The Ban on Circumcision and How Europe is Denying its Past

Earlier this month the Council of Europe (an international human rights organisation consisting of EU 47 countries whose decisions are of declarative force only) published an announcement regarding “children’s right to physical integrity”. In the announcement the Council came out against various form of intentional bodily harm to children, such as piercing, tattoos, plastic surgery, sex reassignment surgeries in inter-sexed children (something that deserves an article in itself), female genital mutilation (aka “female circumcision”), and male circumcision.

Of course, the last item on the list gave the signal for typical Jewish hysteria. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, President of the Conference of European Rabbis, declared (Heb) that this is a “new antisemitism”; the Israeli Minister of the Interior, Gideon Saar, also thinks (Heb) it’s “antisemitism”; Dr. Eli Schussheim, Head of the Circumcision committee at the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Health, cried out (Heb) that it is “a plot to spiritually annihilate the Jewish People,” while Foireign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor ruled (Heb) that this is “Horrid ignorance, at best, or libel and religious hatred at worst”. Great job.

The debate concerning circumcision is rich with meaning and constitutes a rare intersection of diverse world-views and value-maps. This is why I find it fascinating not only due to its pragmatical angle (will the Jews of Europe be able to circumcise their sons or not, etc,), but because it teaches us about far-reaching social, ethnic and ideological processes underway in Western society. I have written before (Heb) about the post-humanist aspect of banning circumcision. Now I’d like to touch upon its political and ideological aspects.

To start, a few clarifications: Does circumcision inflict permanent damage to the male sexual organ? I believe so. The spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, incidentally, says otherwise, and that there is “no scientific criteria” according to which damage can be proved. I don’t understand him. It is clear to me that removal of the foreskin changes the way the male has sex, and not for the better. On the other hand, is the damage significant? I believe not. I happen to be a circumcised male myself and can attest that everything, thank god, works perfectly fine. So: Does this negligible damage justify banning it? I believe not.

But the damage is not the story. The damage caused to the baby (or the man he will be) is not at the heart of the decision by the European Council. Proof of this can be found in the fact that all those people seeking to ban infant circumcision will stand, vehemently even, on the right of any adult to circumcise himself (or acquire a sex change operation, or plastic surgery, etc,). So the cutting of the genitalia and the damage to the body are not, in themselves, the problem. What is? The problem is that the circumcision is done without the consent and free choice of the baby.

And this is definitely a problem. On the other hand, circumcision is done without the consent of the baby just as many things are done without his or her consent: He or she receives certain food and no other, lives in a certain place and no other, learns a certain language but not another, is sent to a certain kindergarten and school and no other, where he receives a certain education and no other. In addition, parents raise their children to believe in the existence of God / his only begotten crucified son / his special chosen people / the holy virgin / dialectical materialism / the hidden hand / an endless, meaningless universe.

All of the above, done without the consent of the baby and child, shape his life more significantly than the foreskin present or missing from his penis. Even if one believes that the removal of the foreskin causes not slight but severe damage to the sex organ (and this really is unsupported by science), the damage of a bad education is greater. Education is irreversible, just as learning a language, or having a childhood in general. What our parents gave us will accompany us for the rest of our days. Therefore, there is no sense in legally banning circumcision, unless we intend to also ban raising children according to beliefs we don’t like.

Circumsision in ancient Egypt

Human Dignity

But let’s leave all that aside. Let’s say we have shown that focusing on circumcision and ignoring education, beliefs and so on is somewhat inconsistent, perhaps even dishonestly so. I wouldn’t want to defend circumcision just by showing its opponents to be hypocritical. I would like to positively explain why it is important to allow those interested to maintain the ceremony, through an ethical argument stemming from the matter itself. In order to do so I would like to more closely examine the matter of free choice. In other words, why is it a problem that the baby cannot choose to be circumcised? Why are consent and free choice so important to us? A worthy question, is it not?

So. why does free choice attain an almost sanctified position in our eyes, to the point where liberals and libertarians will insist on the rights of perfect strangers to do drugs or sell themselves as prostitutes as long as they truly chose to do so? I think it is so important to us because free choice, our autonomy, our use of will, our freedom to decide one way or the other – all these are essential things that define us, that ground our identity and our dignity, our self regard.

In other words, one of the sources of our own identity nowadays is our free will, and this is why it is considered almost sacred. So much so that we are willing to give up values we care about, and feel unpleasant, just so others can express their free will (up to a point, of course).

