Will San Francisco Ban Circumcision?

While American Jewish organizations disagree with one another on many issues, they have been unanimous in their condemnation of a recent—and quite unusual—campaign originating in San Francisco. Back in November, Lloyd Schofield, a retired credit manager, launched a campaign to outlaw circumcision in San Francisco.

He proposed a ballot measure that would make it a misdemeanor to “circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the genitals of all minors.” Schofield’s reasoning is that circumcision is mutilation without consent of the patient. He told a local CBS affiliate that “people can practice whatever religion they want, but your religious practice ends with someone else’s body.” Schofield’s ballot initiative would also include a punishment for defying the ban: a thousand-dollar fine for committing a misdemeanor. In order to get this proposal on the 2011 San Francisco city ballot, Schofield has to collect over seven thousand signatures—and thus far his campaign is not going very well. Quite to the contrary, the idea has caused a backlash, and not only in the American Jewish Community.

The organized Jewish community in both California and throughout the U.S. rallied to condemn the proposed ban. Within a few days of Schofield’s statement, the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, and the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council issued a condemnation:

“For thousands of years, Jews around the world have engaged in this important religious ritual, which is of fundamental importance in the Jewish tradition. The organized Jewish community is deeply troubled by this initiative, which would interfere with the rights of parents to make religious decisions for their own families.”

Gavin Newsom, who was then in the last days of his tumultuous tenure as mayor, seemed embarrassed by yet another Bay Area pronouncement about matters that don’t usually concern American city governments. He told the San Francisco Examiner that he didn’t support the initiative. “Why,” he asked, “do something that makes us look like we are completely out of touch?”

Circumcision: Not Only for Jews

Negative reaction to the San Francisco initiative was not limited to local politicians and Jewish groups. Jews represent only two percent of the American population, but over sixty percent of American males are circumcised—and Jews are not the only religious group that practices circumcision. American Muslims do as well. Six years ago, in a similar challenge, the Association for Genital Integrity, a Canadian advocacy group, sought public funding to initiate a campaign to outlaw circumcision in Canada. As the Canadian press reported, “In a rare display of unity, Canadian Muslims and Jews have joined together.” The Canadian branch of CAIR, the now embattled Council on American-Islamic Relations, argued that banning circumcision “would impose undue hardship on both faith communities who see circumcision as a requirement of their religion.”

The Association for Genital Integrity failed in its Canadian Campaign. Its awkward name did not help the cause. The San Francisco Campaign against circumcision has allied itself with a group with a snappier moniker, “Intact America.” Its activists have dubbed themselves “intactavists.” In San Francisco’s annual Gay Pride Parade a group representing BANG, the Bay Area iNtactivst Group, makes their point in a vivid manner: they don puffy penis costumes and carry a poster of an indignant-looking infant wondering, “You want to cut off what?”

In January, the story reached the Israeli media. Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper of record, sent a reporter to interview San Francisco Rabbis. Rabbi Micah Hyman of Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco, responded to the intactivists’ claim that circumcision was brutal. “It’s not a brutal ritual; it’s emotional, and deep, but it’s very powerful.” And for Israeli readers, who tend to be alarmist about what they perceive as anti-Jewish legislation, the Rabbi provided some consolation:

“Last quarter they tried to ban ‘Happy Meals’ at MacDonald’s; now they are trying to legislate morality? I believe it has very little support, I think people talk about it only because of the media coverage.”