Anti-Semitism and the ‘intactivists’

I can’t imagine that a month ago many reporters thought one of the stories that would be grabbing a lot of attention would be efforts to criminalize the circumcision of a male minor. But a voter initiative qualified for the November ballot in San Francisco, and suddenly a lot of people seem obsessed with a little bit of skin.

I’ve yet to see an anti-circumcision story that is, ehem, a cut above. But at least most print reporters have avoided the obvious and obnoxious (and sometimes almost inevitable) puns.

There is, of course, a major constitutional question being raised by the proposed ban on what for Jews and Muslims is an act of religious obligation. Many news stories have focused on that angle. Few have delved into the religious and cultural implications — regardless of constitutionality — of such a ban.

The latter was more of the approach I took in a piece for the Wall Street Journal’s Houses of Worship feature, “The Circumcision Wars.”

The op-ed, which is really more news analysis, opens with a glimpse of the brit mila, unique for its almost universal adherence across Jewish movements, and emphasizes the religious significance of circumcision as a covenantal act between creation and Creator. It concludes with this:

From a Jewish religious perspective, the medical evidence is largely beside the point: Circumcision was ordered by God, so it requires no independent justification. Likewise for Muslims, who also circumcise per religious tradition.

The San Francisco measure would only prevent the circumcision of minors within city limits, and the practice would likely endure even there. “Circumcision is not going to go away because of this small, determined, angry group,” said Dr. Samuel Kunin, a Los Angeles-based urologist who promised that if the ballot measure passes, he’ll travel north to perform the first San Francisco circumcision.

The law also wouldn’t prevent a Jew from being circumcised as an adult, though that’s a much tougher procedure. To be sure, that didn’t stop thousands of Soviet Jews who were circumcised after they escaped persecution and arrived in Israel, the United States and elsewhere.

Still, circumcision doesn’t make a Jew a Jew. Family lineage or conversion (for which only the Orthodox widely require circumcision) do that. But, like baptism for those Christians who believe it is essential, circumcision is a declaration of a man’s covenant with God—a physical seal on that part of the body that passes traits to the next generation. No law, constitutional or not, can change that.

I mentioned in the WSJ piece that some have accused the “intactivists,” as the anti-circumcisers call themselves, of being anti-Semitic. A leader in the group, Matthew Hess, told me the accusation was ridiculous. But then Debra J. Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle discovered a comic book that Hess created and drew as a bit of pro-foreskin propaganda. The “hero” is Foreskin Man — check out that emblem on his chest — and the villain is “Monster Mohel.”

It seems like something out of Der Sturmer. Here’s how Mitchell Landsberg of the Los Angeles Times describes the comic:

The image of a bearded, black-hatted Jew with an evil grin and a bloody blade seems straight out of the annals of classic European anti-Semitism.

In this case, however, it is straight out of the pages of a comic book that landed in the middle of a campaign to outlaw circumcision in San Francisco for males under the age of 18. “Foreskin Man,” featuring a blond, buff hero who battles dark, evil Jewish characters, has added a strange and possibly sinister element to the November initiative campaign, which was already heated.

Landsberg couldn’t reach Hess, who told Saunders: “A lot of people have said [the comic is anti-Semitic], but we’re not trying to be anti-Semitic. We’re trying to be pro-human rights.” Hess told me something similar when we spoke late last month.

Regardless, I thought Landsberg chose a strong lede for this story. But he only partially follows it up.

Landsberg quotes the Anti-Defamation League and others condemning the comic as anti-Semitic, and he does a good job describing the depictions in the comic that give rise to that belief:

In the comic, the blond superhero takes on “Monster Mohel” — a bearded, black-hatted man wearing a prayer shawl. In the traditional Jewish community, a mohel is a person trained to perform circumcisions. The “Monster Mohel,” who leers as he sets after a baby with bloody scissors, is flanked by gun-toting henchmen dressed in the traditional clothes of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Most of the “good” characters in the book have blond or light-brown hair and features that might be termed Aryan.

