The Crown Jew
If Prince Harry’s parents bucked the royal tradition of using mohels, will it inflame the circumcision war?
Wa wa WEE wa. Sure, as an expression, it’s a little 2006. But every so often a situation comes along that is so exceptional, so shocking, so deliciously titillating that the nonsense string of syllables made famous as the mating call of Borat Sagdiyev—not to mention Israeli comedian Dov Glickman before him—is the only possible response.
In case you don’t follow me on Twitter, I am speaking of course of the recent photographs leaked of His Royal Highness Prince Harry, epically wasted and splendiferously nude on his post-Olympic Hangover-style romp in Las Vegas. I’m sure you’ve seen them by now, so I’ll refrain from describing them here out of deference to the Palace and in particular, Prince Philip, whose bladder probably can’t stand any more excitement this year, except to say that out of the current crop of “glamorous young royals,” Harry, as far as I’m concerned, is the only one giving anyone their money’s worth. (If I was a British taxpayer, I’d insist on seeing naked pictures of all of them, a la those strange “anatomical” photos the admissions board used to take of incoming freshmen at Ivy League universities. Brutal and archaic, yes, but so is the hereditary principle.)
Yet the story doesn’t end there! Recent reports suggest that even more photos, testimony, and perhaps video footage from that raucous game of “strip billiards” (itself further proof that the rich are different than you and me) are being quietly shopped to leading media outlets. Which means, of course, that the world may finally have the answer to the long-burning question of just what might be concealed behind Harry’s demurely cupped hands: Roundhead, or Cavalier.
The British Royal Family have traditionally been Roundheads. The practice seems to have been instituted by Queen Victoria, partly out of a prevailing 19th-century gush of British Israelism (the belief that the House of what-would-become Windsor is directly descended from the line of King David), as well as the widespread belief that circumcision would discourage masturbation. (Gentlemen, please let us know in the comments if you’ve found this to be the case.) From there, the unkindest cut—or kindest, depending on your point of view—trickled into the British upper classes until petering out in the mid 1950s.
Queen Elizabeth, however, proudly continued the covenant of her Hanoverian ancestress, having each of her three sons, including the Prince of Wales, circumcised not by the royal physician, but by Rabbi Jacob Snowman, the official mohel of London’s Jewish community. From what I understand from my British relatives, he did good work. Why not go with the best? (No word on whether he got to emblazon his business cards with the royal warrant, a la Gordon’s gin or those really expensive rain boots I like.)
When it comes to William and Harry, things become less clear. Prevailing opinion seems to have it that the young Diana blanched, breaking with over 150 years of royal tradition, but only Kate Middleton, Chelsy Davy, Tiggy Legge-Bourke, a handful of Vegas cocktail waitresses, and about a hundred leggy blondes in Belgravia know for sure. (There is a scurrilous, and certainly false, Internet rumor that Charles forced both boys to undergo the procedure immediately following their mother’s death, which sounds like something that obsessive penis weirdo who did Foreskin Man might have made up. Also: Worst. Shiva. Ever.)
But what is certainly clear is that, to paraphrase Perchik from Fiddler On the Roof (the movie, not the play), the winds of foreskins are beginning to blow, all over Europe. Sweden enacted a law in 2001 allowing only those certified by the National Board of Health to perform circumcisions and recommends, but does not require, hospitals to offer them; the Norwegian Center Party has proposed legislation banning them altogether on males under the age of 18. In May of this year a court in Cologne, Germany, ruled that “non-therapeutic circumcision amounted to bodily injury and is a criminal offense under its jurisdiction”; and on Aug. 21, Rabbi David Goldberg was indicted for performing a circumcision in Bavaria. This week, a court in Berlin made circumcision officially legal but extended the authority to perform them only to doctors, which some say remains an impingement on the most elemental of Jewish rites in a country where that’s all still a pretty touchy subject.
Tempting as it is to psychoanalyze probably the most classically psychoanalytic conflict of the 21st century, I can’t. I don’t know if it’s primarily motivated by an odd phallocentrism, or an admirable—if arguably misguided—concern for children and their health, or good old-fashioned Euro-style xenophobia. (Let’s not forget that Muslim practice requires circumcision too, so for bigots this one is a twofer.) Whatever it is, something so tribal, something that cuts (The puns. So many puns.) so deeply to the heart of who we are, is ripe for the worst kind of cultural politicization; the kind of us-vs.-them where everybody loses. Seen through this lens, the decision of the House of Windsor’s sexiest member to cover his, ah, member might be a little more diplomatic than it seems at first glance. The Royal Family distinguishes itself with its complete neutrality. Perhaps Harry, even in his drunken Vegas haze, was alert enough to know that whatever the state of le petit prince, it would only add fuel to the fire.
Or maybe they just had the air-conditioning turned up too high. It is the desert, after all.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.