Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Extend Civil Partnerships to Opposite-Sex Couples: My Response to the UK Government's Civil Partnership Consultation Survey

To achieve equality before the law in the UK, and enable my partner and I to enter into the civil partnership we so desire, it is necessary to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples. Some people have asked me to explain why. Below, I have copied some of my responses to the UK government's Civil Partnership Consultation Survey, by way of explanation. My answers may also help others fill out the survey in support of extending civil partnerships to all. The survey can be found here and needs to be completed by April 17.

Question 1:  What are your views on abolishing the legal relationship of civil partnership once same sex couples can marry? Please choose one answer only.    

I believe civil partnership should not be abolished because _________________ 

They are a valued and valuable social institution. There are many individuals and couples, including opposite sex couples, who would like to enter into civil partnerships. We should dismantle the discrimination and allow all couples to enter into civll partnerships, as we have done with marriage, not demolish a perfectly good social institution (built at great public expense in terms of rules, procedures and forms) in which many couples would like to live! 

Question 3: What are your views about extending civil partnerships to opposite sex couples? Please choose one answer only.

I believe civil partnerships should be extended to opposite sex couples because_________________  

In a democratic society we should all be equal before the law. The ban on opposite-sex civil partnerships is unjust discrimination. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone is entitled to equal treatment and protection against discrimination. Legalising same-sex marriage was the recognition that LGBT people are of equal worth, equal love and have the right to equal treatment in law. The same principle of equality applies in the case of civil partnerships. Heterosexual couples should be able to have a civil partnership if they wish.


Question 4: Given the choice between forming a civil partnership or living together as an opposite sex couple, which would you personally prefer? Please choose one answer only.

I would prefer to form a civil partnership because_________________ 

I would like to formalise, de jure, my relationship to someone I already consider to be my de facto partner. I want to be part of an institution that is free of patriarchal history, that formalises a relationship of equals, and that has sought to include previously marginalised and persecuted groups, not sought to exclude them. Civil partnership captures this as it allows a formal, legal tie, but without the ‘baggage’ of a centuries-old tradition – and all the gender and cultural stereotypes that marriage entails. I want a simple civil contract between myself and my partner, in which the state recognises us as partners, and gives us all the rights and responsibilities that flow from that recognition. I hope that the UK government and the general public understands why the availability of this option is important for me and my partner as well as other same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
 


Question 5: Given the choice of forming a civil partnership or marrying your opposite sex partner, which would you personally prefer? Please choose one answer only.

I would prefer to form a civil partnership because_________________ 

Again, I want to be part of an institution that is free of patriarchal history, that formalises a relationship of equals, and that has sought to include previously marginalised and persecuted groups, not sought to exclude them. Civil partnership captures this as it allows a formal, legal tie, but without the ‘baggage’ of a centuries-old tradition – and all the gender and cultural stereotypes that marriage entails. 





Question 6: Are there any costs and benefits that are not included in this document linked to:

COSTS: By failing to open up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples, the law will remain discriminatory against opposite-sex couples. Those of us who want to enter into civil partnerships will be denied that opportunity. We would be forced to continue living together without the rights and protections that other couples, who are able to become civil partners, are entitled to. We may have to look abroad for civil partnerships or civil unions (to countries such as France, which has a Pacte Civil de Solidarité, or PACS), at great cost and inconvenience to ourselves, and with no guarantee of those unions being recognised upon our return to the UK. 

BENEFITS: The main benefit of extending civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples is that there would be equality before the law - at last! By opening up the institution, the UK would blaze a progressive trail, and be a shining light to other countries. Opposite-sex couples would be able to choose freely whether to cohabit, marry or enter civil partnerships, with the added protections that these state-recognised unions would provide. The status of civil partnerships for those who already have them would be elevated by virtue of the institution becoming one that couples of all genders and sexualities can enter into out of choice, and not because they have been excluded from marrying. 