Now, here’s something interesting: for many people, even today, religious beliefs, religious traditions and the right to chose them and act upon them are also among the things that define them, their identity and their self-regard. One’s religious faith is among the essential parts of his or her inner life. Therefore, he or she greatly desires to be allowed to live by it and express it. This is also why he or she will sometimes be willing to die for it.

This is not new, but what is new is that in our era liberal democracy recognizes the importance of faith (or lack thereof) to the individual, and therefore insists on religious freedom within its boundaries, letting everyone express their belief – or disbelief – allowing no religious or ideological coercion. Because our religious – or agnostic, or atheistic – persuasions are such an important part of what defines us, what constitutes our identity and dignity, religious freedom is so important to us, and is protected by liberal democracy.

Back to circumcision. When we approach the matter, it wouldn’t be right to weigh freedom of choice against unjustified bodily harm. In such a case obviously we would uphold choice and forbid the bodily harm, even if negligible. But we need, for a moment, to enter the mind of the upholders of tradition. If we take their faith seriously, and we must, we see that there are highly important values on both sides: on the one hand, freedom of choice, denied to the baby; on the other, religious and communal identity, given to him by parents allowed to do so. This is part of the package his parents wish to bequeath unto him, to bring him up by. This is part of the elements of their identity, their self-respect. It’s an essential part of themselves, no less than their free choice. So if we see it thus, both sides of the debate carry values it is important to all of us to preserve.

And now we must decide – which of the two tips the scale? Had the harm to baby been severe, or the social/ethical context been oppressive and degrading (degrading and oppressing what? The very same human dignity we’re trying to defend; the very same human dignity for which we also defend freedom of expression!), then I would think that banning it is justified, even at the cost of denying the parents their freedom of religion.

Is this the case? I think not. I don’t think infant circumcision is problem-free. Definitely not. But I think one can say that in the end the harm done is limited, and the context non-oppressive, and therefore I don’t think that freedom of choice justifies banning the action, which represents such an important element in the lives of those believing in its religious significance. Why? Because it assaults their dignity and the essential values of their lives no less, and I believe far more, than un-chosen circumcision harms the baby’s self-regard.

One more small thing: there’s no point in yelling that there is no god. We will not decide for others what to believe. We will in fact accord them the freedom to believe as they choose, and keep whatever tradition they see fit (within certain boundaries, of course, not to be discussed here). And we require that in the name of their faith or tradition our own freedom of choice would not be limited, nor harm done to our beliefs or the values at the basis of our world-views and self respect.

Isaacs Circumcision as depicted in the Regensburg Pentateuch, Germany 1300

Europe

So what’s up with these Europeans? First of all, I do not believe antisemitism is involved here (the enthusiasm with which it is thrown into every discussion is pathetic). The motive is something else entirely: What we have here is high moral sensitivity (which can be observed in the spread of vegetarianism and veganism – note that the opponents of circumcision also express a worthwhile moral principle and motivation), along with an anti-clerical, anti-theistic tendency, prevalent in current-day Europe, mixed with some confusion.

The spirit of the French revolution is returning, wishing to cleanse the land of religious manifestations. It focuses on acts and attire because that is much easier than banning beliefs. The Council of Europe also spoke about piercing and so on, but we should monitor whether the places that are advancing actual legislation to ban circumcision are also moving to bar parents from piercing their children’s ears or allow them to have tattoos. If not, this is a sign that what the legislator is annoyed at is not the damage to the body, but the impetus to the damage, in our case religious belief. This is, therefore, an attempt to harm the religious freedom of Europeans.

But wait, aren’t there things we’ll ban even though banning them would harm religious freedom? Of course there are. For instance, female genital mutilation. And why? Because by and large it entails much (much) greater damage to the genitalia, and even more importantly, because the context (as I mentioned before) is utterly different: in the case of male circumcision, it is about acceptance of the boy to the community, an enhancement to his dignity and to his social importance. Female circumcision is part of an array of means to suppress woman and control her body; it reduces her dignity and her social standing.

