Thursday 28 November 2013

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:


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

By Dr. Rebecca Steinfeld / Jewish World blogger | 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.

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 Fern├índez Ossand├│n, 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.  


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

Louise Mensch:

Laurie Penny:

Tuesday 26 November 2013

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

I've just published my debut blog as a Jewish Thinker for Israel's Haaretz newspaper on the topic of circumcision. Below are the first 150 words, and in 48 hours I'll re-post the whole article. 


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?

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

Sunday 24 November 2013

"Woman's Womb or National Uterus? The Politics of Abortion in Israel" at SOAS Centre for Gender Studies

Last week, I gave a guest lecture on the politics of abortion in Israel at the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS, University of London. 

In my talk, I outlined the gap between the legal status of, and practical access to, abortion in Israel, and provided an historical explanation for the discrepancy between these legal limitations and widespread access. I also highlighted the implications for women's reproductive rights in particular, and the status of women in Israel more broadly, of this intrusion into women's reproductive lives. In addition, I provided some comparative context in which to situate the Israeli case. I concluded by linking my analysis of abortion in Israel to my wider analysis of the history and politics of reproduction in Israel, and to internal domestic conflicts over Israel's political identity.  

I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my research with the engaged audience of faculty and students at SOAS's Centre for Gender Studies, as well as the reproductive healthcare practitioners who attended. I especially appreciated their challenging and thought provoking questions, which provided me with a stimulating intellectual work-out! Thank you to everyone who attended and contributed, and especially to the Centre for Gender Studies for inviting me to present my research.  

Tuesday 19 November 2013

For International Men's Day: "Like FGM, cut foreskins should be a feminist issue"

To mark International Men's Day today, here is a piece I published yesterday entitled, "Like FGM, cut foreskins should be a feminist issue":

In the piece, I explain that though comparing male and female genital cutting is usually dismissed or condemned, my research suggests the situation is more complex. Leading medical ethicists, historians, and legal scholars think that FGC and MGC overlap in ways that question the distinct labels and laws applied to them. For example, along with the serious harm that both FGC and MGC can cause, both occur without the consent of the child, and irreversibly violate the child’s human right to physical integrity. In so doing, FGC and MGC both prioritise the cultural or religious beliefs of parents over their child’s right to self-determination and an open future.

Despite these overlaps, the two been treated differently, partly because of the difference in harm, but also because of misperceptions about the contrasting settings and ages at which the procedures take place, and due to sexism and ethnocentrism. Specifically, male bodies are constructed as resistant to harm or even in need of being tested by painful ordeals, whereas female bodies are seen as highly vulnerable and in need of protection. In other words, vulnerability is gendered. And little girls are more readily seen as victims than little boys.

I conclude that it’s time to re-examine our gender and cultural assumptions about genital cutting, and take a non-discriminatory, intellectually consistent approach. 

I am grateful to The Conversation for publishing this article. The Conversation "is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public." For more information, click here:

I hope you find my article thought provoking. 

Friday 8 November 2013

'Cutting Tradition,' BBC Radio 3

Recorded at BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival of Ideas at the Sage in Gateshead, 27 October 2013, and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, 7 November 2013. Listen here:

For those of you who are squeamish, please don’t worry, I’m not going to share with you the graphic details of what I saw as an 11 year-old girl when I snuck into our family living room and peered from behind the couch as my eight day old brother was circumcised. So rest easy. Instead, I am going to talk about the political storm brewing around religious circumcision. Less than a month ago, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a motion that declared the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons “a violation of the physical integrity of children.” Although the motion is non-binding, some charged the Council of Europe with Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. Others stressed the importance of protecting children from bodily violations justified in the name of religion. One said, “If a group demanded that infants must have a finger removed to comply with its belief structure, every civilised society would rightly outlaw the practice. Why is removal of part of the external genitalia any different?”

This debate is not a marginal issue affecting a small number of men: approximately 30% of males aged 15 years or older are circumcised around the world. Two thirds are Muslims living mainly in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, 0.8% are Jewish. In the United States, the circumcision rate is now around 33%, whereas in the United Kingdom the vast majority of men remain intact with less than 5% circumcised. The age at which circumcision is undertaken varies depending on cultural and religious traditions, occurring from immediately after birth to the early twenties. The reasons for circumcising also vary: for Muslims it’s sunnah, meaning a practice instituted by the Prophet Muhammad, while for Jews brit milah of boys on their eighth day is a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. For many it marks their entrance into manhood, while the procedure is also performed because of its perceived social or health advantages.