Question 7: Are there any detailed implementation issues that are not included in this document linked to:

It is so simple to extend civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples - just amend the existing law so that couples entering into the contract can be of the opposite sex. Done!

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If you would like to know more about the differences between marriage and civil partnership, please see this UK government document for explanation. There are several differences in the ceremonies and contracts themselves between civil marriages and civil partnerships, but not in terms of substantive rights, which is why it's preferable from my point of view. Things that stand out for me - because they reveal the lingering patriarchal undertones of the institution of marriage - are: Marriage certificates include the names of only the fathers of the parties; Civil partnership certificates include the names of both parents of the parties. Grounds for divorce in marriage: Adultery and the petitioner finds it intolerable to live with the respondent. The definition of adultery is sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite sex outside of marriage. In civil partnership: This is not a fact which could be relied on for ending a civil partnership. The beauty of a civil partnership is one gets the same rights and protections of marriage (boring but probably important stuff like pension rights!) without this baggage - WIN!

Monday, 24 February 2014

Abortions in Israel: Time to finally abort pregnancy-termination committees?

Last week, I published the second in my two-part miniseries for Israel's Haaretz newspaper on the politics of abortion in Israel. Below is the full article. 

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Abortions in Israel: Time to finally abort pregnancy-termination committees?

How Israel’s abortion law compares to other countries, and why the current political environment may be ripe for reform. Part two of a two-part series.

By  | Feb. 20, 2014 | 3:13 PM


As my previous blog on abortions in Israel showed, Israel's abortion law is not as liberal as some wishfully think. But the questions remain: how does Israel compare to other countries, and has the time come to change the status quo? As for whether Israel is more or less liberal, the answer, in short, is that Israel lies somewhere in the middle.


It is nowhere near as restrictive as the seven countries that ban abortion altogether, even when the life of the woman is at risk. Nor is it as restrictive as countries like Ireland that only allow abortion to save the woman’s life. Mara Klein Clarke, who directs the U.K.-based Abortion Support Network, told me Ireland is “pretty horrific, both North and South … women are seldom allowed to obtain abortions.” As a result, she says, “We’ve heard from women who have thrown themselves down flights of stairs, drunk bleach, chased packages of birth control pills down with bottles of vodka and gin. And this is in 2013/2014 in the supposedly developed world.”


Evidently the abortion situation in Israel could be much worse.

But, equally, it could be much better. In the United Kingdom (aside from Northern Ireland) abortion is free on the National Health Service and legal up to 24 weeks. Although there is a postcode lottery of provision and a paternalistic mandate that two doctors need to sign off on the abortion, this is largely a formality and certainly a far cry from Israel’s Orwellian three-person pregnancy-termination committee. Meanwhile, Canada has done away with restricting abortions altogether, and simply considers abortion a “medically necessary” service.


So Israel’s abortion provision sits between these two poles. “On the one hand, women really can’t make the choice for themselves here. They need to get approval from a committee. On the other hand, Israel is not one of those countries where there’s a complete ban on abortion,” explains Rivka Neumann of the Women's International Zionist Organization. Political scientist Yael Yishai categorizes Israel as an “intrusive” state that “limits individual discretion but is committed to implementing authorized (that is, legal), abortions.”

The question, then, is what accounts for Israel’s intrusion into women’s wombs?

My research (summarized here) suggests that Israel’s approach to abortion is the outcome of a complex interplay between various factors and actors. On the one hand there are those who have opposed abortion for either religio-moral or demographic reasons, while on the other hand have been those concerned about the implications for women’s health and welfare of restrictions on access to abortion, as well as feminists resisting attempts to render women’s wombs national vessels.

