An Anti-Cir­cum­ci­sion Move­ment Takes Hold In Is­rael

Forward Magazine - - Foreground - By Linda Grad­stein

When Rani and Hedva Kasher, who live on Kib­butz Kfar Gi­ladi near Is­rael’s bor­der with Le­banon, had their first two boys, they au­to­mat­i­cally sched­uled the cir­cum­ci­sion cer­e­mony. The tra­di­tion marks membership in the Jewish peo­ple and goes back to the Bi­ble, which de­scribes both Abra­ham and Moses’ cir­cum­ci­sions.

“I was blind and I was deaf — I didn’t think about it at all,” Rani Kasher said. “I said, ‘It’s noth­ing, it’s some­thing ev­ery­body does.’ But when you think about it, it’s very strange that the shape of a baby’s gen­i­tals will de­ter­mine his iden­tity.”

By the time his next three sons were born — to­day, they are re­spec­tively 19, 15 and 13 — Kasher had be­come a staunch ad­vo­cate of “in­tact­ness,” mean­ing leav­ing a baby’s fore­skin whole. Ear­lier this year he pub­lished a book called “Sec­ond Thoughts About Cir­cum­ci­sion,” which he hopes to have trans­lated into English.

In the United States, ac­tivists have been work­ing for at least 30 years to lower cir­cum­ci­sion rates and raise con­scious­ness about the pro­ce­dure. And now, even Jews in the Jewish state are start­ing to share such reser­va­tions as well. While ex­act sta­tis­tics are not avail­able, the de­ci­sion to forego cir­cum­ci­sion is be­com­ing more ac­cept­able, at least in sec­u­lar Is­raeli cir­cles.

Ronit Tamir is an anti-cir­cum­ci­sion ac­tivist who runs two Face­book groups — one for par­ents con­sid­er­ing the op­tion, and one for par­ents who chose not to cir­cum­cise. Each group has close to 1,000 mem­bers.

“The idea that in or­der to be part of the Jewish com­mu­nity you have to cut your boy is like some­thing from an­other world,” Tamir said. “I am not a re­li­gious per­son. I don’t ob­serve Shab­bat, or keep kosher, and I find this an of­fen­sive com­mand­ment.”

The con­cept of “in­tact­ness” is not new, said Ser­gio Della Per­gola, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at the He­brew Univer­sity-Jewish In­sti­tute of Re­li­gion. As early as the 1920s, some of the mem­bers of so­cial­ist or com­mu­nist kib­butzim did not cir­cum­cise their chil­dren, as part of an ide­o­log­i­cal re­jec­tion of Jewish re­li­gion and rit­ual.

But re­cently, he says, the rea­son­ing be­hind the trend has changed.

“It is more con­nected to the green move­ment and an ex­treme con­cern for an­i­mals and na­ture,” Della Per­gola said. “It re­flects eco­log­i­cal re­spect and con­cern. The rit­ual of cir­cum­ci­sion is seen as a vi­o­la­tion by peo­ple who refuse to eat an­i­mals or even dairy.”

Tamir, who comes from a re­li­gious Jewish back­ground but calls her­self a “cul­tural Jew,” said that she re­mem­bers at­tend­ing a cir­cum­ci­sion or a b’rit or covenant in He­brew, when she was about 14. The mother of the baby was cry­ing out­side while the cer­e­mony was be­ing per­formed, and Tamir said she de­cided then that if she ever had a son she would not want to cir­cum­cise him. When she gave birth to her son 17 years ago, she kept that prom­ise to her­self.

“There is not a sin­gle ben­e­fit from cir­cum­ci­sion,” she said. “It’s like cut­ting off a hand — it’s a healthy part of your body and there is no rea­son to cut it off.”

In ad­di­tion to her Face­book groups, Tamir has also founded an on­line com­mu­nity called Ka­hal, a He­brew acronym for Par­ents of In­tact Chil­dren. The com­mu­nity of­fers sup­port and in­for­ma­tion for those who de­cide not to cir­cum­cise. When she started the group, she said, it was be­fore Face­book, and she kept an Ex­cel spread­sheet with the names and con­tact in­for­ma­tion of ev­ery­one who de­cided not to cir­cum­cise. The list in­cluded thou­sands of names, she said, although she even­tu­ally deleted it, hav­ing pri­vacy con­cerns.