But Landsberg doesn’t explain why those things are anti-Semitic. (They are.) In fact, quotes like this one from Abby Michelson Porth of the Jewish Community Relations Council raise more questions than they answer:

“The images, in addition to being offensive, are not particularly original,” she said. “They’re reminiscent of millennia-old stereotypes that have been used to persecute and oppress Jews.”

Why are these images reminiscent of old stereotypes and how have they been used to persecute Jews? I know the answer. But do all readers?

Particularly missing is any reference to the blood libel or the related anti-Semitic belief that Jews crave the blood of gentile children. (Like in this bit of propaganda.) And, yes, I do think that is a gentile baby because blonde woman behind the mohel appears to be restrained by the “henchman.”

On an odd side note, unrelated to the reporting, the LAT story includes a hyperlink to other articles tagged with the word “penis.” Not sure if that is because the Times thought the other stories would be off interest to those reading about the anti-circumcision effort or because the LAT is written at an elementary-school level.

IMAGE: Courtesy of, via Saunders’ Token Conservative

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  • Corita

    Yes, yes!!! I am so glad you are covering this. I was stunned to realize that *so. many.* people seem to not understand why these images are anti-Semitic (or, to split a difference: evoke old, old stereotypes and tropes put out by those who were). I was reading about Saunders’ piece on another blog and a poster from “Jews Against Circumcision” repeatedly minimized the importance of the images in Foreskin Man. As other posters did the same, I couldn’t help but think that it is a failure of understanding of history.

    Landsberg should have done better.

  • Jerry

    I’m also glad you are covering this. Since the shocking image you posted is for issue#2, I went looking and found #1 exists for those that are interested.

  • Martha

    I know that “Anecdote is not the singular of data”, but does anyone know any ‘intactivist’ who isn’t bonkers?

    My one and only interaction with the species was a few years back, when a guy wrenched a discussion thread on a sf/fantasy fan blog onto the topic of male circumcision, and then went off on a foam-flecked rant about how we were all feminists who encouraged women to beat up men, laughed at male rape (that is, the rape of men) and, of course, didn’t take male circumcision as a matter of human rights seriously. Oh, and naturally, the world-wide global feminnist conspiracy was behind it all.

  • Martha

    Pursuant to the above, I went back into the archives and the encounter was in 2006. The topic was a discussion of a 15 year old girl in Kenya who had died because she attempted to perform female circumcision on herself; her mother had not allowed her to be circumcised and her schoolmates were teasing her about it.

    From the comment on the story and discussion of same by our friend the intactivist:

    “This is obviously an example of where society values women’s lives far more than men’s lives. Feminists have some explaining to do as to why a single girl in primitive country where the practise is illegal, self-inflicting circumcision is a big deal but an entire country merrily cutting into baby boys genitalia is no big deal.”

    Yes, an operation carried out in sterile conditions by trained medical professionals is obviously a much graver thing than a teenage girl cutting herself to pieces and dying of shock and blood loss. Shame on us women for not campaigning for men’s rights!

  • Ninong

    A lot of things make the ballot in San Francisco but that doesn’t mean they will pass. Last year there was even a ballot proposal to rename one of the city’s sewage treatment plants the George W. Bush Sewage Treatment Facility. It didn’t pass either.

    I don’t think this initiate will pass, but if it does, it will be challenged immediately on religious freedom grounds. I could be wrong, but I believe it will be struck down as unconstitutional. However, we do have a federal law on the books, passed in 1996, that makes female circumcision illegal and that’s a religious ritual in certain cultures.

    Circumcision of male infants is on the decline worldwide all on its own without laws. It’s less than 10% in most European countries and only 33% (or less) in the U.S.

    Aug 18th, 2010: The CDC has reported that circumcision rates in the US have fallen sharply over the last decade—from 56% of newborn boys circumcised in 2006, to 33% in 2009. Declines are being attributed to the American Academy of Pediatrics statement in 1999 that “existing data [was] not sufficient to recommend routine newborn male circumcision” and reduced insurance coverage of the surgery—among other factors.

