‘Circumcision is not genital mutilation’ - north London rabbis jump to defence of religious practice
17:00 03 January 2014
At just eight days old, it would be a parent’s worst nightmare in any other circumstance.
Their newborn – little more than a week into its life – on an operating table and under the knife to undergo life-changing surgery.
But “the cut” – or circumcision – of young boys has been a celebrated religious rite of passage ever since God’s covenant in the Old Testament demanded that “every male who is eight days old must be circumcised”.
The ritual is meant to demonstrate a will to be perfect under God and to be brought closer to Him through the spilling of blood, as well as to provide the child with a permanent reminder of the community in which they were born.
As an ancient pillar of faith and a socially binding mark for Islamic and Jewish communities, it has stood the test of time for thousands of years.
But perhaps not for much longer.
“It’s not something that is spoken about in public often, but it can be damaging, can leave people psychologically scarred and has led to huge problems with some people’s sex lives,” says David Smith, general manager at Norm-UK, a charity providing help to those suffering difficulties because of their circumcision.
“We have thousands of requests from men who have come to us wanting help.
“They complain about loss of sensitivity, erectile dysfunction, soreness and psychological trauma.
“You cannot deny that this is a personal part of a man’s body, and it should be for that man and that man alone to make a properly informed choice about having it surgically altered.
“I know it won’t be popular, but it’s about time a debate was had on similar ground to female genital mutilation – and I think it’s coming.”
An animated debate in mainland Europe is certainly stirring.
In May 2012, Jewish and Islamic communities in Germany were left stunned when a regional court in Cologne ruled that the circumcision of a healthy four-year-old child for religious reasons constituted “bodily harm” and violated international rights to “choice of religion” and “body integrity”.
Although eventually quashed by the personal intervention of Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, the event nonetheless reignited a debate that has also begun in several other European countries.
In 2001, Sweden came close to implementing an outright ban on non-therapeutic circumcisions for under-18s.
Earlier this year, Norway’s children’s minister called it a ritual that ran “contrary to the child’s human rights and the fundamental principles of medical ethics”.
Just last month, the Council of Europe (under the aegis of which the European Court of Human Rights sits) branded religious circumcision a “violation of the physical integrity of children”.
“The freedom to choose your own religion” and “the right to have control over your own body” are the terms under which opponents of child circumcision have sought to define how the practice should be viewed in the 21st century.
While the legal position remains untested in the UK, the Jewish community in this country fears it is only a matter of time before campaigners make a move in that direction.
“Opponents tend to approach the argument from a human rights angle, but we would defend circumcision in a similar vein,” says Professor David Katz, co-chairman of Milah UK, a group set up in Kentish Town last year to defend circumcision against the threat from mainland Europe.
“Jewish law clearly states that circumcision must be done on the eighth day after birth.
“If you deny a Jewish boy’s right to have this done to him in accordance with a long-standing practice, then is that not a breach of their religious and cultural rights too?
“Parents make irreversible decisions in the best interests of their children all the time – whether it’s schooling, where they live or who they play with.
“Parents are given the right to weigh up the negligible risk to the child versus the great religious and cultural value placed upon it by Jews all over the world.
“Neonatal male circumcision should be regarded in a similar way.”
But there is a lack of consensus within the medical community on the risks and benefits.
While proponents claim the removal of a foreskin improves hygiene and reduces the spread of disease, opponents complain of a loss of erogenous tissue, psychological trauma, soreness and inhibited sexual performance.
NHS guidelines advising against any non-essential removal of the foreskin have seen the prevalence of circumcised newborns fall from 35 per cent in the 1930s to 3.8 per cent in 2000.
But circumcision appears to have remained widely practised by religious communities.
Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, of the North Western Reform Synagogue in Golders Green, suggests the medical controversy is largely “incidental”.
“Circumcision is a sign of the Jewish people’s place in the covenant and is part of the rite of passage in Judaism,” he explains.
“It also plays a key part in securing Jewish identity and has a beneficial effect on a child’s self-image.
“It can be immensely troubling for those Jewish children who aren’t circumcised.
“There is forever this sense that they feel there’s something about them that doesn’t make them part of their community.
“So it should not be seen as a violation of one’s human rights, but as a gift that can help build a strong sense of identity.”
A sense of identity that, according to other rabbis, is also a badge of pride.
“It is an affirmation of our identity and sign of religious freedom,” says Rabbi Neil Janes of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood.
“Throughout the ages, when Jewish communities were under threat, one of the first things considered by persecutors was a ban on circumcision.
“It has therefore become partly an affirmation of our identity and partly a sign of religious freedom.
“It is offensive to consider it – as some people now do – in the same bracket as female genital mutilation.”
The conflation of female genital mutilation and male circumcision appears to be on the rise.
Despite being described by local rabbis as “insensitive” and “completely wrong”, some campaigners for women’s right to have control over their body believe the same rights should be afforded to men.
A member of Norm-UK who was circumcised as a child – and who asked to be identified only as James – says it’s about respecting the right to choose.
“I lost sensitivity and have suffered troubles in the bedroom my entire life because of what was done to me as a child,” he explains.
“I had no choice in the matter – it was an irreversible decision that has stayed with me.
“It’s not about wanting to ban circumcision – it’s about respecting the right of everyone to choose.
“That’s what I hope future generations will have.”