Historically, those opposed to abortion on demographic grounds feared that freer access would decrease the Jewish birth rate and in turn Israel’s Jewish majority. David Ben-Gurion was especially anxious about low Jewish fertility, and wrote in Haaretz in 1967, “The increase of the Jewish birthrate is not an imperialistic need, but rather an essential component of the survival of the [Jewish] people … Any woman who does not have four children as much as it depends on her is betraying the Jewish mission.” Linking abortion to the “demographic danger” became most vivid and vocal during the 1975 Knesset debate on abortion law reform. Feminist former MK Marcia Freedman recalls in her memoir that MKs opposing abortion shouted statements like, “tens of millions of Arabs, who are fruitful and multiply, surround our borders” and “Has Arafat given his consent to this law?”

Yet pro-natalist opposition to abortion has been resisted by those concerned with the negative repercussions for women of restrictions on access to abortion. Former MK Haviv Shimony, who submitted the successful abortion law reform bill in 1975, explained at the time that whilst the future of Israel depended on both immigration and natural increase, “these foundations are completed by the concern for the physical and emotional health of our people gathering in the country … Imposing the burden of a multitude of children on weak social groups from the financial, educational and mental points of view will only destroy the families and the society.” Others, like Freedman, went further, stressing the inalienable right of women to control their own bodies.

The outcome of these historic struggles – which I call a “war of the wombs” – is that abortion in Israel became widely available, yet legally restricted.

Has the time come to change the status quo? In order to answer that, we must first understand whether the power of the religious and nationalist forces opposed to liberalizing abortion has weakened enough to enable such a change.

Opinion on this is divided.

Some fear that religious and nationalist forces remain powerful within Israel, and worry that opening a new chapter in this war of the wombs could generate a counterproductive conservative backlash. The recent health-basket reform resulted in a funding victory, but before hastily moving onto the next stage of liberalizing abortion in Israel, they urge patience and caution. “We need to let things permeate,” Orly Hasson-Tsitsuashvilli, the Executive Director of Ladaat, a family planning education and counseling center in Jerusalem, told me. She says the health-basket reform “raised a storm and raised opposite opinions to the surface.” As such, she says ”We need a bit of time before we take the next big step.”

Others are more optimistic. Meretz chairwoman MK Zehava Gal-On has submitted a bill to the Knesset calling for the abolition of the termination committees. “The law should be changed and the committees should be stopped so that each woman can decide for herself if she would like to have an abortion or not … The bill that I have submitted will most definitely give the women control back over their lives and reproduction systems,” she told me. A recent editorial in Haaretz echoed Gal-On’s demands, stressing that “Lawmakers must act to change the abortion committees’ criteria and to ensure that Israeli policy matches that of most Western nations. Every woman must be given the freedom to choose.”

There are some indications that proposing such reforms could be successful. The health-basket committee unanimously supported expanding the funding of legal abortions, the Cabinet quickly approved their recommendation, and there are no ultra-Orthodox political parties in the current coalition to obstruct abortion reform. It is also doubtful that demographic fears linking access to abortion to the security of the Jewish majority are anywhere near as potent as in the past. Most encouragingly, during last week’s hearing on abolishing the termination committees, organized by the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, consensus was reached that “until the 12th week, we don't need the committee,” according to Hasson-Tsistuashvilli, who attended the hearing. Even Dr Eli Schussheim, the Director of the anti-abortion organization Efrat, agrees, and has now argued in favor of abolishing the committees. Consequently, Gal-On told me that she is “very hopeful that we will be able to pass it (her bill) within the next parliamentary session.”

So perhaps this is an opportune moment to push for abortion law reform. After all, isn’t it high time to let women in Israel finally decide for themselves what to do with their own bodies?

In her last blog post, Dr. Rebecca Steinfeld explained that Israel’s recent health-basket reform may make abortions more affordable, but hardly more accessible. Steinfeld is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History at Stanford University, and a BBC New Generation Thinker. She researches the history and politics of reproduction in Israel. She tweets @beccasteinfeld

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This article was originally published by Haaretz. For the full article, click here.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Abortions in Israel: Time to finally abort pregnancy-termination committees?

