LGBT Jewish leaders cry foul on anti-circumcision campaign
by Heather Cassell
LGBT Jewish leaders are joining a coalition of Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, civil rights, and other human rights organizations that has rapidly banned together against San Francisco's circumcision ban that will be on the November ballot.
They are also speaking out against what they and others consider to be anti-Semitic propaganda by the ban's proponents.
Opponents of the bill claim it violates multiple civil liberties, including freedom of religion, as well as parental rights and public health.
Male circumcision is a preventative measure for HIV and cervical cancer, among other health benefits, said opponents, who cited studies published by the World Health Organization.
But the health benefits of male circumcision – the removal of the foreskin the covers the tip of the penis – only touch part of opponents' complaints around the proposed ban that will be before San Francisco voters November 8.
Penal inspiration and pride
Lloyd Schofield always felt that it was wrong to "see a child's genitals cut off," he said. But it wasn't until he saw the Bay Area Intactivists contingent in San Francisco's Pride Parade about two years ago that he became an "intactivist" himself.
Schofield declined to say if he was circumcised; nor would he disclose his sexual orientation, but he will march in this year's Pride Parade and be at the Bay Area Intactivists booth in the Civic Center.
"I don't identify my sexual orientation at all," Schofield told the Bay Area Reporter. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that he lives with his partner near Buena Vista Park. "I'm just a proponent for the bill."
The initiative, which qualified for the ballot last month, seeks to criminalize anyone practicing circumcision on boys under the age of 18 within San Francisco. Violations would result in a misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment in county jail for up to one year, or both.
The initiative allows for a well-defined medical exclusion, but not a religious exception.
San Francisco's Jewish community, including its queer members, is leading the mobilization against the ballot measure, especially after the release of "Foreskin Man," an online comic book series created and written by Matthew Hess, founder of www.sfmgmbill.org, who authored the initiative.
In the comic, the Mohel, who performs the Brit milah, or the "covenant of circumcision" and a naming ceremony for Jewish boys, is named "Monster Mohel." The Mohel enters the family's home in dark Orthodox robes like a mobster, with his goons, machine guns loaded, to perform the ritual. The father, who is depicted as dark, yells at the mother angrily that he isn't going to "deprive his son of his Jewish heritage" and that she will "just have to live with it."
The scantily clad mother, who is against the circumcision, attempts to rescue her son, but is held down and eventually knocked out.
Arriving on the scene is the blond haired, blue-eyed "Foreskin Man" action hero who saves the day, leaving the child in the care of Amazon and biker intactivists.
"I don't personally know the people who are sponsoring this, but when I look at their campaign propaganda literature and some of the cartoons that they've distributed the anti-Semitism in them seems vary blatant," said Arthur Slepian, a respected leader in the Jewish LGBT community who is among the opponents infuriated over the Nazi-like campaign propaganda. "On that basis and that basis alone I would hope that the entire city would stand up and vote this proposition down."
Slepian believes that San Francisco LGBT and Jewish individuals should be wary of the circumcision ban.
"I think that all LGBT people, but especially gay Jews, should be wary when people attempt to use police power to criminalize behavior that in our communities are viewed as normal and natural and have been part of our tradition for thousands of years," said Slepian.
Hess and Schofield deny any claims of the comic's comparison to Nazi Germany.
"That's a smear tactic," Hess said, pointing to the first comic book where a doctor attempting to perform a circumcision turns into a monster. "We are trying to protect Jewish boys just as we are trying to protect all boys."
Schofield blames opponents of the bill for putting the message out in the media. "That's what our opposition put out there. Certainly nothing referencing Nazi Germany," he said.
"The Jewish parents were depicted as the normal loving Jewish parents," said Schofield, who isn't Jewish.
Yet, Schofield told ABC 7 News on June 7 that he "believes the comic book goes too far."
"It's inflammatory and 180 degrees different from the direction that we wanted to go in and I could understand completely why people would be offended. That's why we never used them on our website," Schofield told Carolyn Tyler, ABC 7 News reporter, but he wouldn't disavow Hess or his comic book.
Martin Rawlings-Fein, a bisexual trans man and Jewish community lay leader, agreed with Slepian that the city's voters should be skeptical of the initiative's true intentions.
"It's deeply alarming that Matthew Hess has been validated by people who do not see the inherent anti-Semitism in his campaign literature in his comic book, 'Foreskin Man,'" said Rawlings-Fein, who is studying to become a rabbi.
Rawlings-Fein recently conducted a Brit milah ceremony for his son after a six-month process with his wife, Shelli Rawlings-Fein, to make the decision to conduct the Brit milah rather than a Brit shalom, the non-circumcision version of the ceremony, he said.
"We wanted to make sure that we made a conscious decision and that's the case with a lot of people, especially in our synagogue," said Rawlings-Fein. "That parental decision is a big part of it. I think that you have to acknowledge that parents are taking care of their children in the way that they see fit religiously and medically."
Hess, a 42-year-old heterosexual man in private industry, disagrees and believes that he's within his legal rights, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on Prince v. Massachusetts, which set the precedent over government authority over treatment of children over parental authority in the interest of a child's welfare.
One person's religious freedom ends where another person's body begins," said Hess, claiming that the courts have always upheld the ruling. "We feel very comfortable that we are well within constitutional law."
Schofield agreed with Hess.
In a city where an individual's rights to their body prevails, Schofield believes that boys "deserve the same protection to their body" as girls. "It's their body, their right, their choice. They can make it when they are older."
The final cut
Several of San Francisco's gay political leaders have expressed concern over the initiative.
"This proposal is rallying the Jewish community, including very progressive LGBT Jewish people who are really offended by this false message that circumcision is somehow barbaric or similar to female genital mutilation," said openly gay District 8 Supervisor Scott Wiener, who is Jewish.
State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) agreed with Wiener and has been outspoken in his opposition.
"My read of it, and that of every legal scholar that has assessed it, quickly determined that it is a First Amendment right," said Leno. "As a Jewish man this is a great concern and as a strong defender of a women's reproductive choices I'm well aware that any legislation that ... interferes with the decision-making process between a physician and a family should be discouraged."
Slepian went further, saying the ballot measure dampens the image of San Francisco as a welcoming city.
"I always view San Francisco as a good place to be a Jew," said Slepian. "The question is, is San Francisco going to be a welcoming place for Jews to live? That's a question on the ballot here."
Mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty also spoke out against the ban.
"From a standpoint of parental choice and public health, banning circumcision is the wrong thing for San Francisco," said Dufty, an openly gay former San Francisco supervisor.
Dufty, who is Jewish, pointed out that a majority of the city's Board of Supervisors oppose the initiative. "I'm hopeful that the voters reject this [measure]," he said.
Hess and Schofield are just as adamant that San Francisco voters will see the issue as they do, in spite of a similar bill losing in Massachusetts last year, according to Hess. A woman in Santa Monica, California who was considering a similar ban dropped her proposal after the debate over anti-Semitism erupted, the New York Times reported last week.
"If someone could look at this rationally and logically we would win this initiative very, very easily," said Schofield, who said that he would like a "respectful conversation" about the issue.