Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Anti-Circ, Antisemitism, and Genital Mutilation

. . . In Aleppo once
Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state
I took by the throat the circumcised dog
And smote him—thus.

—Othello, Act V

Mom, nobody wants to hear about shmeckel-snipping!
—Lizzie DuPree


Those lines from Othello were first spoken at London’s Whitehall Palace, in front of King James I, who by this point in the play (late in Act V) was probably napping into his pointy beard and ruffled collar. James was a great patron of the arts, but not a great one for sitting through them; none of the post-Elizabethan monarchs were what you would call intellectual powerhouses. Who knows, maybe the Duke of Buckingham discreetly elbowed him in the ribs for Othello’s dramatic death scene.

Of course, everyone in that room, and on that stage, would have been uncircumcised. (Including the actor playing Othello’s wife Desdemona. I think “uncut with tits” may now be its own separate channel on xtube.) Circumcision was unknown among European Christians. In fact, uncircumcision had been seen as a sign and mark of Christianity, dating back to Saint Paul’s fulmination against it back in the New Testament, in the book of Galatians. Circumcision, some recent converts to this Messianic sect argued, was still necessary as a covenantal act. Paul, the great apostle of baptism as the Christian covenantal sign, rejected that point of view. He railed against those “Judaizers” who wanted to make Christian converts be circumcised, wishing that they would castrate themselves. And he despaired that his converts were being turned from spiritual to physical matters:

"Are you so foolish, that, whereas you began in the Spirit, you would now be made perfect by the flesh?" (Gal 3:3)

"Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all." (Galatians 5:2)

This rejection of circumcision by Christians held good for many hundreds of years. It was never a popular procedure anyway—it’s not like people in the ancient world lined up around the block for it. It was always a distinct (and distinctly weird) practice of the Jews, who were weird anyway, because pork was the cheapest, best, and most available meat of the ancient world, and what freaks would refuse to eat it? So while none of the actors on that stage, good Christians all, would have been circumcised, Othello the character was.

That’s the bit of wordplay in his final soliloquy here: he is supposedly talking about some random Turkish guy he met in Syria once (he probably means Arab, but the two are interchangeable, from Shakespeare’s point of view, much the way Americans use “Mexican” to mean “brown person from anywhere south of Houston.”) But in fact the “circumcised dog” who is about to get all smoted upon is none other than Othello himself. And Othello, of course, is circumcised because he was born a Muslim – a Moor, in Elizabethan parlance. Circumcision was a common practice among Muslims, mentioned in the hadith (sayings of the Prophet and collected customs) though not in the Qur’an. Probably it’s one of those Jewish practices picked up through Islam’s powerful association with Judaism—remember that the direction of Muslim prayer was originally Jerusalem until the Jewish tribes of the Arabian peninsula managed to piss off the Prophet so severely that he decided they could all go fuck themselves, and the camel they rode in on.

So peen-slicing was for Jews and Muslims, but never Christians. What changed? Well, a number of things. Around the turn of the last century, circumcision began to be popular for male infants, for a variety of somewhat bizarre reasons. The germ theory began to take hold of the public mind, and anyplace where bodily fluids (and therefore germs) could accumulate was held to be dirty. Circumcision was also touted as a way to prevent infection from syphilis and various other uritogenital diseases. Finally, circumcision was seen as a way of eliminating promiscuity, “excessive venery,” and masturbation. I’m sure we all know how well that last worked out. I’ve yet to read a study correlating circumcision rates with the rise of the American hand lotion market, but if the whole promotion of circumcision in this country turns out to have been a capitalist-industrialist plot funded by cigar-smoking robber barons of industry at Johnson and Johnson, I for one will be unsurprised.

Circumcision rates in this country are falling off from their peak about fifty years ago; I think the latest stats say it’s about half and half now, for all male babies born in the US. As Americans learn there are better ways to prevent syphilis (and masturbation), I expect those rates will continue to fall. And like any cosmetic adjustment to the human body, those rates will be driven by what people get used to seeing around them. In other words, as more and more little uncircumcised boys romp on the soccer fields of America, more and more anxious suburban parents who just want their kids to look like everyone else’s will choose to forego the procedure. And as those little kids grow up and have their own kids, “looking like Daddy” will mean fewer and fewer circumcisions in American hospitals.

For Jews and people whose religious tradition mandates it, circumcision is an option that makes cultural sense; for everyone else, I don’t much see the point. In fact, I would think Jews would be against universal circumcision. After all, there’s not much point to your sign of distinctiveness if everyone else has it, too. Maybe lots of Jews promote universal circumcision because they can remember how that identifying mark has been used against Jews in the past, or maybe they are made as nervous as I am by the “intactivist” movement that paints circumcision as a barbaric, bloodthirsty, and abusive practice. And the subject is recently in the news because of a proposed ban in San Francisco against the practice, which besides making outlaws of Jewish parents, would jail doctors for performing a routine medical procedure.

I’d like to give the majority of those activists the benefit of the doubt. Most likely they are unaware of the historical context of their actions. Ignorance of historical context does not, of course, excuse one: if I call an African-American man “boy,” and explain it away by saying I just mistook his age, that doesn’t lessen the gut-slam of everything my blunder just invoked. If I stick a Confederate battle flag bumper sticker on my car, I don’t get a pass if I say that I just thought it was a pretty design. Awareness of the context of our speech and actions is a sine qua non of adult behavior.

