June 21, 2011
The great California foreskin fight of 2011
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Foreskin Man, Monster Mohel ...
No single development in the foreskin fight so far has attracted more attention than the discovery of the second issue of Hess’ 2010 comic book, “Foreskin Man,” which featured the villain Monster Mohel.
A statement released on June 3 by the San Francisco office of the Anti-Defamation League called the comic “grotesque” as well as “disrespectful and deeply offensive.”
In an interview last week, Hess did not back down from the 12-page book, which he estimates cost him a little less than $10,000 to produce. “I would consider ‘Foreskin Man’ No. 2 to be a success. It was intended to provoke,” Hess said.
“Monster Mohel was based on actual photographs, as were Jorah and Yerik,” Hess said, referring to the villain and his henchmen. “He’s got the white eyes, the beard is a little different, but there’s not much different from a real live mohel. I did add the Uzis.
“I think a lot of Jewish people were angry about that because it exposes brit milah for what it is,” Hess added.
Though Troutman initially called Hess’ comic a fair representation of mohels — “If you’re going around hacking off parts of a baby’s genitals, then you might be called a monster,” she said — she later disavowed any connection with the comic.
“He’s basically tarnishing this human rights movement with indefensible imagery,” Troutman said on June 7, the same day she told Bloom that she had decided to rescind the bill. “I would never have signed the papers to do this bill had I known mgmbill.org’s affiliation with this.”
Schofield called the comic “inflammatory,” although he would not throw Hess under the bus.
“It’s not a wide vilification of a religious group, it’s about the person doing the cutting, ” Schofield said in an interview. “The other Jewish characters are shown as normal everyday people. It’s the one act that’s being exaggerated in comic-book style.”
Schofield also argued that he shouldn’t be held responsible for the comic’s content, as it was never linked to the “San Francisco mgmbill” Facebook page.
Abby Michelson Porth, associate director of the JCRC in San Francisco and the leader of the coalition fighting against the circumcision ban ballot measure, heard Schofield make that same argument when they both appeared on a radio show on June 8. She was not convinced.
“Not only did he refuse to distance himself from it, nor would he apologize,” Porth said, “but he told me that I owed him an apology because he’s getting hate mail from Jews.”
... and the united Jewish front
Porth is bound to have her hands full for the next five months, working to ensure that the ballot measure is “overwhelmingly defeated.” But if there’s anything she welcomes about this episode, it’s the way it has brought the Jewish community together to oppose the measure.
A quick glance at the synagogues, Jewish day schools and other Jewish organizations included in the more than 200-member coalition at stopcircban.com shows that Porth, who grew up in San Francisco and met her husband in a pluralistic Jewish youth group, isn’t exaggerating.
Schneider, at L.A.’s Federation, assembled a similarly united front in Santa Monica. Among the Jewish leaders who came to the meeting earlier this month, which took place just 36 hours before the Shavuot holiday, were Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. They were uniformly against the ban — even though they clearly had different feelings about the practice of brit milah itself.
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, spoke at the meeting earlier this month. An ordained Conservative rabbi from the East Coast, Diamond served a congregation in the Bay Area for nine years where he found — to his surprise — a “vocal member of the opposition” to circumcision. “I told her that I respected her freedom,” Diamond said.
“Nobody’s forcing parents to circumcise their sons,” he added, “but to outlaw it, to criminalize circumcision, is completely outrageous and unacceptable.”
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Temple Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica said that he encourages congregants to do brit milah, but also tells them to talk to their pediatricians about circumcision. He also mentioned that “at this moment there is no indication from all the research that’s been done that it’s a negative thing.”
Still, Comess-Daniels is frank about the limits to which he will push a congregant on this subject. “As a Reform rabbi, I have a different way of counseling than an Orthodox rabbi would,” he said. “And ultimately, in the Reform movement, we allow people to be their own arbiters in many of these cases.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the director of interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he was lobbying against the proposed ban in the San Francisco mayor’s office last week, and ended up talking about a comment made by Russell Crowe on Twitter.
“Circumcision is barbaric and stupid,” Crowe Tweeted on June 9. “Who are you to correct nature? Is it real that GOD required a donation of foreskin? Babies are perfect.”
The Oscar-winning actor — who later apologized and deleted his comments — was actually making an argument that appears in the Talmud, the Orthodox Adlerstein said. The Roman governor of Judea asked Rabbi Akiva, who lived in the first and second centuries C.E., why God would require circumcision.
“Judaism, and I would say the Judeo-Christian legacy, is that God left the world in a manner to suggest, or demand perfection by human beings,” Adlerstein said, channeling Akiva’s argument.
“Bris is a clarion call to the young child that your place in the world is not assured,” Adlerstein added. “You’ve got to leave your mark upon it because there are things upon it that need improvement.”
Indeed, in the Orthodox world, the practice of brit milah, or bris, is an all-but-foregone conclusion. Rabbi Meyer H. May, an Orthodox rabbi and executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said that “Foreskin Man” was “a comic book that Goebbels would’ve been happy with,” but he wanted to make clear that the debate was “less about anti-Semitism and more about religious rights.”
The intactivists, May explained, want to limit a parent’s religious practices for the sake of his child.
“If I send my child to synagogue tomorrow,” May asked, “am I violating the child’s rights? I would hate to see an initiative that says I can’t send my children to religious school — which is an extension of this.”
Indeed, Milos, the 71-year-old founder of NOCIRC, who said she was not taking a position on the circumcision ban, made almost exactly this point in a conversation about circumcision later that day.
“Anyone born in the United States is protected by the Constitution, which provides the protection of religious freedom,” Milos said. “If you mark a baby as a Muslim or a Jew, you’ve denied his religious freedom, have you not?”
Everything You Think You Know About the Science of Circumcision Is Contested
When talking about circumcision, a procedure in which the foreskin that covers the penis is surgically removed, no fact asserted by one side goes uncontested by the other.
Dr. Edgar Schoen, 85, is a longtime advocate of circumcision and former head of pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland. Schoen was born in Brooklyn and has lived in the Bay Area for 57 years, and he’s been at the center of the fight over circumcision for most of them.
He was chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Task Force on Circumcision from 1987 to 1989 and handled the task force’s communications from 1989 until 1999. Schoen says he’s on a first-name basis with opponents of circumcision like Milos.
So I asked him about Jamaal, the boy whose death — just a month before his second birthday — had inspired Troutman to try to take the fight against circumcision to the Santa Monica ballot.
“When you hear of a death during circumcision,” Schoen said, “you can bet your bottom dollar that it was an anesthesia death, not a circumcision death.”
Indeed, the initial media reports last month about Jamaal’s death mentioned that the boy had been put under general anesthesia, which, Schoen said, is not uncommon when doing circumcisions on non-newborns. “Not only did the circumcision not cause their death,” Schoen added, “but had they had newborn circumcision, it would have saved their lives.”
This kind of disagreement — total, unambiguous — is characteristic of the medical debate over circumcision. Every study that is conducted — including the recent studies conducted in African countries that circumcision advocates cite as evidence that circumcised men are significantly less likely to be infected by their female partners with HIV — is the subject of intense debate.