Case for circumcision can be argued without invective

By Josh Glancy, August 2, 2012

The consequences of the recent court ruling in Cologne criminalising religious circumcision continue to reverberate around Europe. Last week, hospitals in Switzerland and Austria suspended the procedure. The debate over the merits and morals of the practice rumbles on.

It resembles the "food labelling" controversy of last year, when political leaders and pressure groups called for the labelling of meat slaughtered using kosher or halal methods, to allow consumers to see whether the animal had been stunned beforehand or not.

Both pit many of the same opponents against one another and, in each case, the language used by both sides is often extreme and uncompromising. Last year, Gladiator star Russell Crowe took to Twitter to describe circumcision as "barbaric and stupid", while the National Organisation of Restoring Men compares the psychological effects of infant male circumcision to those of "rape, torture and sexual abuse".

Disappointingly, though, some of the responses from within the Jewish community have been not much better. Opponents are regularly dismissed out of hand, their motives impugned, their aims slandered. Whenever a debate on these practices begins, the Nazi card is played almost immediately. A spokesman for Shechita UK described the proposal to label unstunned meat as "the 21st century equivalent of the yellow star, but on our food".

Other historic antisemites are also invoked to delegitimise the opposition. Rabbi Abraham Cooper argued recently in the JC that "from Emperor Hadrian to Joseph Stalin, Jewish history is tragically littered with moves to ban circumcision".

The Nazi card is played almost immediately

Victories can and have been won using this method of shaming the opposition. In the wake of the Cologne decision, Angela Merkel emphasised her support for circumcision. But these triumphs equate to a weary acceptance by moderate critics that the fight simply isn't worth having - the moment you allow an awkward dinner companion to win because you've lost the will to continue the debate.

Minette Marrin expressed this kind of surrender recently in the Sunday Times when she wrote: "male circumcision should be tolerated because any harm it might do to the child is minor compared to the harm a ban would do to public feeling".

Certainly, some of the arguments against shechitah and circumcision are tinged with arrogant interventionism by human-rights advocates and in certain quarters there may be a form of repackaged antisemitism playing a role. But the arguments against these practices, stated properly, also have some validity, and are unlikely to go away any time soon.

Rather than simply dismissing opposition, Jews would do well to focus on whether these practices remain valid, and why.

"Tradition" is important, but does not hold up on its own. Other Old Testament practices - stoning, capital punishment, slavery - are now widely accepted as morally wrong. We need more than this to justify these practices to ourselves as members of an enlightened, modern British nation.

So what are the other arguments in favour? Shechitah and brit milah provide a badge of identity and means of unification. There may now be more efficient ways of slaughtering an animal, but shechitah is a time-honoured method which aims, with some efficacy, to minimise pain as much as possible.

The argument for circumcision is stronger. It carries health and hygiene advantages, which is why many non-Jews also practise it and why Israel has the world's lowest rate of penile cancer. The procedure is carried out on a baby so young it has no memory of it (not true for converts). And cases of Jewish boys angrily demanding their foreskins back are extremely rare (and might well have other issues of identity and parenting behind them).

These arguments are not cast-iron, but they provide a much stronger case for continuing traditional practices than the simple demand for religious freedom, important though that is. In the end it comes down to a simple decision. Judaism and Islam can win this debate by demonising and dismissing the opposition, or by focusing on creating a positive narrative.

Both tactics may be employed simultaneously, but it is the latter which can infuse these practices with a new purpose, and elicit more than just weary toleration from our neighbours.

Josh Glancy is a Sunday Times journalist

Last updated: 10:03am, August 3 2012