This letter to the editor was published in The New Yorker on October 25, 2021.
Kudos to Shteyngart for bravely exposing the harm that can be caused by circumcision. His heartbreaking personal struggle, while extreme, is more common among circumcised men than the public has been led to believe. Since 2008, when I co-founded Intact America, an organization that seeks to change the way people in this country think about circumcision, I have heard from thousands of men who have suffered lifelong physical and psychological damage from the procedure. According to a 2019 report published in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery, in the U.S., where nearly all circumcisions take place in medical settings, eleven per cent of pediatric-surgery malpractice cases involve circumcision. Yet American doctors and hospitals keep putting babies at risk with a medically unnecessary procedure that is not routinely performed on male children in any other Western country. We must ask why we allow doctors and hospitals to profit from cutting the genitals of male children even as we fight to outlaw female genital cutting, here and abroad.
FEBRUARY 2015: Jonathan Friedman was raised by a large Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York. As a young boy, he witnessed many Orthodox Jewish circumcision ceremonies where metzitzah b’peh (oral suction to remove the blood from the baby’s penis) is a requirement.
“When I reached puberty,” Jonathan says, “I began to suffer from circumcision complications. Around the age of 16, my parents pointed out the man who circumcised me, and I immediately realized the chafing, bleeding and pain that I experienced was due to that mohel’s act performed on me as an eight-day-old infant.”
Friedman started researching circumcision during his engineering studies at The Cooper Union in New York City. He came across a video demonstrating the anatomy and gliding motion of the foreskin and shared it with his friends at school, many of whom were Jewish. “We all became really disturbed at what we learned,” he reports.
In January 2011, Friedman first learned of the intactivist movement through his closest school friend, who also was experiencing adverse effects from his circumcision. “I read as much as I could,” he says, and by Spring 2011 he published an article on Rebecca Wald’s website, Beyond The Bris, titled, “On Circumcision, Authority, and the Perpetuation of Abuse.” Shortly after, Jonathan launched IntactNews and joined Attorneys for the Rights of the Child as webmaster and newsletter editor.
Since becoming involved in intactivism, Jonathan has organized and participated in many demonstrations around the country, including NYC Pride, Genital Integrity Awareness Week in Washington, DC, and – in December 2012 – in Berlin, where he joined a protest against the impending German law enshrining circumcision as a religious right. He also joins the Bloodstained Men, spreading the message across the United States, and reaching thousands of people directly and many more through news outlets and social media. “The bloodstained suits are a powerful symbol, very effective at getting people’s attention,” says Friedman. “They express the deep trauma that we all carry, be it physical or psychological.”
“Coming out in public as an intactivist is very difficult, especially for someone of a Jewish background,” he says. “The movement has helped me deal with my suffering and I’m extremely grateful for that. I am also very optimistic about our cause.”
Regarding Intact America, Friedman says, “Intact America takes a professional approach toward raising awareness. I can always count on them to stay on top of important developments and to share well-researched knowledge about this issue. I’m particularly grateful for Intact America’s leading social media presence and for its support of grassroots events, especially NYC Pride.”
Georganne Chapin, Intact America’s executive director says, “It’s a privilege to work with Jonathan. He is extremely intelligent and focused. His contributions to the movement at large, to Attorneys for the Rights of the Child (where I also serve on the board of directors) and to Intact America are huge and growing. Most recently, Jonathan has taken a leadership role in defending Chase, the Florida boy whose mother is fighting to keep him intact. That issue is a work in progress, and we are all fortunate to have Jonathan’s energies behind it.”
Things have changed considerably in just the last few years with respect to mass media and the topic of circumcision. Several articles are published every month now – if not every week — in major newspapers and websites here in the U.S. and abroad.
As a result, it’s somewhat of a luxury to find myself being critical of a piece written by an author who self-identifies as a “Humanist” and presents his personal views as “progressive” on the topic of circumcision.
In his report on a recent intactivist street protest where he interviewed several of the demonstrators, he states, “… my own feeling is that we should not be surgically altering the genitalia of our children without their consent, and that consent can only be given when the child is of legal age.”
What more could you ask, right?
But in an attempt to identify the root cause of the inertia that stands in the way of the real progress made to end circumcision in this country, the author relies on an unsubstantiated claim that conflates notions of American progressivism with unwavering support for religious freedom.
He says, “Circumcision has a deep cultural and religious meaning, and asking people to give up on that practice will be a long, uphill battle.”
The truth is that in the United States, only a tiny fraction of infant circumcisions are conducted as religious rituals. Jews constitute just two percent of the U.S. population. Of those, only a few say religion is very important in their lives.
While no study I’m aware of has been done to uncover current attitudes and thinking specifically about circumcision among American Jews, it’s clear from the number of Jewish intactivists, from the Jewish physicians I know who have refused to have their own sons circumcised, and from information gleaned over the years I’ve been involved with this issue, that many, many Jews forgo the bris, which is the only way of achieving a religiously valid circumcision. And, it’s well known among health professionals that American Muslims have their sons circumcised by the doctor, before they leave the hospital, rather than as part of any religious or “spiritual” ritual.
The author also ignores the much more interesting and inherent conflict between a commitment to human rights and a knee-jerk “progressive” reluctance to condemn a religious practice that violates those rights – all of this while buying into the fallacy that circumcision’s “deep cultural and religious meaning” is the major roadblock to ending its practice in the U.S.
Except for misplaced anxiety about whether siding with the rights of the child will brand one an anti-Semite, circumcision in America has almost nothing to do with religion. Yet doctors and hospitals exploit this myth in order to sell an unjustifiable but money-making surgery.
The recent decision by a court in Cologne, Germany, which—following the circumcision-gone-wrong of a four-year-old Muslim boy—declared infant and child circumcision to be a crime and a human rights violation, seems to have started a trend. Shortly thereafter, in both Austria and Switzerland, hospitals announced that they will cease circumcising children in the absence of medical necessity.
Jewish groups cry “anti-Semitism!” (despite the fact that the child in question was not Jewish)—while throwing in the fact that among Muslims, circumcision is also ubiquitous. One group of rabbis called the German court decision “the worst thing to happen since the Holocaust.” Thus, they claim, any effort to ban the cutting of (boy) children violates the religious freedom of peoples who can cite a justification for this ritual from an ancient book.
Meanwhile in New York City, fearful of being called anti-Jewish, the Health Department has allowed ultra-Orthodox Jews to continue a practice, “metzizah b’peh,” by which the circumciser sucks the blood from the freshly cut penis with his mouth. This ritual, practiced only among a small segment of the Orthodox population, has led to two deaths in Brooklyn, and devastating injuries—including blindness and brain damage—in eleven other children. The ritual circumciser knew he was infected with active herpes, a disease survivable for adults, but deadly for infants.
In reaction, some officials have proposed that parents sign a “consent form,” which would do nothing to protect the child, but would allow the City to avoid any responsibility and— instead—blame the parents.
May we ask: Is this what religious freedom looks like?
Is this what we are protecting, in order to assure the world we are not anti-Semitic?
Will this baby, numbed by shock as wine dribbles out of his mouth, thank us for preserving the religious freedom of his parents to hire somebody to cut off part of his penis?
Is it anti-Semitic (or anti-Muslim) to advocate for babies and children who have their own right to religious freedom, but are too young to exercise it?
Is it not genuinely anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim to fail to defend the sons of Jews and Muslims? Are they any less worthy of our protection?
Georganne Chapin and John Geisheker
(John Geisheker is an attorney, and the Executive Director of Doctors Opposing Circumcision)