Today, I published the second in my two-part miniseries for Israel's Haaretz newspaper on the politics of abortion in Israel. Below are the first 150 words, and in 48 hours I'll re-post the whole article. 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Abortions in Israel: Time to finally abort pregnancy-termination committees?

How Israel’s abortion law compares to other countries, and why the current political environment may be ripe for reform. Part two of a two-part series.

By  | Feb. 20, 2014 | 3:13 PM

As my previous blog on abortions in Israel showed, Israel's abortion law is not as liberal as some wishfully think. But the questions remain: how does Israel compare to other countries, and has the time come to change the status quo? As for whether Israel is more or less liberal, the answer, in short, is that Israel lies somewhere in the middle.

It is nowhere near as restrictive as the seven countries that ban abortion altogether, even when the life of the woman is at risk. Nor is it as restrictive as counties like Ireland that only allow abortion to save the woman’s life. Mara Klein Clarke, who directs the U.K.-based Abortion Support Network, told me Ireland is “pretty horrific, both North and South … women are seldom allowed to obtain abortions.” As a result, she says, “We’ve heard from women who have thrown themselves down flights of stairs, drunk bleach, chased packages of birth control pills down with bottles of vodka and gin. And this is in 2013/2014 in the supposedly developed world.”

Evidently the abortion situation in Israel could be much worse.

But, equally, it could be much better. 
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This article was originally published by Haaretz. For the full article, click here.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Abortions in Israel: Is the law as liberal as they claim?

Two days ago, I published my second blog as a Jewish thinker for Israel's Haaretz newspaper on the topic of abortion in Israel. Below is the full article: 
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Abortions in Israel: Is the law as liberal as they claim?

Israel’s recent health-basket reform may make abortions more affordable, but hardly more accessible. Part one of a two-part series.

By  Feb. 13, 2014 | 11:58 AM


Imagine you’re a woman in Israel facing an unwanted pregnancy. If you’re lucky and wealthy, you could pay for an illegal, private, no-questions-asked abortion, setting you back between NIS 2,099-2,912 ($600 and $830), depending on the stage you’re at and whether it’s a surgical or medical termination.

If you’re less well off, you could go the legal route. But then you’ll have to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops, since abortion in Israel is only legal if you receive permission from a Pregnancy Termination Committee (consisting of two doctors and a social worker) and fulfill one of four criteria: you’re under-18 or over-40, pregnant as a result of criminal or extra-marital relations, your fetus is likely to have a physical or mental defect, or your pregnancy poses a danger to your life or could cause you physical or mental harm. If you don’t meet the criteria, you could lie - but this is risky.

All women in Israel - rich or poor, citizens or non-citizens - lack control over one of the most intimate decisions connected to their bodies: reproduction. Instead of having full reproductive autonomy, lawmakers, doctors and social workers decide who can and can’t end her pregnancy.

True, there have been a few positive steps of late: On Tuesday, a Knesset debate was to take place on abolishing Termination Committees; and last month, the Cabinet approved the health-basket committee’s decision to begin paying for legal abortions for women aged 20 to 33, regardless of circumstance.

As Prof. Jonathan Halevy, the head of the health-basket committee and director of Shaare Zedek Medical Center, explains, the women set to benefit from the expanded abortion benefits will be those who need it most: single women, young women unable to ask their parents for the funds, or those pregnant as a result of an extramarital affair but financially dependent on their husbands.

“This is a very important decision that we think opens a door for future progressive decisions regarding reproductive rights,” Orly Hasson-Tsitsuashvilli, the Executive Director of Ladaat, a family planning education and counseling center in Jerusalem, told me. “We, along with a coalition of women's feminist organizations, were among those who led and pushed for this change. I believe that financing this procedure allows every woman to realize her right for health.”

