Rabbi Gil Leeds, who runs the Chabad Jewish Student Center at the University of California at Berkeley and has served as a mohel for six years, says he and fellow performers of circumcisions in the San Francisco area talk about doing a bris on the steps of City Hall next November.
If, that is, a referendum banning circumcisions in the city passes on Election Day.
The rabbi is kidding, but the ballot measure that would make the performance of circumcisions on males under 18 — with a possible $1,000 fine and one-year prison term — illegal has become a matter of serious concern in many parts of the Jewish community.
While most observers say the proposition will probably be defeated at the polls, and if passed will probably be overturned in an appeals court on constitutional grounds, representatives of Jewish organizations say they fear the San Francisco ballot measure may foment anti-Semitism, weaken support for Jewish tradition and encourage opponents of circumcision to introduce such public referendums in other U.S. cities.
“I think people are concerned,” said Marc Stern, associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee. “There is no question” that a successful anti-circumcision ballot measure in California will be duplicated elsewhere. “You will have a lot of other imitators.”
MGM Bill, a San Diego-based advocacy group that has prepared anti-circumcision legislation for 46 states and last year switched tactics to ballot proposals, has reportedly targeted no other cities. MGM stands for male genital mutation, the term that anti-circumcision “intactivists” use to describe the traditional rite practiced by Jews and Muslims.
The AJCommittee has served as a consultant on this issue for San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council, which is coordinating local opposition to the measure, Stern said. The ballot measure probably “will be beaten — beaten badly by the public,” he said.
The ballot proposal also may violate federal and state freedom-of -religion guarantees, and may illegally give San Francisco authority over health matters that fall under state jurisdiction, Stern said. “It’s likely to be overturned [on appeal], but it’s far from a certainty.”
“This proposition would let the majority decide religious practice for a religious group,” Joel Paul, professor of constitutional law at the University of California Hastings School of Law told JTA. “It’s not part of our politics. No one should have to go into an election and be asked to defend their religion.”
A ballot proposal similar to San Francisco’s, which would have been put to a vote in Santa Monica next year, was withdrawn this week. Jena Troutman, a lactation consultant and self-described children’s rights advocate, told the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles that she was withdrawing the petition because her effort had been represented as an attack on religious freedom.
“It shouldn’t have been about religion in the first place,” Troutman said. “Ninety-five percent of people aren’t doing it for religious reasons, and with everyone … focusing on the religious issue, it’s closing Americans down to the conversation.”
The debate over the anti-circumcision measure is taking place at the same time that challenges to religious practice, such as the right to perform ritual slaughter of animals, or to wear religiously mandated head coverings, are being raised in several European countries.
The San Francisco referendum can give moral support to the anti-religion efforts abroad, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It will encourage similar efforts beyond the United States.”
Is the ballot proposal anti-Semitic?
Not necessarily, but it provides fodder for anti-Semites, Foxman said.
“Not all opponents to circumcision are anti-Semitic, but most anti-Semites oppose circumcision,” a staple of Jewish tradition, he said.
A prepared statement last week by the ADL condemned the “grotesque anti-Semitic imagery and themes” in “Foreskin Man,” a comic book created by Matthew Hess, president of the MGM Bill organization. “Monster Mohel,” one of two titles in the comic book series, features “identifiably Orthodox Jewish characters as evil villains, [who are] ‘disrespectful and deeply offensive,’” the ADL stated.
“This is an advocacy campaign taken to a new low,” according to the ADL statement. “No matter what one’s personal opinions of male circumcision, it is irresponsible to use stereotypical caricatures of religious Jews to promote the anti-circumcision agenda.”
Ironically, the campaign against circumcision (brit milah in Hebrew) has had a positive effect in parts of the Jewish community, spurring interfaith coalitions with Muslims, who also circumcise their sons, and increased interest in the mitzvah that was first done by the Patriarch Abraham on himself and his household.
“This issue has presented us with the opportunity to educate more people about this tradition and about Jewish life,” said Rabbi Yosef Langer, director of Chabad in San Francisco.
While many leaders of anti-circumcision efforts are secular Jews, the San Francisco ballot measure has little support in the area’s progressive Jewish community, said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun Magazine and spiritual leader of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley.
“Increasing numbers of Jews are opting out” of having a brit done on their sons, Rabbi Lerner said. “However, I know of no one in my own congregation or any other affiliated Jew or Jewish progressive activist in our Network of Spiritual Progressives who supports the ballot measure.”
Though exact figures are not available, most experts estimate that the percentage of boys circumcised in the U.S. has declined below 50 percent, from a high of more than 80 percent in recent decades.
“Everyone in the progressive Jewish community believes that circumcision is a matter of individual choice and that the government has no business involving itself in that choice any more than it does in the choices made around abortion,” Rabbi Lerner said.
The Orthodox Union called the ballot measure “an affront to all people of good will,” and Phillip Sherman, an Upper West Side cantor and veteran mohel, called the proposal “anti-religious, anti-Semitic and racist. As an American and as an observant Jew, I am deeply concerned.”
An editorial in the current issue of The International Jerusalem Post (“No to a ‘brit mila’ ban”) cited both evidence of circumcisions’ medical value, and the historical record of opposition to circumcision. “Opposition to brit mila dates back to ancient times,” The Post wrote. “The Romans were particularly hostile to the practice before and after the destruction of the Second Temple. Defacing the male sexual organ was seen by the pagan Romans as an attack on the Hellenistic adoration of nature, considered perfect and a reflection of the will of the gods.”
“In history, we’ve done [circumcisions] under more adverse circumstances” than the hostility brought by the San Francisco referendum, said Rabbi Leeds, from Berkeley. His allusion is to the risks faced by Jews who performed a brit milah under the ancient Romans, the communists in Russia and the Nazis.
“I’m confident that this [ballot proposal] won’t get very far,” he said.
The rabbi, who performs up to 10 circumcisions a month in San Francisco, said he and fellow mohelim have agreed that they will continue to practice their profession if voters approve the anti-circumcision measure.
“Of course, we’re not going to stop,” he said — not on the steps of City Hall, a symbolic venue, but openly, as usual, in synagogues and family homes.
What about the $1,000 fine and year in prison?
“I’m willing to take the risk,” Rabbi Leeds said.