about this issue. I’m particularly grateful for Intact America’s leading social media presence and for its support of grassroots events, especially NYC Pride.”

Georganne Chapin, Intact America’s executive director says, “It’s a privilege to work with Jonathan. He is extremely intelligent and focused. His contributions to the movement at large, to Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (where I also serve on the board of directors) and to Intact America are huge and growing. Most recently, Jonathan has taken a leadership role in defending Chase, the Florida boy whose mother is fighting to keep him intact. That issue is a work in progress, and we are all fortunate to have Jonathan’s energies behind it.”

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Is Circumcision in America Really “Deeply Religious”?

Things have changed considerably in just the last few years with respect to mass media and the topic of circumcision. Several articles are published every month now – if not every week — in major newspapers and websites here in the U.S. and abroad.

Is Circumcision a Progressive Issue?As a result, it’s somewhat of a luxury to find myself being critical of a piece written by an author who self-identifies as a “Humanist” and presents his personal views as “progressive” on the topic of circumcision.

In his report on a recent intactivist street protest where he interviewed several of the demonstrators, he states, “… my own feeling is that we should not be surgically altering the genitalia of our children without their consent, and that consent can only be given when the child is of legal age.”

What more could you ask, right?

But in an attempt to identify the root cause of the inertia that stands in the way of the real progress made to end circumcision in this country, the author relies on an unsubstantiated claim that conflates notions of American progressivism with unwavering support for religious freedom.

He says, “Circumcision has a deep cultural and religious meaning, and asking people to give up on that practice will be a long, uphill battle.”

The truth is that in the United States, only a tiny fraction of infant circumcisions are conducted as religious rituals. Jews constitute just two percent of the U.S. population. Of those, only a few say religion is very important in their lives.

While no study I’m aware of has been done to uncover current attitudes and thinking specifically about circumcision among American Jews, it’s clear from the number of Jewish intactivists, from the Jewish physicians I know who have refused to have their own sons circumcised, and from information gleaned over the years I’ve been involved with this issue, that many, many Jews forgo the bris, which is the only way of achieving a religiously valid circumcision. And, it’s well known among health professionals that American Muslims have their sons circumcised by the doctor, before they leave the hospital, rather than as part of any religious or “spiritual” ritual.

The author also ignores the much more interesting and inherent conflict between a commitment to human rights and a knee-jerk “progressive” reluctance to condemn a religious practice that violates those rights – all of this while buying into the fallacy that circumcision’s “deep cultural and religious meaning” is the major roadblock to ending its practice in the U.S.

Except for misplaced anxiety about whether siding with the rights of the child will brand one an anti-Semite,  circumcision in America has almost nothing to do with religion. Yet doctors and hospitals exploit this myth in order to sell an unjustifiable but money-making surgery.

Georganne Chapin

Is This What “Religious Freedom” Looks Like?

The recent decision by a court in Cologne, Germany, which—following the circumcision-gone-wrong of a four-year-old Muslim boy—declared infant and child circumcision to be a crime and a human rights violation, seems to have started a trend. Shortly thereafter, in both Austria and Switzerland, hospitals announced that they will cease circumcising children in the absence of medical necessity.

Jewish groups cry “anti-Semitism!” (despite the fact that the child in question was not Jewish)—while throwing in the fact that among Muslims, circumcision is also ubiquitous. One group of rabbis called the German court decision “the worst thing to happen since the Holocaust.” Thus, they claim, any effort to ban the cutting of (boy) children violates the religious freedom of peoples who can cite a justification for this ritual from an ancient book.

Meanwhile in New York City, fearful of being called anti-Jewish, the Health Department has allowed ultra-Orthodox Jews to continue a practice, “metzizah b’peh,” by which the circumciser sucks the blood from the freshly cut penis with his mouth. This ritual, practiced only among a small segment of the Orthodox population, has led to two deaths in Brooklyn, and devastating injuries—including blindness and brain damage—in eleven other children. The ritual circumciser knew he was infected with active herpes, a disease survivable for adults, but deadly for infants.

In reaction, some officials have proposed that parents sign a “consent form,” which would do nothing to protect the child, but would allow the City to avoid any responsibility and— instead—blame the parents.

May we ask: Is this what religious freedom looks like?

Chilren violated in a mass Muslim circumcision

Is this what we are protecting, in order to assure the world we are not anti-Semitic?

Orthodox circumcision

Will this baby, numbed by shock as wine dribbles out of his mouth, thank us for preserving the religious freedom of his parents to hire somebody to cut off part of his penis?

A baby in shock after being circumcised

Is it anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim) to advocate for babies and children who have their own right to religious freedom, but are too young to exercise it?

Is it not genuinely anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim to fail to defend the sons of Jews and Muslims? Are they any less worthy of our protection?

Georganne Chapin and John Geisheker
(John Geisheker is an attorney, and the Executive Director of Doctors Opposing Circumcision)

German Court: A Child’s Right to Bodily Integrity Trumps Freedom of Religion and Parents’ Rights

As I write this, I am in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), where tomorrow Marilyn Milos (from NOCIRC) and I will be attending a meeting on infant circumcision, sponsored by the Royal Dutch Medical Association (KNMG). The KNMG, as well as physician organizations from other European countries, are increasingly adopting the position that circumcising children is a bodily assault and a violation of their rights. Yesterday’s German court decision is excellent—in terms of timing and, of course, substance.