The history of circumcision is ancient. The oldest account is an image in an Egyptian tomb built sometime around 2400BC, which depicts temple priests cutting the genitals of two young noblemen. “Hold him and do not allow him to faint,” reads one inscription, leading to speculation that the ritual was an opportunity for a youth on the threshold of manhood to demonstrate mastery over bodily pain. Ancient Israel inherited circumcision from Egypt and attempts to limit circumcision were sometimes part of broader efforts to suppress Jewish practice. Antiochus Epiphanes, the draconian ruler of Judea in the second century BC, imposed severe penalties for circumcision as part of his assault on Judaism, as did the Roman Emperor Hadrian as part of his discrimination against all Judeo-Christian sects.

In the 19th Century, circumcision became popular when the nerve theory of the body suggested cutting the genitals could cure a number of ills, including paralysis, epilepsy, and mental illness, as claimed by a prominent New York doctor, Lewis Sayre. Later, germ theory contributed to the idea that the circumcised penis was cleaner and more hygienic. There has also been a persistent belief that circumcision could reduce masturbation, first pronounced by the great Jewish sage Maimonides who advocated circumcision to reduce excessive lust. This belief became prevalent during the Victorian era, and by the 1930s 35% of newborns were circumcised in the UK.

Two things changed in the 20th Century that led to a decline in the rate of circumcision. First, many of the original claims of health benefits were gradually discredited, leading medical organisations to change their positions. Today, leading European health organizations now advise against circumcision, although – interestingly – the American Academy of Pediatrics takes a more positive position, perhaps reflecting different cultural norms between the US and Europe.

Second, the fiendish human experiments conducted by German medical scientists during the Second World War left a legacy on both discussion of human rights and medical ethics. During the Nuremberg war crimes trials, it became evident that no clear standard of ethical conduct existed for medicine and medical research. As a result, the 1947 Nuremberg Code said “the voluntary consent of the subject is essential,” and Germany enshrined “human dignity” in its Basic Law of 1949 as an inviolable first principle. The United Nations made increasingly explicit rights declarations, culminating in the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, which bound nations to “protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse.” That same year, activists gathered in the US for the First International Symposium on Circumcision.

Alongside this, the international community began to condemn female genital cutting, including the UK, which outlawed the practice in 1985. Those in the West have considered female genital cutting harmful and a violation of a woman’s rights, even in its least invasive form, whereas male circumcision has been generally accepted. That led some to ask why the two should be judged differently, and whether the distinction amounted to a double standard.

It is in this context of swirling concerns about human rights, physical integrity and sexism that a German regional court in Cologne ruled in 2012 that the medically unnecessary circumcision of boys should be treated as a criminal act in the area under its jurisdiction. The ruling elicited outrage and generated news headlines around the world. A leading European rabbi described it as “the worst attack on Jewish life since the Holocaust”. But another reading is that the court’s ruling makes sense in the context of Germany’s post-Holocaust emphasis on individual rights and physical integrity. But the pressure of accusations of anti-Semitism was too great: six months after the Cologne ruling, the German Bundestag passed a law explicitly protecting religious circumcision.

And this brings me back to the debate in Europe today. There are three main issues at stake, I think: First, where are the limits on parents’ religious rights? Second, what are the best interests and rights of the child? And third, is the contrast in attitudes towards male and female genital cutting justified? 

Turning to the first question: when and under what circumstances should parents’ religious rights be limited?

Defenders of circumcision often point to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the “right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” and includes the “freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs.” This right is then linked with the undoubtedly profound meaning Jews and Muslims attach to genital cutting, and the significant leeway given to parents to bring up their children as they see fit.   

But opponents of circumcision point out that the right to manifest one’s religion is not absolute and is limited by the harm caused to others. It does not justify exposing a child to disease, injury or death. In 2011, in Birmingham Children’s Hospital, 11 boys under the age of one were treated for life threatening haemorrhage, shock or sepsis relating to circumcision. This raises the question of whether religion per se can justify the procedure. Critics also counter that neither the longevity nor meaning of a particular practice are usually accepted as sufficient moral justification to override individual rights. Some even question how essential circumcision is, since there is no specific mention of it in the Qur’an and nor does it confer Jewish status, which exists independently of the practice. Still, there is no doubt that circumcision is currently perceived as definitional by many Jews, even as a growing number publicly question the practice or express private doubts.