Jews react to circumcision bans as precisely that level of thuggish racism, because in the course of their history Jews have in fact experienced circumcision bans as racism. And it’s a little hard to swallow the whole line about “this isn’t racism, it’s just concern” when Matthew Hess, one of the chief proponents of the SF bill and a leading “intactivist” produces images and cartoons like this. Still not seeing the racism? How about taking a look at Monster Mohel? Yeah, now come talk to Jewish groups about how this movement isn’t anti-Semitic in the least.

Of course, what is being proposed in San Francisco is nothing new. The first ban on the Jewish practice of circumcision was enacted by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, whose objective was to stamp out Jews by stamping out Jewish practice. Laws forbidding circumcision were promulgated in the wake of the Second Jewish war in 135 CE, a particularly bloody and hard-fought revolt Hadrian had just succeeded in (finally) winning. It wasn’t the first time Jews had tried to throw off the Roman yoke either, if the name “Second Jewish War” didn’t give it away. So Hadrian decided to nip this problem (so to speak) in the bud: no more circumcision would equal no more Jews. He also outlawed the teaching of Torah, a prohibition Jews defied just as stubbornly. Rabbi Akiva’s students begged him to stop teaching so publicly, and he pointed them to the riverbank teeming with fishermen. “It is dangerous to be a fish in that water,” he said. “But as dangerous as the water is, he will surely die out of it. It is just so for a Jew and Torah.”

Hadrian also had some other cool and highly effective ideas for humiliating Jews, like renaming their capital city after himself, refusing them the right of residence in it and naming their land after their ancient Biblical enemies the Philistines – hence the new and expanded province of Syria-Palaestina, and the birth of Palestine as a term for Israel/Judea.

The desire to stamp out Jews and the banning of circumcision are historical partners, from Hadrian in the second century to the Nazis in the twentieth. Those who campaign against the practice need to be aware of this vicious historical partnership, and need to know that Jews are going to hear all of those historical resonances as an existential threat, which of course it is. There is no Judaism without circumcision. Judaism is the only religion for which circumcision is the non-negotiable entrance requirement, and so it has been (according to Jewish tradition) since the time of Abraham. There’s just no mechanism for “doing it another way.” Circumcision is and always has been the baseline identifier of the Jewish people, for good and ill. It is the covenant marked in our flesh, the inescapable, undeniable proof of who we are. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some Jews who have abandoned the practice, just like there are some Jews who really enjoy their pepperoni pizza. But it’s surprising; even totally secular Jews who might think nothing of that pizza have qualms when it comes to giving up circumcision for their sons. Many a mohel can tell about awkward phone calls from uncertain, completely assimilated parents who still can’t quite, can’t entirely, forego that badge of Jewish identity for their children, when it comes right down to it. Because when it comes right down to it, they know brit milah for what it is: the dividing line between Jewish and not Jewish, between continuance and death.

In addition to being ignorant of history, you also have to be more than a little ignorant of medicine to oppose circumcision. The medical consensus seems to be more or less neutral on the subject. Circumcision, for inhabitants of the first world with plenty of access to regular bathing and condoms, probably carries little benefit in terms of protection from infections. On the other hand, neither does it do any substantive harm. It’s a bit like having your earlobes snipped off; no real difference to you other than a cosmetic one, but if you don’t have a compelling reason to cut off healthy tissue from your body, why would you? No scientific study has found any evidence of significant difference in developmental and behavioral indices between the circumcised and the uncircumcised male, as confirmed in this British Medical Journal’s study of the matter. There is, however, a huge difference between circumcision performed on an infant a few days old and an adult. The adult procedure is major surgery, with all the attendant risks. So all those proponents of delaying circumcision until the child is old enough to make the decision on his own are doing him no favors, but in fact setting him up for more pain and risk.

There’s an even more ominous angle to the recent surge of anti-circ activism. The term circumcision itself is out of vogue with opponents, who prefer the term “male genital mutilation.” By itself it just seems slightly hysterical, but again, context is key: those who use this term are deliberately invoking female genital mutilation, a practice that resembles male circumcision about as closely as trimming your fingernails resembles amputating your arm. In female genital mutilation (FGM), the clitoris is most commonly completely excised, along with most of the inner labia. What remains of the female sexual organs is then sewn together, creating a tiny hole through which urine and menstrual blood can pass and of course setting the child up for a lifetime of pain, infection, and sexual misery. Cutting off the penis and removing most of the scrotal sac would be the equivalent action. The practice is brutal, revolting, and mandated by no religion other than misogynistic custom.

To draw a verbal equivalency between circumcision and FGM is to participate in that misogyny. It trivializes the real suffering, the excruciating pain, the lifelong irreparable harm, these young women are subjected to. That kind of equation is like telling someone in a developing country you can empathize with their lack of access to clean water because of that horrid week you experienced during your recent kitchen reno when the contractor had shut off your plumbing and was like, totally not returning your calls and you had to camp out at the Sheraton. The only possible response is: bitch, please.

When anti-circ activists gleefully appropriate the images and language of racism and misogyny, they play a dangerous game. On the other hand, they do make it very easy for those of us who are not ignorant of the history of anti-Semitism, of medicine, or of misogyny to see exactly what they are about.

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