Every website that has posted the news is garnering hundreds, even thousands, of comments, this Huffington Post piece being just one example. On the pro-decision side are those who decry forced circumcision as infringing on children’s rights to bodily autonomy. Those who oppose the German court decision defend infant and child circumcision as the right of parents to practice their religion.

Georganne Chapin, Executive Director of Intact America

Georganne Chapin, Executive Director of Intact America

One of the functions of law in a civil democracy is to promulgate a uniform code of conduct. In a pluralistic society, when certain religious practices contradict or violate this code, or the rights of one individual or group interferes with or breaches the rights of another, the law (and any court that upholds it) provides guidance and—it is hoped—protects potential victims’ rights by prohibiting any such harmful practices.

There is no question that, but for the “freedom of religion” claim, holding down a baby boy and cutting off part of his penis constitutes a forcible physical and sexual assault, with visible and permanent consequences. Defending this practice by relying on a literal interpretation of a religious text ignores the fact that democratic law—while tolerating diverse beliefs—must protect those who cannot protect themselves. To label, or even suggest, that those who would protect babies from harm are anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim) is a tactic of pure intimidation.

Another less explicitly religious—but equally problematic—defense of circumcision relies on parental intent. “We do it for the baby’s own good” (so he’ll be cleaner, so he’ll find a wife, so he won’t be laughed at, etc.).  Sorry. The fact that parents who seek to have their children circumcised may have “benign” motives is irrelevant if the custom inflicts harm on the child.

Cultures or particular groups of people who favor corporal punishment defend it as a legitimate form of shaping behavior, but the courts in countries that recognize individual rights don’t buy this rationale. Cultures too numerous to mention condone child-beating and wife-beating as a means of encouraging better behavior in the future. Individuals from those cultures can believe what they want, but if they live in the United States, they are subject to U.S. law, and will be prosecuted for child abuse or “domestic violence” if they violate the law. Professed non-malignant motives don’t justify acts deemed to harm others.

A huge exception has been the circumcision of children. In the U.S., the fact that doctors adopted the practice as a way of making money (using a series of spurious and serially discredited medical rationales) has served for too long as a cover for religious groups claiming circumcision as their right under religious freedom.

Let us hope that the advocacy of European physicians to abolish infant circumcision, and the court ruling handed down in Germany this week, will lead to a change of consciousness with regard to the rights of children among American physicians and religious groups. The law will—as always—follow suit.

Georganne Chapin

The Problem with a Religious Exemption to an Anti-Circumcision Ban

As I discussed in a previous post, events that occurred earlier this year in San Francisco made me question whether I would support a legal ban on the medically unnecessary circumcision of male infants and children. The answer is yes, though I think a great deal of public opinion-changing will need to occur before any legislative ban has a chance of passing.

The backlash against the ballot measure brought together an interesting coalition of doctors and religious rights organizations. The former claimed the measure would interfere with their right to practice medicine (actually, there was a state preemption issue which alone would have probably killed the municipal law). The latter claimed that the proposed bill was the equivalent of “hate speech,” driven by anti-Semitism, and so deeply divisive that to allow San Franciscans to vote on it would be “dangerous.” They also claimed that interfering with infant circumcision would interfere with the religious freedom of Muslims and Jews.

As a result of the backlash, some intactivists expressed the opinion that perhaps any future proposed legislation should contain a “religious exemption.” I could not disagree more.

For one thing, nobody arguing for their religious freedom to cut babies is saying that they would support a ban on medical circumcision of minors so long as it provided a religious exemption.

Additionally, there are practical considerations. Who, exactly, would be entitled to the religious exemption? Only Jews and Muslims? How “Jewish” would parents have to be?  Would they have to observe Jewish dietary laws? Attend synagogue regularly? Or just say – as a Jewish friend of mine, married to a Greek Orthodox man, did – “If I had a son, I would have to circumcise him, because otherwise my mother would freak out when she changed his diaper.” Would Christians also be allowed the religious exemption if they took the position, as I have heard often from callers when I do radio interviews, “It’s in the Bible”?

The real issue, dwarfing the practical and legal problems of defining and setting the boundaries of a religious exemption, is that we cannot bargain away the rights of a child – any child.  If we believe – as I do – that to circumcise a child is to violate his most fundamental personal right to autonomy and to an open future, if we believe that circumcision is an assault and battery when conducted on a person who did not and cannot consent, then how can “we” through legal means or a policy statement, grant an exemption allowing certain children to be assaulted?  How can we say, “Circumcision is a brutal violation on a child who cannot consent,” and then say, “but it’s ok to cut some babies, if their parents’ religion recommends it”?

For those who accuse intactivists of anti-Semitism, I have this to say. Roughly two percent of the U.S. population is Jewish, and the birth rate among American Jews is reportedly low. Increasing numbers of Jews are choosing not to circumcise, and among those who do, many have their sons circumcised by doctors in hospitals, a practice that carries no religious significance. So the number of ritual circumcisions carried out in this country is no more than a few thousand each year. Isn’t it rather absurd to suggest that an entire movement to protect children’s rights is based on the hatred of a religious group responsible for a fraction of one percent of the one million infant circumcisions performed in the United States each year? The intactivist movement has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with protecting children – all children –  from harm.

The real issue is, whose rights – to autonomy, to religious freedom, to bodily integrity, to safety and security of person – does child circumcision violate? The baby’s rights, of course.

Babies have no religious opinions, and to allow somebody else – parent, mohel, doctor – to remove part of their genitals, to mark their bodies with a permanent scar where that normal, natural body part used to be, precludes their own rights to make a choice in the future.

Georganne Chapin