(RNS) Earlier this month the Council of Europe agreed on a nonbinding resolution in support of “children’s right to physical integrity.” The purpose was to reinforce the protection of children’s rights, oppose violence against children, and promote children’s participation in significant decisions that affect them. Forced genital cutting of male and female children was mentioned among examples of violations.
The Council of Europe, founded in 1949, is an international organization that promotes cooperation in the areas of human rights, legal standards, and democratic development. The vote on this resolution was 78 to 13, with 15 abstentions.
Days later, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, along with traditional Jewish groups, denounced the resolution. The ministry statement said the resolution “fosters hate and racist trends,” denied that circumcision causes any harm, and strongly objected to any comparison between cutting of male and female genitals.
Others called the resolution anti-Semitic, a violation of religious freedom, and a “thinly disguised attack” on European Jews. This predictable reaction calls for a response.
For one, the Israeli ministry does not speak for all Jews, European Jews, or even all Israelis. The Jewish Circumcision Resource Center represents Jews around the world who question ritual circumcision.
Here are some relevant facts.
- Jewish circumcision is not mandatory; it is a choice. Some Jews in North America, South America, Europe, and Israel do not circumcise their sons.
- Circumcision is a topic of debate in the Jewish community and has been questioned historically and in various Jewish publications in recent years.
- In actual practice, most Jews circumcise because of cultural conformity, not religious reasons.
- According to the “Encyclopedia Judaica,” “any child born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, whether circumcised or not.”
- According to Jewish values, the human body must not be altered or marked, and causing pain to any living creature is prohibited. Some Jews believe that circumcision is not ethical. Jewish values place ethical behavior above doctrine.
By rejecting any merit in opposing arguments, defenders of circumcision suspect a hidden motivation. They also fail to differentiate between reasonable criticism of this specific practice and a more general unjustified hostile attitude.
It is possible to question the actions of a person or group without being categorically opposed to the person or group. Are those who question an American government policy anti-American? Questioning an action that one believes to be harmful is more likely to be motivated by good will than ill will.
Jewish authorities avoid the resolution’s central issue. They do not claim that children do not have a right to physical integrity, nor do they claim that circumcision is not a violation of physical integrity. Jewish authorities tacitly admit they have no direct response. Their verbal attacks on the resolution appear to be intended to intimidate critics.
Circumcision is an exception to accepted principles like the Golden Rule; adults would not tolerate circumcisions forced on them. If circumcision were introduced today, we would be horrified, as some are horrified when they first learn about the procedure. If any other body parts of children were cut off, we would adamantly object.
Religious freedom has its limits. For example, when a child’s health depends on medical treatment that a particular religion otherwise prohibits, courts may overrule the religious freedom of the parents for the safety, health and welfare of that child. Many people recognize that a child’s safety, health, and welfare are adversely affected by circumcision, and they feel empathy.
The harm starts the moment an instrument penetrates or clamps a healthy, natural, functioning body part — any body part. The belief that male genital cutting is unlike female genital cutting does not withstand scrutiny. Though circumcision defenders routinely deny harm, common sense and dozens of studies confirm significant physical, sexual, and psychological harm. We owe it to the children to be open to examining this harm. Medical opinions in support of circumcision are explained by psychosocial factors, serious omissions, and medical and cultural bias.
Jews have been circumcising their sons for thousands of years, but this does not justify or reduce the harm. It perpetuates it. Research on circumcision, trauma theory and clinical experience support the view that circumcision is traumatic. An iceberg of underlying emotional factors contribute to a compulsion to repeat circumcision trauma, generation after generation. “What’s done to children,” the saying goes, “they will do to society.”
We need to pay attention to and trust our intellectual, emotional, and ethical conflicts about circumcision. The world is gathering its courage to protect children. We need to continue this effort and work together with compassion, understanding, and persistence, for the children.
KRE/AMB END GOLDMAN