    The following statement by the Netherlands medical association is typical of current European medical opinion:

    “The official viewpoint of KNMG and other related medical/scientific organisations is that non-therapeutic circumcision of male minors is a violation of children’s rights to autonomy and physical integrity. Contrary to popular belief, circumcision can cause complications – bleeding, infection, urethral stricture and panic attacks are particularly common. KNMG is therefore urging a strong policy of deterrence. KNMG is calling upon doctors to actively and insistently inform parents who are considering the procedure of the absence of medical benefits and the danger of complications.”

    If San Francisco wants to pass an initiative that has a better chance of passage, they should allow for exceptions for religious reasons. Or they should simply pass a law requiring doctors to discuss the procedure with parents in advance. All of the proposed bans being considered in Europe right now allow for religious exceptions.

  • Corita

    @Martha: Your comment is not about news coverage, and neither is the first part of my reply, so I hope it goes through: I am opposed to circumcision, and hopefully I am not bonkers. Neither is anyone else I know who is. BUT I agree; often the people who are most public about it are super nutty.

    Back to the news coverage: Another problem with the coverage is the fact that, without enough information the story can be used to discredit the whole movement. Perhaps that angle is one that needs journalistic coverage: How many are opposed to circumcision *because* of their religious beliefs? And how many intactivists are opposed to legislation that offers no form of religious exemption? How many intactivists have come out to clearly and unequivocally reject the anti-religious/anti-Semitic undertones in these comic books?

  • Ninong

    “On an odd side note, unrelated to the reporting, the LAT story includes a hyperlink to other articles tagged with the word “penis.” Not sure if that is because the Times thought the other stories would be off interest to those reading about the anti-circumcision effort or because the LAT is written at an elementary-school level.”

    Here’s my theory: It’s because circumcision involves the penis.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Obviously. But why the hyperlink? Do they think readers are unfamiliar with the penis or that they want to read other news stories about it?

  • Ninong

    It’s probably just standard policy to add hyperlinks like that. Blogs do it all the time. I wouldn’t read anything extra into it.

    As far as the comic books, they look like something dreamed up by a Nazi or KKK member.

  • Ted

    Martha said: “I know that “Anecdote is not the singular of data”, but does anyone know any ‘intactivist’ who isn’t bonkers?”

    Margaret Somerville, who is best known as an activist against same-sex marriage, is also an activist against infant circumcision and has recommended laws against it in Canada. I doubt that she is involved in the California Proposition.

  • Kate

    What makes this legislation interesting – and the charge of anti-semitism more ‘sticky’ – is that the wording specifically excludes a religious exemption, and people on both sides of the debate admit that non-religious circumcision rates are already rapidly declining in San Francisco. So the point of the legislation when people are voluntarily opting out already? To target those who have particularly strong reasons to circumcise.

  • Ron Low

    It looks to me like the comic book is just (successfully) trying to look like other storytelling work from the era when Superman etc orginated. There are heros and villians. Guess what, some of the “villians” that cut babies’ genitals are mohels.

    But I think the comic book is unfortunate, because MOST of the genital mutilation in the US is non-religious. Even plenty of Jews are cut in hospitals with no blessings and stuff. It’s also unfortunate the hero in the book is this Aryan type; about 20% of the anti-circumcision people I meet are Jewish.

    But mohels who literally suck blood from baby penis DO exist. The ritual is called Metzizah B’Peh, and anyone who is more offended by this comic than they are by an old man sucking a baby’s penis has some soul searching to do.

    And the bottom line is this. Circumcision changes sex dramatically. Not one national medical association on earth (not even Israel’s) endorses it. Foreskin feels REALLY good. It’s HIS body, and morally it’s HIS decision to make.

  • Ray Ingles

    I know that “Anecdote is not the singular of data”, but does anyone know any ‘intactivist’ who isn’t bonkers?

    I’m pretty sure anyone who’d call themselves an ‘intactivist’ would almost by definition be odd.

    But I can offer a data point – we didn’t have any of our male children circumcised, seeing no need for it. If they want it done when they’re old enough, that’s their lookout.