The changes also complement some other liberal aspects of abortion in Israel: A woman can undergo the procedure up to 40 weeks gestation, a minor does not require parental consent, doctors performing illegal abortions are very rarely prosecuted (despite half of all abortions reportedly taking place illegally), and the committees approve virtually all applications - 96.4 percent from 1990-2011, based on my calculations of Central Bureau of Statistics data.

Criteria, committees and campaigning

But while it appears Israel is heading in the right direction, we mustn’t get carried away. A recent Times of Israel article declared, “Israel’s abortion law now among world’s most liberal,” with a Haaretz article published Wednesday echoing the claim. Sadly, this is wishful thinking. Despite the positive elements, women in Israel must still surmount a series of obstacles to obtain legal abortions: criteria, committees, and campaigning anti-abortion organisations.

In order to fulfill the criteria, some women are forced to lie, especially married women, who must claim they’re mentally ill or pregnant due to extramarital sex. This can have dangerous repercussions given that religious authorities have exclusive jurisdiction over marriage and divorce in Israel. It’s not surprising that most women undergoing illegal abortions are thought to be married women aged 19 to 40. This goes to show that requiring women to fulfill certain criteria can compromise their honesty, further undermine their marital rights or risk their health.

The committee process also hinders access. It results in time delays, there is a lack of uniformity in how the committees function, and though all hospitals with gynecology departments are required to provide abortions, many do not, according to Jacqueline Portugese, who has written extensively about fertility policy in Israel. The approval rates are also misleading; since it’s likely those who don’t fit the criteria don’t apply. Hasson-Tsitsuashvilli believes “the way the committees work now is a burden on the system and on women.”

Facing an abortion committee can also be a shameful experience. Medical sociologist Yael Hashiloni-Dolev regards it as a “ceremony of shame and guilt” in which women have to “confess their sins or explain very intimate details about themselves to total strangers.” Health journalist Judy Seigel-Itzkovich told me in 2009 that she thinks 50 percent of abortions performed illegally are women seeking to avoid this embarrassment.

Another problem is the state’s toleration of the activities of anti-abortion organizations. One of these, Efrat, which offers funding and baby equipment to women considering terminations for financial reasons, has been accused of ambushing and manipulating vulnerable young women. Hasson-Tsitsuashvilli told me she thinks Efrat uses fear and guilt tactics to exploit pregnant women's vulnerabilities, uses their bodies for ideological purposes, gives out false information, and disappears from a woman's life about a year after the birth. She thinks “the work of organizations like Efrat is damaging to women as well as to society, from a human and feminist point of view.”

Efrat rejects these accusations as “false, unfounded and libelous,” and told me that in the almost four decades of its work it has “assisted over 56,000 new mothers” and has “never received a single complaint or notification that one of the people assisted had regretted having their new child.” Efrat also says it “gives support for up to two years” and refers women to other welfare organizations if additional assistance is needed.

Yet there remain reasons to be skeptical. The gender specialists L. Ariella Zeller and Elana Maryles Sztokman argue that “Efrat is an anti- abortion, anti-women’s-empowerment movement that wants to appear pro-choice and pro-woman.” And my research has suggested that there are other, demographic motivations that underpin Efrat’s work, and which may compromise their willingness or ability to help all women equally. Efrat’s 2012 billboards declared “Ultimately, the birth rate will determine our existence as a Jewish state,” and when I interviewed Efrat’s director, Dr Eli Schussheim, in 2009 for my doctoral research, he proudly told me, “This is the simplest way to make aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel).” When I asked him whether Efrat would support non-Jewish women seeking terminations for financial reasons, he oscillated. First he said it would and does, and then he explained that as a constitutionally Jewish organization, Efrat is technically barred from doing so. But, “Barukh Hashem (Thank God),” he said, “we do not have any [such] cases.”