Eyal Ra­viv, founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of a not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called MEPEACE, said that he was re­lieved when his daugh­ter was born six years ago and he and his wife did not have to make a de­ci­sion about cir­cum­ci­sion. But when his son was born two years ago he felt dif­fer­ently.

“We were grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity to keep him whole,” he said. “We saw it as an op­por­tu­nity to make the life choice to honor his life.”

Par­ents who de­cided to keep their chil­dren “in­tact” said they did worry about their chil­dren look­ing dif­fer­ent in a locker room. But those with older chil­dren say that other chil­dren, if they even no­ticed, ac­cepted the dif­fer­ences.

Those mak­ing this de­ci­sion are still in the mi­nor­ity and said they ex­pe­ri­enced tremen­dous pres­sure from their fam­i­lies

to have their ba­bies cir­cum­cised for rea­sons of tra­di­tion, if not re­li­gion. The prac­tice dates back 5,000 years, although the bagels and lox usu­ally served af­ter­ward are a more re­cent cus­tom. In Is­rael, by the way, the fes­tive meal usu­ally in­cludes meat, es­pe­cially for Sephardic Jews.

The tra­di­tional b’rit, held on the baby’s eighth day, un­less he is ill, is still per­formed by the vast ma­jor­ity of Jews. In fact, ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tion, you don’t in­vite some­one to a b’rit, just an­nounce when it will be, be­cause it is such an

‘There is not a sin­gle ben­e­fit from cir­cum­ci­sion. It’s like cut­ting off a hand — it’s a healthy part of your body and there is no rea­son to cut it off.’

im­por­tant mitz­vah, or com­mand­ment, that if you are in­vited, you have to go.

Med­i­cally, the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics is­sued its lat­est guide­lines in 2012: “Af­ter a com­pre­hen­sive re­view of the sci­en­tific ev­i­dence, the Amer­i­can Academy of Pe­di­atrics found that the health ben­e­fits of new­born male cir­cum­ci­sion out­weigh the risks, but the ben­e­fits are not great enough to rec­om­mend uni­ver­sal new­born cir­cum­ci­sion.”

That rec­om­men­da­tion means that the pro­ce­dure, which in the U.S. can cost sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars, is cov­ered by in­sur­ance.

In Is­rael, most peo­ple hire a pri­vate mo­hel, or rit­ual cir­cum­ciser, and the pro­ce­dure is done at home or in an events hall. Dr. Guy Hi­das, head of pe­di­atric urol­ogy at the Hadas­sah Med­i­cal Or­ga­ni­za­tion, in Jerusalem, says that cir­cum­ci­sion de­creases the risk of uri­nary tract in­fec­tions in ba­bies younger than 1 year old, and also pro­vides some pro­tec­tion from HIV trans­mis­sion.

In ad­di­tion, he says, the rate of pe­nile can­cer in cir­cum­cised men is zero; although he also says that the rate for un­cir­cum­cised men is ex­tremely low.

There are also risks in a cir­cum­ci­sion, in­clud­ing bleed­ing or meatal steno­sis, the nar­row­ing of the open­ing of the ure­thra.

“This is the most com­mon sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dure done world­wide and the risks are very low,” he said. “I go with the fam­ily. If the fam­ily’s cul­ture and be­lief op­pose it, I sup­port them.”

Since he prac­tices in Jerusalem, where more peo­ple tend to be Ortho­dox or tra­di­tional, he says has not no­ticed an in­crease in the rate of par­ents choos­ing not to cir­cum­cise.

“I think the non­med­i­cal is­sues are ac­tu­ally stronger than the med­i­cal is­sues,” he said. “If the fa­ther is cir­cum­cised, he wants his son to be cir­cum­cised so that the chil­dren will look like the fa­ther.”

Rani Kasher says he is very sorry that his par­ents made the choice to cir­cum­cise him.

“My fa­ther de­cided for me, and I am so an­gry now that he did it,” Kasher said.

He said he hopes that when his chil­dren be­come par­ents they will not even con­sider cir­cum­cis­ing their sons. Con­tact Linda Grad­stein on Twit­ter, @linda­grad21

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