One of the articles on the matter in Hebrew noted that “many of the delegates supported amending the motion so that it won’t include a mention of the parents’ religious rights.” I believe this is the story. The attempt to erase the recognition of citizens’ religious rights. And I find this astonishing. It’s astonishing because by doing so Europe denies its roots. Not its religious roots, but its democratic ones, since the formation of European democracy was based among other things on recognition of the essential place held by religious beliefs in the individual’s life and with the intent of enabling individuals of differing religious beliefs to live together. Religious pluralism – stemming from deep recognition of the value of religion – was one of the building stones of European democracy (although less so than the American version, and not at all in revolutionary France). Therefore these testimonys (and one can add the French “Burqa Law” here) of denying this heritage mark an interesting process.

Jesus's circumsision, Master of Tucher Altarpiece, 15th century

Please note: All of the above is critique of a proposed law banning circumcision. I have nothing against people trying to persuade others not to perform the procedure, and therefore of course nothing against people, Jews included, who do not wish to perform it. I am speaking here only of the right of those who do want, out of traditional-religious considerations, to perform it.

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7 Responses to “The Ban on Circumcision and How Europe is Denying its Past”


  1. 1 Atomic Mutant 28/10/2013 at 11:03

    On your first point: I can agree that there are other problems, but we should notice two things…

    a) “But there are other bad things happening, too.” is not a valid argument, otherwise almost no criminal would ever be convicted, because there is almost always someone worse. So, the existence of a problem is completely unrelated to the fact that there are other problems.

    b) The examples you mentioned (education, belief, etc.) are perhaps psychological problems, but circumcision is a clearly defined problem with clearly defined outcomes. It’s a physical act and thus, in a way, measurable, while the effects of education, belief, etc. are much harder so. Comparing those two is difficult, if not impossible.

    “Bodily integrity” is a basic human right in some constitutions, for example, the german one, so it’s easy to argue from here on, while it’s much harder to argue against the right of parents to educate their children.

    c) Technically, I agree that bad education is harmful, but honestly, I don’t see much chances to remedy that, as the only choice would be to give the state more power here – and somehow that doesn’t seem right, too, as the multi-faceted natur of human societies is, imho, very important and would be reduced by letting the government enforce rules on how children should be education and, even worse, what to believe.
    I personally assume, that the way it is now, with some laws against extreme cases of bad parenting, have to be enough, as there probably is no perfect solution.

    • 2 תומר פרסיקו 28/10/2013 at 22:27

      a) I agree. It’s not the only argument, as I wrote.

      b) “it’s much harder to argue against the right of parents to educate their children” – yes, that’s exactly it. It’s simply harder to argue and regulate it, but obviously education effects us much more then the existence of a foreskin.

      c) Again, you are absolutely right, so my argument stands.

      • 3 Atomic Mutant 28/10/2013 at 22:52

        “more”? Surely, yes. Worse? Now that depends. If we are restricting everything that affects us… Well, that’s everything. What would you propose? Living in a cave? That will affect us, too.
        The question is, does it affect us as badly as real, measurable bodily harm?

        So, to make it simple, the foreskin is something we can talk about quite simply, it’s a solvable problem, while I don’t see much chances for a solution to the education problem. But of course, I would be quite happy if it was discussed more, because, quite frankly, I thought about the problem quite a lot and didn’t find a really good answer.

  2. 5 Assaf 28/10/2013 at 16:24

    ” … the ‘Council of Europe’ (an international body consisting of EU countries whose decisions are of declarative force only … ”

    The Council of Europe has nothing to do with the EU. It includes 47 states (whereas the EU has 28 states).

    You are confusing it with the Council of the European Union (also known as “Council of Ministers” or “The European Council”), which does belong to the EU.

  3. 7 Anonymous 29/10/2013 at 08:24

    Interesting article and appreciate your bringing to attention the attempt to erase the recognition of citizens’ religious rights.

    In my opinion, the determining factor is best interest of the child. Best interest is determined by parents in consultation with their pediatrician taking into account medical, religious, cultural and ethnic traditions, and personal beliefs.

    As for the potential medical benefits and risks, the most recent scientific study published 16 April 2013 (http://mbio.asm.org/content/4/2/e00076-13) finds that male circumcision significantly reduces prevalence and load of genital anaerobic bacteria offering protection against HIV and other viral infections thus reducing HIV transmission.

    Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 75 million people have contracted HIV and nearly 36 million have died of HIV-related causes. More than 35 million people now live with HIV/AIDS. 3.3 million of them are under the age of 15. In 2012, an estimated 2.3 million people were newly infected with HIV.


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