The upshot of these criteria, committees and campaigning anti-abortionist organizations is to undermine women’s reproductive rights in Israel. MK Zehava Gal-On told me “Women in Israel do not have any reproductive autonomy - the state robbed them of this right the moment it made abortions an illegal activity and decided to allow them only under very specific circumstances and only after passing a special committee for approval.”

Regrettably, the recent health basket reform does not address any of these problems. As Hasson-Tsitsuashvilli puts it, the reform “goes far, but not [far] enough."

So before we wax lyrical about how liberal Israel’s abortion law is, it’s worth considering what it’s really like to face an unwanted pregnancy in Israel and be confronted by the triumvirate of criteria, committees and campaigning anti-abortion organisations.

Is this really women’s liberation?

In her next blog post, Dr Rebecca Steinfeld will look at the historical context behind Israel’s restrictive abortion law, and ask whether the time has come to reform it.

Dr Rebecca Steinfeld is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History at Stanford University, and a BBC New Generation Thinker. She researches the history and politics of reproduction in Israel. She tweets @beccasteinfeld

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This article was originally published by Haaretz. For the full article, click here.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Abortions in Israel: Is the law as liberal as they claim?

Today, I published my second blog as a Jewish thinker for Israel's Haaretz newspaper on the topic of abortion in Israel. Below are the first 150 words, and in 48 hours I'll re-post the whole article. 

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Abortions in Israel: Is the law as liberal as they claim?

Israel’s recent health-basket reform may make abortions more affordable, but hardly more accessible. Part one of a two-part series.

By  Feb. 13, 2014 | 11:58 AM

Imagine you’re a woman in Israel facing an unwanted pregnancy. If you’re lucky and wealthy, you could pay for an illegal, private, no-questions-asked abortion, setting you back between NIS 2,099-2,912 ($600 and $830), depending on the stage you’re at and whether it’s a surgical or medical termination.

If you’re less well off, you could go the legal route. But then you’ll have to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops, since abortion in Israel is only legal if you receive permission from a Pregnancy Termination Committee (consisting of two doctors and a social worker) and fulfill one of four criteria: you’re under-18 or over-40, pregnant as a result of criminal or extra-marital relations, your fetus is likely to have a physical or mental defect, or your pregnancy poses a danger to your life or could cause you physical or mental harm. If you don’t meet the criteria, you could lie - but this is risky.

This article was originally published by Haaretz. For the full article, click here.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Reproductive Rights and Privilege Checking

Last Tuesday, I contributed to a roundtable discussion organised by the Agender Society at SOAS, University of London, entitled "Our Bodies - Our Choices: Feminist Perspectives on Reproductive Rights." 

We discussed who controls women's reproductive decisions, and how women respond to and resist such attempts to control their bodies. Particular attention was paid to legal and practical restrictions on women's access to abortion, and how the effects of these restrictions are experienced differently by women from various backgrounds - class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality, among others.  

In my contribution, I focused on the politics of abortion in Israel. I provided an overview of the gap between the legal restrictions on, and widespread access to, abortion in Israel. I then explained this gap in terms of the clash between religious and nationalist policymakers opposed to abortion, and women’s health and family welfare advocates who support access, as well as feminists resisting attempts to render women’s wombs national vessels. I also provided some comparative perspective on other states' abortion policies. 

Here we are in action --- 



My fellow speakers included:

Susuana Antubam, the University of London Union's Women's Officer, a founding member of StudentFems London and a member of the NUS Women's Campaign Committee.

Mara Clarke, the director of Abortion Support Network, a charity that provides financial assistance, accommodation and confidential, non-judgemental information to women forced to travel from Ireland and Northern Ireland and pay privately for abortions in England.

Didi Rossi from Queer Strike, a grassroots, multi-racial, lesbian bi, trans*, queer women’s group campaigning for economic, legal and human rights.

Lieta Vivaldi, a researcher and activist from Chile.

Our chair was Rosario Fernández Ossandón, a PhD Student at Goldsmiths University specialising in sociology, feminist theory, nationalism, gender, race, and migration.

