Presciently reporting in March on the anti-circumcision movement, Tablet Magazine columnist Michelle Goldberg found much sense (while not endorsing a side) in outlawing the practice for minors. “It is evidence of a sexual double standard,” she observed. “It’s a painful and bloody rite whose purpose doesn’t lie in any immediate medical need. It marks a boy as a member of a group in a way that precedes his own decision-making.” Yet she also pointed out that “intactivists”—who succeeded in placing the initiative on San Francisco’s ballot this year, and are working on those of Santa Monica, California, and elsewhere for 2012—frequently shoot themselves in the foot. “They have a point,” she wrote, “but their self-righteous intensity does little for the credibility of their cause.”
Matthew Hess is the San Diego-based intactivist who wrote the San Francisco initiative. But he is also the author of a comics series—the first issue of which came out a year ago—that, to the Anti-Defamation League’s reading (and to my own), trades in anti-Semitic tropes to make its anti-circumcision case. It is bad enough that the hero, “Foreskin Man,” is a strong, blond Aryan-type. The villain is “Monster Mohel,” and as you can see from the illustration, he is straight out of a 19th-century pamphlet (note the nose, devious expression, hat, and even fingernails). “Nothing excites Monster Mohel more than cutting into the penile flesh of an eight-day-old boy,” the comic says.
And after the glorified brit milah is complete, the delicious metzitzah b’peh provides the icing on the cake. Intactivists have been pressuring Monster Mohel to retire, but that will never happen. They will have to pry the scissors from his cold, dead hand.
For his part, Hess told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Lisa Saunders, “A lot of people have said that, but we’re not trying to be anti-Semitic. We’re trying to be pro-human rights.”
Well … I dunno. If the only solution is to kill the mohels—there is no other way to read “that will never happen. They will have to pry the scissors from his cold, dead hand”—then why bother with ballot initiatives? If your beef is with circumcision, then why bring the metzitzah b’peh—a far less commonly practiced ritual, in which the mohel sucks blood from the wound—into it? Why imply that the mohel sucks the blood and cuts the foreskin for his own sensual pleasure (“nothing excites,” “delicious … icing on the cake”)? Also, those fingernails? Really?
New Voices dives deeper into the strip (it is available online, though when I have tried to access it, it has been prohibitively slow) and finds more, including Monster Mohel, backed by a gun-wielding, payos-wearing ultra-Orthodox thug, demanding, “Where is the child?”
There are two debates here. One involves legitimate claims about a specific practice and about the balancing of religious freedom and communal norms. In this debate, questions like medical efficacy (which both sides say argues for its side) and sexual pleasure (ditto) come up. Jewish and Muslim groups are among the ban’s staunchest opponents. But it’s a real debate, and it is going to be voted on in San Francisco. The other debate is about a sick, anti-Semitic piece of propaganda, one which the ADL was correct to condemn and about which the author is lying or maliciously ignorant when he denies anti-Semitic intent.
This is the part of the blog post where I normally say that it is important not to let the undeniable evil of one hysterical advocate obscure the actual debate. But Hess is not just one hysterical advocate—he is the author of the bill. His centrality to the movement is enough to question the movement.
Efforts to Ban Circumcision Gain Traction in California [NYT]
Circumcision Ballot Measure and Anti-Semitism [San Francisco Chronicle]
Anti-Defamation League Says Anti-Circumcision Comic Book Offends With ‘Grotesque’ Anti-Semitic Imagery [ADL]
Blood Libel for the 21st Century? [New Voices]
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.