    In any case, as Larry Niven put it, “There is no cause so noble it will not attract some kooks.” :)

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    We’re veering from the interests of this blog. Please keep comments to discussing media coverage of the anti-circumcision movement, particularly the religious angles of those stories.

  • tioedong

    Andrew Sullivan’s blog LINK LINK will give insight on why some men, especially in the gay community, are so upset at this “mutilation”…part of the rebellion against religious “oppression” of sexuality.

    To put it into perspective, the American Academy of Pediatrics also opposes infant circumcision, because of the pain and rare complications, even though in less developed countries circumcision is seen as associated with a lower rate of HIV…

    But the Jews remember circumcision bans by Antiochus and later by Hadrian, both of which led to widespread persecution.

    And since Muslims circumcize boys at puberty, that religious question hasn’t been addressed.

    The use of the term “male genital mutilation” is a way to link it to female circumcision, aka “female genital mutilation”, which most feminist oppose…

    this term ignores that there are three variations of female circumcision, and only the first type is equivalent to circumcision…the other two are much more extensive. But that’s a medical, not religous discussion, and since few American docs have had to cope with delivering one of these mutilated ladies, I’ll leave out the gory details.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Considering how any story that has the very slightest sexual angle usually gets wall- to- wall coverage (Clinton’s oral sex problem, Weiner’s in the shorts problem) , it is amazing how little coverage overall there has been on this S.F. initiative-especially since this circumcision story involves both religion and sex (usually the stimulator of overheated rhetoric and coverage).

  • tmatt

    To put it into perspective, the American Academy of Pediatrics also opposes infant circumcision…

    A URL for this claim, please.

  • Dave

    I’ve been in contact with one intactivist and, while he’s intense, I would not describe him as “bonkers.” A wall of rejection of his viewpoint on Unitarian Universalist email lists raised the level of his intensity.

    But the journalistic question hers is not whether intactivists are bonkers but whether the coverage of “Foreskin Man” adequately demonstrates why it can be considered anti-Semitic. It’s important; two generations have been born since the Holocaust.

  • Jerry

    But why the hyperlink? Do they think readers are unfamiliar with the penis or that they want to read other news stories about it?

    I’ve wondered from time to time if some hyperlinks are being generated automatically. Does anyone know if there is such software in use?

  • Jerry N

    The American Academy of Pediatrics neither recommends nor opposes circumcision. The whole decision plus the review of the literature on the pros and cons of the procedure is right here:;103/3/686

  • Chris

    The World Health Organization actually recommends the use of male circumcision in areas with high incidence of HIV infection in the heterosexual male population, as one component in HIV infection prevention.

  • Doug Sirman

    …And please, journalists, let’s not mention anything about ‘gay fetishism’ of ‘uncut’ men since that is clearly not what the new law is about. No, really,…it’s not…I mean it…stop laughing.

  • Dave G.

    It would be nice to delve into the religious viewpoints of those behind the ban. I mean, how do they see religion? Are we talking a movement motivated by hard right Christian fundamentalists? Is there a common belief system there? I know in anything like this, some diversity exists within the ranks. But an overall view of the gist of religious attitudes would be worth while, at least IMHO.

    “American Academy of Pediatrics also opposes infant circumcision”

    I wasn’t aware of this. When our 20 month old was born, his pediatrician made it very clear that there was no consensus one way or another, and it was entirely up to us. So unless that has changed within the last 20 months or so, I’m not sure there is a consensus about the practice.

  • Pete

    Don’t be stunned at the lack of admission to antiSemitism. This is precisely how it works. I didn’t know my neighbor was being carted away to a concentration camp. I thought they were on vacation. Oh that rich Jew joke? Oh that’s the way it is. Oh that I’m gonna Jew him down for money? Oh that’s the way it is. It’s tough times that bring out the worst. This Hess probably wants to make money on the Reality Shows or get paid for interviews by Geraldo or O’Reilly or Beck. It’s ugly and libelous. It’s slander and a hate crime by any other name is a Hate Crime.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Pete–Why pick on Geraldo, O’Reilly, and Beck??? They, for the most part, have constantly condemned the racism of Rev. Wright and the hatred spewed at Israel.
    The news network really spouting hatred of all types has been MSNBC the home of Maddows, Matthews, and that big Bozo that harangues women in the media he doesn’t like by calling them “sluts”–repeatedly. (His name I won’t repeat to give him the publicity he craves.)

