Welcome addition to UK Jewry

For seasoned devotees of this column, this is a rare moment. I'm about to welcome the establishment of a new Anglo-Jewish communal organisation. What's more, I'm going to say that its establishment is long overdue.

The new arrival is Milah UK, the launch of which was reported in the JC two weeks ago. Jointly chaired by Dr Simon Hochhauser (the former United Synagogue president) and Professor David Katz (a distinguished immunopathologist whose experience extends also to the defence division of the Board of Deputies), its broad purpose will be to act as the public defender of male circumcision according to Jewish religious law.

In this respect it is consciously modelled on Shechita UK, which has done a splendid job in championing (and indeed promoting) Jewish religious slaughter of food animals.

My delight is all the more unbridled because I'm on record - at a communal meeting some years ago - as having urged that a body modelled broadly on Shechita UK be set up without delay, both to counter adverse national and international publicity concerning brit milah and, in so doing, to fill a dangerous gap in our communal armoury.

That all princes were circumcised undoubtedly helped

When - at this private gathering - I urged that this body be set up, sundry communal notabilities sought to denigrate my advocacy by pointing out that British Jewry was already blessed with the Initiation Society, and that such a project would merely lead to confusion and duplication of effort. But the whole point is that it won't. To explain why, I do need to refer to some rather displeasing facts of life that do not seem hitherto to have been given the publicity I think they deserve.

Founded in 1745, the Initiation Society is one of the oldest surviving organisations in the Anglo-Jewish world. Over the centuries, it has trained scores of mohelim, and the list of mohelim that it maintains includes only those who in its opinion have undergone rigorous training in both the religious and medical aspects of brit milah. But while its efforts over the centuries deserve our applause, it has in some crucial respects outlived its usefulness.

It is basically a practitioner body. It was once but is no longer cross-communal. And it has no expertise to speak of in terms of public advocacy.

When it was founded, and for the better part of the following 250 years, milah defence (certainly in this country) was a low communal priority. The custom that all royal princes were circumcised (almost invariably by mohelim) undoubtedly helped. But this agreeable consensus no longer exists.

Instead, we are faced with doubt, distrust and outright opposition. And we are faced with this in an age when, through the medium of the internet, such negativities travel round the globe in the blink of an eye.

The Initiation Society is simply not equipped to confront this new reality. Neither can it be said - any longer - to represent the totality of varying Jewish religious traditions in the Anglo-Jewish world. Nor can it be claimed - any longer - that the Society regulates the totality of the practice of brit milah in this country. An indeterminate number of mohelim - and I'm speaking here exclusively of the Orthodox world - operate outside its aegis, partly (but only partly) because they choose not to pay the annual subscription, which incidentally provides essential indemnity cover. This no doubt helps explain why, in 2011, its accountants warned that unless it was "able to raise additional funds or obtain significant contributions towards its overheads in the foreseeable future, [it] may become insolvent. This may cast significant doubt about [its] ability to continue as a going concern."

In relation to Jewish religious slaughter, only slaughterers approved by the Rabbinical Commission for the Licensing of Shochetim may legally practise. Sooner or later I believe we will have to consider a parallel arrangement for brit milah - a licensing function delegated to the Anglo-Jewish communities but operated within a framework approved by Parliament.

This would still leave a public relations function to be carried out. Milah UK ought to fill this gap. Let us hope that it isn't just a talking shop but that it engages in meaningful, professionally driven advocacy within a carefully crafted and well-articulated defence strategy.

Last updated: 11:45am, November 27 2012