Though the discussion was informative, wide-ranging and fascinating, some tensions did become evident, both in the room itself and on Twitter afterwards. The latter revealed that some attendees felt that some of the contributors - myself included - had not been as aware as they could and should have been of their structural privileges. As a result, they (we) were not as sensitive as they (we) ought to have been to certain forms of oppression experienced by others both in the room and outside of it. It was also felt by a few of those present that there was some latent though unacknowledged homophobia, especially directed at those presenting as queer.

Some of the Tweets read:

"other than ALL THE PRIVILEGE, some great points were raised."

"Do safe spaces mean nothing? Straightsplaining,white privilege ... no trans discussion."

"Homophobia is very subtle sometimes. The straightsplaining I'm witnessing is a direct result of queer presentation."

My first reaction to these Tweets was to feel offended (at the slur) and annoyed (because it seemed too easy a way to negate certain arguments - i.e. by shooting the messenger rather than critiquing the message). Speaking for myself, I applied the same rigorous standards of evidence and argumentation that I apply to everything and everyone, irrelevant of their background.

Nevertheless, I do intend to carefully and honestly reflect on how I can ensure my tone contributes to creating a safe, inclusive space. And I will endeavour - as I have always done - to remain as vigilantly self-aware as possible regarding my own structural privileges and how these may influence my positions and approaches. No matter how self-aware one considers oneself to be, there is always room for improvement. 

Telling those one disagrees with to check their privilege may be a convenient way to avoid having to fully engage with their arguments or provide evidence to support one's own views. Yet, in spite of this, academics, activists and others should strive to remain as cognisant of their structural advantages as possible. Constantly checking one's privilege - however uncomfortable that may be - is essential to that process.  

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To read an interesting debate on 'checking one's privilege,' check out these two articles:

Louise Mensch: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/30/reality-based-feminism-louise-mensch?guni=Article:in%20body%20link

Laurie Penny: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/31/louise-mensch-privilege-internet



It cuts both ways: A Jew argues for child rights over religious circumcision

Two days ago, I published my debut blog as a Jewish thinker for Israel's Haaretz newspaper on the topic of circumcision. Below is the full article: 

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Censuring circumcision in Europe is about child protection, not anti-Semitism.

By  Nov. 26, 2013

Two years ago, in response to an article I wrote questioning circumcision, the British historian Geoffrey Alderman dedicated his column to my character assassination, describing me as “a leading anti-Jewish Jew of the younger generation.” Though I appreciated the attention, I was disappointed – why not “the” leading anti-Jewish Jew? It would have brought my parents such nachas.

Still, I was luckier than the Council of Europe: After it passed a motion declaring the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons “a violation of the physical integrity of children,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry accused it of fostering “hate and racist trends in Europe.” With accusations flying, the Council’s special rapporteur, Marlene Rupprecht, countered that the “vote does not intend to stigmatize any religious community or its practices,” but to reach “a wide consensus on the rights of children.”

So, who’s right? Those who say censuring circumcision is a manifestation of anti-Semitism, or those who say it’s a necessary step in child protection?

I think the latter are right, but I also understand why some think it’s anti-Semitic: Circumcision is a profoundly meaningful Jewish practice imbued with great cultural value. Consequently, attempts to limit it have sometimes been part of broader efforts to suppress Jewish practice. Antiochus Epiphanes, the draconian ruler of Judea in the second century B.C.E., imposed severe penalties on circumcision as part of his attack on Judaism. The Spanish Inquisition and Nazism were both accompanied by restrictions on circumcision. In 2011, an attempt to ban infant circumcision in San Francisco coincided with the publication of a cartoon called Foreskin Man, replete with anti-Semitic imagery.

Understandably, this has left its imprint on Jews’ collective memory. It makes sense that the journalist Tanya Gold asked whether the recent motion is “an attempt to achieve with paper what other methods could not – the removal of Jews from Europe?”