  • Bram


    You are so far off-base that one can only laugh.

    Please note that this ban is being proposed in left-liberal San Francisco, a city shorter than most on Fox News fandom but longer than most on both anti-Semitism and penis-fixation.

  • James

    This cause is all about helping guys that need a bit of help in the package confidence department, and returning to a more virile America. Foreskin Man & his societal cause could save San Franciscan men thousands of dollars in male enhancement pills & apparati.

    A Paean to Foreskin Man.

  • Joel

    Doug’s actually got a point. While I’m sure it’s not as important a factor as medical or religious issues, San Francisco does have a certain… er… reputation. Is that issue not showing up because it’s ludicrous, or because nobody really wants to think about it, or because more mainstream gay sensitivities would be offended?

  • roger desmoulins

    Matthew Hess and his coauthors live in a moral and historical vacuum, and he deserves all of the opprobrium that has been heaped on his head. That said, he and his comic book do not speak for a large majority of intactivists, and in no way is he a “leader” of the movement.

    There are intactivists who would welcome making infant circumcision illegal. (That no intactivist has ever proposed a ban on adult circumcision usually gets lost in the verbal skirmishing.) There are even intactivists who agree that if it is made illegal, there should be no religious exception.

    But changing the law is not a primary goal for most intactivists. Rather, intactivism seeks to stop the routine infant circumcision that was so common throughout the English speaking world during the previous century, and that persists in the USA and parts of Canada and Australia. It seeks to stop it by changing the hearts and minds of American parents pf childbearing age, by completing their sexual education. Intactivism arose because most American doctors, sex therapists, and sex educators labor under serious misconceptions about a number of sexual health issues. In particular, they do not appreciate how the moving parts Nature put on the end of the penis enhance sexual functionality and the pleasure of both genders. The concept of provinciality can extend to the genital realm, and American circumcision is a case in point.

    Most intactivists are mothers of childbearing age for whom intactivism is a chapter in a book whose other chapters include breastfeeding anytime anywhere, natural birth, homebirth, cloth diapering, cosleeping, attachment parenting, and more. A large majority of these women had never heard of Hess’s name until he made himself controversial.

    Intactivists can be found everywhere on the political spectrum. For some, intactivism follows naturally from a politically correct reverence for all perceived victims. Others are libertarians, still others are family values conservatives. Some are part of the rising tide of atheism, but intactivists in the interior of the USA are often evangelical Christians. I have conversed with Amish and Hutterite intactivists. Quite a few intactivists are sexually progressive, but the sexual histories of many intactivist mothers are limited to their spouses.

    What is really going on in San Francisco is an ironic and inevitable clash between two victim groups, Jews and gay men. The only reason Schofield was able to collect the required signatures is that San Francisco is the North American gay male mecca. To my knowledge, the mainstream media won’t touch that fact with a barge pole.

    The media also tiptoes around the fact that in the past 30 years, eloquent Jewish voices have spoken out against bris. The author of the 1980 book that began intactivism was the late Edward Wallerstein, a Jewish atheist. The first woman intactivist, Rosemary Romberg Wiener, has been married to a secular Jew for 40 years. I invite anyone who has jumped to the conclusion that intactivism is necessarily antisemitic to visit the blog BeyondTheBris.

    Journalists researching intactivism should also talk to Lawn Griffiths of Arizona, who recently retired after a distinguished 40 year career as a journalist. Lawn hails from the American heartland, in his case Iowa. He is a veteran, Medill School graduate, father and grandfather, devoted Presbyterian. Most relevant to my purpose, he has been a quiet intactivist for several decades.

    I attend the Anglican church serving my neighbourhood.