There are lots of weird campaign groups around today, but none so weird as a band of unmerry men called ‘the intactivists’. If you’ve never heard of the intactivists and you’re a bit squeamish, or you are reading this while lunching on a sausage roll, then you might want to turn the page now. Intactivists are men who were circumcised at birth and who, as their name suggests, long to become ‘intact’ again. In a nutshell, they want to recover their foreskins. And they’ll do almost anything to achieve this, including undergoing skin grafts and even attaching weights to the little bits of foreskin that their possibly careless circumciser might have left behind. Hey, look, I told you to turn the page.
Originating, like most mad campaign groups, on the west coast of America, intactivism is fuelled by some of the most regressive political trends of our era. Its adherents have that annoying Oprah-ite habit of blaming a long-gone childhood incident — in this case the simple, harmless, millennia-old snipping of the foreskin — for every trouble that befalls them in adulthood. They seriously claim that their inability to have good sex or to hold down a relationship is down to the fact that their foreskin was removed when they were a few days old. Which raises the question of how generation after generation of Jewish men, alongside all the non-Jewish blokes who got the chop, managed to please the ladies and procreate.
Intactivists also do that grating thing of turning every issue into a question of human rights. ‘Intact genitals are a human right!’ their T-shirts declare. The bonkers transformation of even foreskin possession into a human right captures very well how the lingo of human rights is often used to undermine real rights that people have enjoyed for aeons — in this case the age-old religious right to remove newborn babies’ foreskins, which is cleaved to by Jewish communities in particular, and also by Muslims. So-called children’s rights are often just a battering ram against adults’ rights, against the right of communities to instil in their young certain ways of thinking and believing, as summed up in the dangerous notion that the rights of an eight-day-old baby boy should take precedence over the rights of his parents and their community to express their faith as they see fit.
And intactivism also has more than a smattering of anti-Semitism. There’s an intactivist publication called Foreskin Man, in which the eponymous hero, who has blond hair and blue eyes and is immaculately Aryan, battles against Monster Mohel, a swivel-eyed Jew who is always armed with scissors because ‘nothing excites him more than cutting into the flesh of an eight-day-old infant boy’. Foreskin Man is extreme, and it has been complained about angrily by the American-Jewish advocacy group the Anti-Defamation League; yet its simplistic, fairytale-like narrative about innocent babes being ‘mutilated’ and having their future happiness ruined by a rabbi with a knife speaks to the fatalistic, self-pitying heart of the intactivist movement more broadly.
Now the intactivists, or certainly their ideas, are gaining ground in Europe. Across Europe, officials, judges, commentators and shrill secularists have declared open war on circumcision. Last week, the Council of Europe said circumcision is ‘a violation of the physical integrity of the child’. It urged all European nations to ‘adopt specific legal provisions’ that will make circumcision illegal ‘before a child is old enough to be consulted’. That would mean no more Jewish circumcision, which must take place when a boy is eight days old, as stipulated in Genesis, where God says: ‘And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you… and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt Me and you.’
Also last week, children’s ombudsmen from five Nordic countries — Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland — decreed that circumcision is ‘in conflict with the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child’. It looks like these Nordic countries will soon ban non-medical circumcision. Last year, a court in Germany likewise suggested that circumcision should be banned, on the basis that it is ‘bodily harm’. That suggestion hasn’t been acted on yet. Surely Germany, of all nations, will know better than to ban one of Judaism’s oldest and most important customs? As Germany’s Central Council of Jews rightly said, any legal stricture against religious circumcision would represent ‘an unprecedented and dramatic intervention in religious communities’ right of determination’.
Like the strange, weights-wearing intactivists across the pond, the European warriors against circumcision are driven by some very backward thinking. They, too, elevate the so-called rights of the child above adults’ freedom of religion, in the process denting age-old liberties and giving further succour to that most poisonous and fatalistic idea of our therapeutic era: that what happens to us in childhood determines our future character, personality and fortunes. And they also promote some pretty anti-Semitic thinking. New atheist types have rebranded circumcision ‘genital mutilation’ and even ‘sexual assault’, mirroring Foreskin Man’s belief that warped rabbis get some weird kick from cutting boys’ penises. Earlier this year the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet published a cartoon that was nakedly anti-Semitic: it showed a rabbi driving a pitchfork into a baby’s head while someone else hacked at his penis with a pair of pliers, while the baby’s mother says: ‘Abuse? No, it’s tradition.’
All this demonisation of circumcision, whether it’s by foreskin-envying American hippies or European bureaucrats, has ugly echoes of medieval writers’ anti-Semitic assaults on the practice of circumcision. Back then, the fact that Jews removed their baby boys’ foreskins was held up as evidence that they were a ‘cruel and barbaric’ people. They were referred to as ‘merciless foreskinne-clippers’. The language has changed, with talk of children’s rights elbowing aside the more virulent anti-Semitism, but today’s war on circumcision is not that different to earlier generations’ disgust with this ancient custom — it is fuelled by a view of certain communities as cruel and unthinking and by a shockingly cavalier attitude towards freedom of religion. It is intolerance, plain and simple, though dolled up in the cynical language of human rights.