|San Francisco CIty Hall. Photo by Jay Graham|
Having caught on in much of the West for centuries, male circumcision is taken for granted in most communities. But for Jews, the circumcision of our sons is a time for celebration, often bringing together family and loved ones to reaffirm the covenant between God and the Jews in the same method practiced since Abraham. Starting in 2009, however, this rite faced a challenge from Massachusetts. A national anti-circumcision movement, propelled by so-called “intactivists,” proposed to the Massachusetts State House legislation that would have banned circumcision. They were successful in compelling public testimony on the subject, but the legislation fell flat immediately. Learning from this, the anti-circumcision movement set their eyes on San Francisco, California, home to a robust, democratic process of placing proposed legislation on the local ballot for public vote. In October, 2010, the anti-circumcision activists launched a campaign to gather signatures to place on the San Francisco municipal ballot a measure that would criminalize those who perform circumcision, making it a crime punishable by up to a year in County jail and a fine of $1,000. If it were to pass, this measure would create a de facto ban on circumcision within the City and County of San Francisco. The San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council took notice.
The JCRC faced a dilemma. This could clearly be a problem for the Jewish community, but at this stage, it was just another proposed law in a State that allows for voter-initiated propositions. It was not yet clear if there was momentum behind the proposed measure, and the JCRC didn’t want to fuel the issue, so they decided to avoid creating a media worthy campaign. Then, in the spring of 2011, the petition had gathered enough signatures to be placed on the ballot in the coming election. Should the JCRC continue to ignore it, or undertake a massive and likely costly campaign to defeat it?
The goal of the ban’s supporters was largely to start a debate on male circumcision that they hoped would spread across the country. They used deceiving language in the measure, referring NOT to male circumcision, but instead to “genital cutting of male minors,” in a false attempt to draw an analogy to female genital mutilation. Indeed, the measure referred to “mutilation of the foreskin, testicles, or penis.” The JCRC, under the leadership of Abby Michelson Porth, decided that this intentionally deceiving language could not go unchallenged, particularly given the diverse demographics of San Francisco, with immigrant groups and others who might not already be aware of circumcision, its purpose, and the health benefits. Given the national reach of the anti-circumcision movement, it was recognized that this might not be the last challenge to circumcision. JCRC recognized that a defeat the ban in San Francisco would help other communities do so as well. So the JCRC set up a website (www.stopcircban.com) and started to build support for their campaign.In this corner…
|Foreskin Man tries to save a baby from the Monster Mohel.|
So who are the proponents of this ban? What was the JCRC up against?
The opponents of circumcision are part of a well organized national campaign, active across the country with a strategy taken from the playbook of anti-abortion activists. These groups have been slowly chipping away at the practice for some time. For instance, thanks to their efforts, 18 states no longer provide Medicaid reimbursement to doctors performing circumcisions, making the practice particularly costly for low income families and people of color, many of whom are already in higher risk categories for the very diseases known to be reduced by circumcision.
The anti-circumcision crowd is helped by a coalition of national supporters. It includes a wealthy Texas oilman who has been a particularly important financial backer, segments of the “natural birth” community who harbor suspicion of western medicine, and a sub-culture in the gay community concerned with circumcision’s effect on male sexual satisfaction. But one individual was of particular importance: Matthew Hess, the author of the San Francisco ban. He actually lives 500 miles away, in San Diego. He has written language for similar measures across the country. As the campaign got under way, the JCRC became aware of past writings of Hess’s that betrayed his anti-Semitic leanings. Hess authored a series of anti-circumcision themed comic books starring “Foreskin Man.” The cartoons use classic anti-Semitic tropes and characterizations right out of Nazi propaganda. For instance, in one comic, the heroes kidnap a Jewish baby before he can be circumcised and celebrate around a bonfire, with a menorah as fuel. The media’s focus on Hess, and his sympathetic supporters, including the measure’s San Francisco-based supporters and spokespeople, was helpful in building support.
|Press conference in front of the San Francisco City Hall.|
The goal of the political campaign was to convince the voters, should the ban remain on the ballot come election day. The focal of the political campaign was that despite one’s personal perspective on circumcision, criminalizing or banning this medical procedure with obvious, scientifically documented health benefits would infringe upon parental rights and religious freedom. The campaign would involve direct mail, lawn signs, phone banking, get out the vote mobilizations, and all the usual hallmarks of any political operation. At this stage, the JCRC made the decision to undertake a massive political poll in San Francisco. They wanted to know who their target audiences were, what messaging they responded to, and the key messengers to deliver the message. The poll helped the JCRC focus their message. For instance, discussing the anti-Semitism behind Hess’s motivations was helpful for fundraising and national sympathy, but had less resonance in San Francisco, where diverse voters were more concerned with parental choice.
Armed with this knowledge, the JCRC began framing their argument. The ban’s sponsors wanted to take choice away from parents and let boys decide on their own if circumcision was for them. In response, the JCRC began stating, “You wouldn’t wait for the age of consent to allow immunizations, which – like circumcision – has a public health benefit.” Parental choice, leaving health decisions to a child’s parents and doctor, while effective, was still only one of multiple effective messages.
|Senator Mark Leno spoke about the extreme nature of locking up doctors who perform circumcisions.|
The second prong to the JCRC’s approach was a legal challenge. Thanks to lawyers agreeing to take the case against the ban pro bono, this option was much easier to pursue than the expensive political campaign. However, the JCRC was reluctant to miss the opportunity to win politically, should the legal challenge fail, and so pursued both in order to ensure no wasted time.
The basis for the legal challenge was a California law that prevents municipal interference in restricting or regulating healing and medical practices. The legal work was happening throughout the political campaign to educate voters, and was eventually successful in having the San Francisco ban ruled illegal according to California State law. However, the messaging and public debate provided by the JCRC helped to fuel a successful dialogue on circumcision throughout the country.
While the unique California law happened to be a critical ingredient in the fight against the San Francisco circumcision ban, this is an issue that is likely to come up again in other states. The political poll and messaging used in San Francisco will be similarly helpful should a ban be proposed elsewhere. However, the best tool, said Porth, was the classic community relations model. The first step from the JCRC was to build consensus and convene their local partners. The faith community was the first to jump on board with the JCRC, and this unified front was enormously helpful. Thanks to the JCRC’s involvement with Jewish and non-Jewish groups, building that coalition came easily. While the anti-circumcision crowd had no public support, the JCRC had – within seven weeks - over 250 influential leaders and organizations, locally and nationally, who joined them in opposing the circumcision ban. A key ally in this effort was the Muslim community, for whom circumcision is also a prescribed religious rite.
Other communities may face this measure in the future. Bans on circumcision intrude on the rights of doctors to practice medicine, threaten the sacred and private doctor-parent relationship, and encroach on the rights of religious groups and parents. This messaging, combined with the broad support that comes from community relations building, will be important for future campaigns similar to the San Francisco JCRC’s.