Is Banning Circumcision Anti-Semitic?

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Iceland is considering becoming the first country in the world to ban infant circumcision, the practice of removing a newborn’s foreskin for no medical reason. The legislature is coming under fire from European Jewish organizations for being antisemitic.

It’s not coming under fire from Icelandic Jewish organizations, mostly because there are none. There are an estimated 90 Jews in Iceland, and as of this moment none seem to have come forward with a strong opinion about their or their children’s dicks. That said, it doesn’t matter how many people of a particular religion or culture live in a place if that place is enacting bigoted laws against them, since those laws can be used to oppress the small minority in the country while keeping others out of the country. In fact, one of the reasons there are so few Jews in Iceland is because Iceland refused to take in Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust, which we now understand is all kinds of fucked up (even if we fail to see the connection between that and failing to provide help for people fleeing similar circumstances in other countries today).

The Jewish Communities of Nordic Countries penned a letter to the Icelandic government arguing against the circumcision ban, stating in part, “If any country with next to no Christian inhabitants would ban a central rite in Christianity, like communion for instance, we are certain that the whole Christian world would react as well.”

And that’s true! If, say, a predominantly Muslim country banned communion, Christians in the US would be up in arms and at this point, who knows, Trump would probably declare war.

Here’s the issue: there are several rather stark differences between circumcision and communion. Chief among them is that during a communion, no infants have a piece of their own body amputated for absolutely no medical reason. I mean, I don’t think. It’s been a really long time since I’ve taken communion but I’m pretty sure that at the absolute worst, if you’re Catholic, you eat a little cracker that magically turns into a piece of Jesus as you digest it. But Jesus is a consenting adult — he literally said that we should do it. He’s into it. He may get off on it, who knows.

But with circumcision, it’s usually a surgery performed on infants who can’t possibly consent. I say “usually” because there are a few cases of adult men who decide to get circumcised after converting to Judaism, and in the past in some cultures circumcision was seen as a coming-of-age act or an act of manliness to have a piece of your own dick cut off without flinching. If that were the normal Jewish ritual, the comparison to communion would still be a stretch, but it would at least be vaguely comparable.

Instead, infant male circumcision has less to do with communion and more to do with another cultural act that many people try to keep up in the name of religion: female genital mutilation, which Iceland outlawed in 2005. Again, it’s not a perfect comparison since FGM so much more often results in extreme disfigurement, illness, and death in girls, but it’s a hell of a lot closer to male circumcision than male circumcision is to eating a cracker and having a sip of wine (or grape juice for poor suckers like me who were raised Baptist).

So yeah, Iceland (along with most other reasonable countries) banned FGM ages ago and didn’t give a shit about the cries of religious persecution. Why? Because reasonable people understand that your religious rights end where an innocent person’s body begins, and those infants are innocent people with no concept of religion or culture. What an infant should have is basic bodily rights — the right to be complete, “as God made them,” if you will.

I’ll end by pointing out that there are rare medical circumstances where circumcision is deemed appropriate by a doctor, and where it is performed by a doctor and not a random Jewish guy who closes the wound by putting his mouth over the baby’s genitals. And I’ll also point out that yes, the vast majority of male circumcisions result in no lasting harm to the child, and the vast majority of men grow up not missing their foreskin. All of that, though, makes no difference. If there’s any chance of harm, and if there’s any chance that a person would not consent to having it done, and if there’s no medical reason to do it, why are we doing it?

Iceland is in the right. I hope they pass the legislation and I hope that other countries soon follow suit, including the United States, where nearly half of infant boys are circumcised even though Jews only make up about 2% of our population–because, like female genital mutilation, it’s a cultural artifact having little to do with anything any god ever told anyone to do.


Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Thank you, Rebecca! When I was doing my Family Practice residency, we were told we had to learn the techniques of circumcision, even if we did not intend to perform the practice after graduation. “Well”, I said, “How on Earth can I learn the technique without doing it?” You can’t, I was told. “Forget it”, I said. There was a stink, policy was changed, and to this day I have not performed one (and never will, unless medically necessary).

  2. Did routine male circumcision ever catch on in Iceland? The US situation had nothing to do with Judaism or Islam, rather with frantic anti-masturbation crusades by John Harvey Kellog etc.

    Jewish circumcision is outside medical control, and is demanded in the first few days or weeks of a boy’s life. I believe there are active Jewish anti-circ groups around already. It shouldn’t be such a huge issue for people who want real reform. My stepson’s mother kept him intact, and his, at least cultural, Judaism has never been in doubt.

    And, how did you cover this topic without mentioning Islam? There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of Muslim boys getting cut for every Jewish boy. Though not with the pressure to do it on any particular schedule.

  3. This is an ethically fascinating topic.

    According to all the usual principles of medical ethics, permanently changing an infant’s body, in a way that will influence it throughout life, before it can give consent, is highly dubious.It is, some claim, a breach of the child’s human rights. My gut feeling is that this is wrong; my instinct, like (I think) Everington’s, is that it is right to ban circumcision.