Moving onto the second question, how should children’s rights and best interests be understood?

Defenders of circumcision claim that the child is better off circumcised, since his wellbeing and development depend on his belonging to a community. That community should therefore be allowed to apply to him some practices whose main justification is that they are constitutive of membership in that community. Because children in these communities are likely to choose to be circumcised as adults, defenders of the practice say it reduces the violation of their self-determination, and increases their interest in avoiding the additional costs of adult circumcision. The alleged health benefits are also said to be in the best interests of the child, protecting him from urinary tract infections and sexually transmitted diseases.

Conversely, those concerned with children’s rights argue that circumcision violates the child’s right to bodily integrity, which is a cornerstone of human rights law. They also view it as undermining the child’s right to an open future, particularly because a significant number of children go on to reject the religion of their parents. This means that circumcision does undermine their self-determination, especially since an uncircumcised man can get himself circumcised, whereas a boy who has been circumcised does not have this option and must live forever with his parents’ choice. Critics also question the claimed health benefits, as we have already heard, and say evidence showing reduced HIV transmission among adults in Africa does not apply to children or in other contexts. They also argue that circumcision can cause physical, psychological and sexual harm.

My third question is whether the different attitudes to male and female genital cutting are justified?

Some reject the comparison on the basis that the two are incomparable: they say female genital cutting is a form of oppression aimed at restricting sexual pleasure whereas male circumcision is neither. But the situation may be more complex. Both female and male genital cutting violate children’s physical integrity in order to make their bodies conform to certain social ideals or their parents’ cultural beliefs. Female genital cutting takes many different forms, some of which are extremely invasive and detrimental to both health and sexual pleasure, but others less so. Indeed there has been resistance from some circumcised women to the pejorative term female “genital mutilation,” leading some scholars to adopt the more neutral term “genital cutting.” Male circumcision may also not be as innocuous as its advocates claim. It too can cause health problems and reduce sexual pleasure. One of the rationales for the practice was reducing lust, as I mentioned earlier. In this sense, like female genital cutting, male circumcision can be seen as being rooted in the desire to both shape male bodies and control male sexuality. Arguably, therefore, the same ethical considerations and legal restrictions could apply.

Given these debates about the rights of parents, the rights of children and the overlaps between male and female genital cutting, what, if anything, can be done to resolve these tensions? I want to end by briefly looking at three possible approaches: the first is accepting that personal freedom is the price of societal diversity – an approach rooted in a respect for pluralism and multiculturalism. To preserve the community, one sacrifices some individual rights, in this case those of the individual child. The problem is that sacrificing basic concepts like individual rights and bodily integrity to a particular worldview focused on community could be a slippery slope.

The second approach is more purist and more rights based. It would involve banning ritual infant circumcision outright in order to safeguard the rights of the child. There are problems here too though. Prohibition could have troubling side effects, such as a black market for the banned practice involving ‘back-alley’ circumcisions performed by incompetent individuals.

A third approach is to reduce the harm caused to children by constraining the practice in ways that minimally infringe on religious rights, such as prohibiting circumcision without anaesthesia, insisting that it only be performed by a properly qualified paediatric surgeon in a hospital, and outlawing certain religious practices such as sucking blood from the wound. The challenge to this approach is that while it alleviates actual harm, it fails to overcome the fundamental issues of the lack of consent to an irreversible procedure, and the undermining of the child’s right to bodily integrity.

None of these approaches is likely to resolve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction because the argument about circumcision is part of a much wider battle between religious subcultures seeking to demarcate and inculcate norms for their members, and liberal societies committed to protecting individual rights and equality. Critiquing a religious practice such as circumcision from the perspective of modern medical ethics is controversial and accusations of religious prejudice can follow quickly. So one needs a thick skin to enter this fray. But wrestling with these subjects, with the weight of God, history and human rights hanging in the balance, is the challenge of every new generation. Little did I know that I would rise to this challenge and enter this fray when I hid behind the sofa in my parents’ living room on the day my baby brother was circumcised.