Anti-Milah Activist’s Jewish Problem

Two new twists emerged in the West Coast wars against bris milah, or circumcision, recently. The bid to outlaw the practice in the seaside city of Santa Monica, just north of Los Angeles, was dropped by its promoter, Jena Troutman. And the measure that would outlaw circumcision in San Francisco and fine violators up to $1000 was placed in a new and harsh light as the result of two deeply offensive comic books promoted by one of the proposal’s main supporters.

The San Francisco proposal received the nearly 8000 signatures required to qualify it for the November ballot, despite the fact that, while it would exempt cases of medical necessity, it explicitly applies its prohibition to circumcisions performed for religious reasons.

That fact led some to charge from the start that an undercurrent of anti-Jewish and/or anti-Muslim sentiment ran swift and strong beneath the proposed law. The comic books, written by Matthew Hess, the founder of an anti-circumcision group in San Diego and a vocal backer of the San Francisco proposal, certainly lent graphic evidence to the suspicion—and drew broad public outrage.

Produced last year, the comics feature a square-jawed, blond, blue-eyed and grotesquely muscular “superhero” fighting forces of evil, in this case parents who wish to circumcise their sons—and, especially, mohelim, or ritual circumcisors. The latter and their cohorts are rendered in bizarre, garish fashion, with sinister multitudinous-toothed grimaces, knives at the ready, and sinister white space where their eyes should be. Scenes include depictions of terrified babies and brutal doctors covered in blood; and the evil protagonist of one of the publications is unambiguously labeled “Monster Mohel.”

The imagery is more than passingly reminiscent of Nazi-era graphic publications that promoted ugly myths about Jews, like Der Stürmer, the product of the fevered and perverse imagination of Julius Streicher, who was tried at Nuremberg for his promotion of Jew-hatred and then hung for his crimes.

One of the comics in the series also conjures more subtly anti-Jewish themes, as when a character complains that the “pro-circumcision lobby” has “all of the well-connected doctors and lawyers” in its pocket.

Bay Area Jewish community leaders reacted with indignation to the comic books.

“The imagery in these cartoons is offensive and anti-Semitic,” said Abby Michelson Porth, associate director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). “To imagine that the person who produced this is a principle organizer of the measure to criminalize and ban circumcision in San Francisco is alarming.” The legal language of the San Francisco initiative is in fact reportedly based on text first published on Hess’s website.

“This is an advocacy campaign taken to a new low,” said Nancy Appel, associate regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

In fact, the attention garnered by the crude comics may have played a major role in the withdrawal of the proposed circumcision ban in Santa Monica. “It shouldn’t have been about religion in the first place,” Ms. Troutman, the force behind the erstwhile proposal, told the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal, implying that charges of anti-Semitism, most loudly raised as a result of Hess’ comics, had made her reconsider her quest.

Hess, who calls himself a “human rights activist,” defended his graphic work as being “neither anti-Semitic nor anti-physician.” But those “who cut innocent children,” he said, “will be drawn like the villains that they are.”

Even before the offensive comics were uncovered, though, there was much and widespread determination in the Jewish community to fight the anti-milah measures. Not only were strong statements issued by national Orthodox organizations like Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union, but an organized initiative under the umbrella of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council was undertaken locally—and encompassed parties beyond the Orthodox.

Jewish individuals, moreover, who spoke out against the proposals, also hailed from different parts of the Jewish communal spectrum. Santa Monica’s mayor, Richard Bloom, for instance, announced that he was staunchly opposed to the ban that had been proposed for his locality, and stated that he plans to work with other political leaders to challenge the ballot measure in San Francisco.

And a Los Angeles-based urologist, Dr. Samuel Kunin, who has taught at the (Reform) Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the (Conservative) Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University, promised that, should the San Francisco ballot measure pass, he would make the trip up the coast to perform the first illegal San Francisco circumcision.

The broad defense of bris milah is intriguing. Non-Orthodox movements have abandoned many parts of the Jewish religious heritage and deeply changed others. One would expect something less than enthusiasm among non-Orthodox Jews for something as challenging to a contemporary mind as circumcision—the injuring, after all, as the anti-circumcision advocates never tire of shouting—of an innocent baby who is not making the choice of the procedure himself. To be sure, there may be health benefits and likewise, to be sure, an infant’s nervous system has not likely developed full sensitivity to the pain of a cut. Most eight-day-old baby boys fall asleep shortly after their bris milah. But, all said and done, why would Jews affiliated with movements that have abandoned not only entire areas of halacha but entire verses of the Torah hesitate to jettison a Jewish practice that seems to a simple mind to be “barbaric” (as the early Reform movement in fact labeled it)?

There can be only one answer, and it represents the silver lining of the current assault on milah: The pinteleh Yid, the essential spark of the Jewish soul, even when clouded over by a rolling fog of contemporary mores and sensibilities, is not easily extinguished. It perseveres, it persists. It lays down a line in the San Francisco Bay sand and refuses to countenance its crossing.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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