    However, we do also allow parents to make any other decisions for their children, in what they perceive as the child’s best interests. The case they put forward for circumcision is (often) that without circumcision, the child will not feel or be, properly, a part of the community; and/or that it is important for the child’s spiritual welfare.

    These are not medical rationales; but I’m not sure that, as doctors, we are entitled to dismiss them.

    Some also put a medical case for circumcision, citing evidence that in sub-Saharan Africa, circumcision may be associated with a reduced rate of HIV and other infections. I am not particularly impressed by these studies – partly because I am not confident that they are generalizable from African to US/UK populations; also because I suspect they may have been done with the intent of finding benefits to justify circumcision. However, perhaps my reservations reflect my prejudices rather than the realities.

    Climbing down from the ivory tower, however, male circumcision is extremely widely practices, and a matter of huge importance to people of faith from a number of religions. While, as an atheist, I find this bewildering, I cannot deny that this is genuinely important to many people.

    I note that in some cultures religious practices previously considered essential have changed and, over a generation or two, this has ceased to be felt to matter – cannibalism in pacific island cultures, for example.

    There are small pressure groups – men who believe that they have harmed or suffered from non-therapeutic circumcision; and there are some well-established (and very serious, some fatal) complications of this practice (especially some ritual forms of circumcision).

    However, I fear that any such ban on “human rights” grounds may not be acceptable in a UK population – too many people would object, and there are too many circumcised men who believe it has done them good, and no harm.

    I think it may be “right”, all things being equal, to ban non-therapeutic circumcision; but I’m not entirely convinced.

    And, on pragmatic grounds, this is not a battle that I would choose to fight at present.


    A few non-systematically selected citations from my bibliographic database:

    Baeten JM, Celum C, Coates TJ. Male circumcision and HIV risks and benefits for women. Lancet 2009;374(9685):182-184 (
    Lu B, Wu Y, Nielson CM, Flores R, Abrahamsen M, Papenfuss M, et al. Factors Associated with Acquisition and Clearance of Human Papillomavirus Infection in a Cohort of US Men: A Prospective Study. J Infect Dis 2009;199(3):362-371, DOI: doi:10.1086/596050 (
    Gray RH, Wawer MJ, Serwadda D, Kigozi G. The Role of Male Circumcision in the Prevention of Human Papillomavirus and HIV Infection. J Infect Dis 2009;199(1):1-3, DOI: doi:10.1086/595568 (
    Gray RH, Serwadda D, Kong X, Makumbi F, Kigozi G, Gravitt PE, et al. Male Circumcision Decreases Acquisition and Increases Clearance of High-Risk Human Papillomavirus in HIV-Negative Men: A Randomized Trial in Rakai, Uganda. J Infect Dis 2010 PMID: 20370483, DOI: 10.1086/652184 (
    Svoboda JS, Van Howe RS, Dwyer JG. Informed Consent for Neonatal Circumcision: An Ethical and Legal Conundrum: William & Mary Law School Scholarship Repository, 2000; (
    Male circumcision. Pediatrics 2012;130(3):e756-85 PMID: 22926175.
    Circumcision policy statement. Pediatrics 2012;130(3):585-6 PMID: 22926180.
    Lerman SE, Liao JC. Neonatal circumcision. Pediatr Clin North Am 2001;48(6):1539-57 PMID: 1173212
    Moses S, Bailey RC, Ronald AR. Male circumcision: assessment of health benefits and risks. Sex Transm Infect 1998;74(5):368-73 PMID: 10195035.
    Ungar-Sargon E. On the impermissibility of infant male circumcision: a response to Mazor (2013). J Med Ethics 2013 PMID: 24014632, DOI: 10.1136/medethics-2013-101598 (
    Prodger JL, Hirbod T, Gray R, Kigozi G, Nalugoda F, Galiwango R, et al. HIV Infection in Uncircumcised Men Is Associated With Altered CD8 T-cell Function But Normal CD4 T-cell Numbers in the Foreskin. J Infect Dis 2014;209(8):1185-1194, DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jit644 (
    Earp BD. In defence of genital autonomy for children. J Med Ethics 2016;42(3):158-63 PMID: 26792817, DOI: 10.1136/medethics-2015-103030 (

  4. Tangent: occasionally well known sci if authors will have a character go off on a quick screed about some moral issue.
    In 3001: A space Odyssey, the main character hooks up with a woman, and she goes off on how they can’t actually have sex because he is mutilated.
    Always amused me, and less offensive than the random gay guy talking about how glad he was he married a woman and had kids in one of the Bean sequels to Enders Game.

  5. What I have trouble getting my head around is the fact that somewhere, several thousands of years ago some twisted thinking person did this for the first time …

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