These are grave concerns. But do they stand up to scrutiny? It seems ethnocentric given that two thirds of the world’s circumcised males are actually Muslims and only 0.8 percent are Jewish. If anything, in Europe, hostility toward Muslims is a more likely motivator, as the anti-circumcision bill recently introduced by the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party could suggest.

Rather than prejudice against religion, I think it makes more sense to interpret criticism of circumcision as the consistent application of human rights to both boys and girls. This is clear in the special rapporteur’s Explanatory Memorandum. Concern about the genital cutting of children is best understood within the context of Europe’s, especially Germany’s, focus on human rights and medical ethics following the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Hard though it may be to hear, irreversibly removing a healthy body part – in this case, part of a boy’s genitals – without consent, violates a person’s right to bodily integrity, a cornerstone of post-Holocaust human rights law. It also undermines that child’s right to an open future, since a boy who has been circumcised must live forever with his parents’ choice.

Supporters of circumcision counter that parents’ rights to religious freedom, and the significant cultural value they ascribe to the practice, must take priority. They argue that even if the intention behind those censuring circumcision in Europe is not to harm Jews, harm to Jewish life and traditions will be the outcome.

It’s true that censuring circumcision could curtail the expression of an until-now definitional Jewish practice. But the right to manifest one’s religion is not absolute – it is limited by the harm caused to others. In 2011, 11 boys under the age of one were treated for life-threatening hemorrhage, shock or sepsis relating to circumcision in Birmingham Children’s Hospital in the United Kingdom. In the United States, it’s estimated that 100 boys die as a result of circumcisions every year. Can religion per se justify this?

Supporters of circumcision also say it’s an ancient, meaningful practice. But neither longevity nor meaning is usually accepted as sufficient moral justification to override individual rights. As one Orthodox Jewish father, Elie Jesner, puts it, “Mankind has been doing horrendous things for thousands of years: slavery, capital punishment, condemning homosexuals, oppressing women. That is not a club of actions I want to be part of.”

From a Jewish perspective, there are other issues. First, circumcision does not confer Jewish status. As Shaye Cohen, professor of Hebrew literature and philosophy at Harvard University, explains, “Male and female offspring of a Jewish mother are Jewish by birth under Jewish law; the male offspring are Jewish by birth even if they are left uncircumcised.” Second, biblical circumcision was not as extensive as today’s variant, which is actually an innovation of rabbis in the Hellenic period trying to stop Jewish men from restoring their foreskins. Evidently, definitional Jewish practices can and have evolved.

Given all of this, it’s not surprising that some Jews are questioning the practice. A 2006 online survey reported in Haaretz found that nearly a third of parents of boys would prefer to forgo circumcision, but have it done primarily for social reasons. Israel is now home to the intact support group Kahal, while in the United States, Beyond the Bris and Jews Against Circumcision have sprung up.

Jews who question circumcision from the point of view of human rights and medical ethics should be respected, not demonized. But all critics of circumcision must be vigilant about the company they keep, distancing themselves from anyone not exclusively motivated by child protection. There is no place for anti-Semitic arguments or imagery.

Equally, well-intentioned Jews who continue to circumcise their sons should not be maligned. The significant religious and cultural value they ascribe to circumcision must be appreciated and understood. But reconsidering the practice in light of its human rights and ethical implications should be encouraged, as should non-surgical rituals, such as brit shalom.

I know this isn’t easy – the weight of God, history and human rights hangs in the balance – but what we need in Jewish communities is debate, not denunciations.

Meanwhile, the Council of Europe should stand firm. If it backs down and denies some children their rights because their parents adhere to the Jewish tradition, it would single out only those children for lack of protection. Now that really would be anti-Semitic.

Dr Rebecca Steinfeld is a political scientist at SOAS, University of London. She tweets @beccasteinfeld

This article was originally published by Haaretz. For the full article, click here