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A Jewish Guide To Talking To Circumcision Survivors
How to center survivors.
When media writes about interactions between Jewish people and those harmed by circumcision, they usually focus on how the behavior of survivors impacts Jewish feelings. There have been multiple articles written by Jewish people on how activists against circumcision are supposed to talk to Jewish people without offending them.
I find this odd because this isn’t how we talk about any other social justice issue. There are no “How Black Victims of Racism Should Talk To White People” articles or “How Survivors Of Police Brutality Can Correctly Criticize Cops” articles. If someone proposed those headlines to a mainstream publisher, they’d be canceled.
The understanding on other social justice issues is that we need to center those who’ve experienced injustice. Even when those who’ve experienced injustice say something hurtful or mean, it’s understood that their feelings are the result of the injustice they’ve experienced and the solution is to solve that injustice, rather than police their language and tone. It’s also understood that the desire dominant groups have to police the language of the marginalized people they oppress is due to fragility, a series of defensive maneuvers and emotional triggers intended to avoid seeing how that dominant group might perpetuate or participate in injustice.
Why on the issue of genital cutting is the fragility of perpetrators centered at the expense of survivors? The injustice of genital cutting should be treated the same as any other social justice issue. On other social justice issues, the guides that are written are usually intended to teach the dominant group how to be an ally to the oppressed. For example, there aren’t mainstream guides on how black people can speak gently to whites without triggering their fragility. Instead, there are guides on how white people can be more sensitive on racial issues.
With that in mind, I’ve written a basic guide on how Jewish people can speak to survivors of circumcision pedophilia. To my knowledge, this is the first of its kind, but I hope it will give other survivors the courage to voice their needs and demand better treatment.
I realize that even writing this article might trigger Jewish fragility. However, Jewish people need to understand that their fragility has a harmful impact on survivors. The same way it might be difficult for a white person to read a guide that points out racist behavior they might have participated in, this guide might bring up feelings of fragility for Jewish people. That is okay. The important thing is that you do the work of social justice by processing these feelings and questioning the beliefs behind them, rather than lashing out in any of the behaviors I ask Jewish people to avoid when speaking to survivors.
Behaviors To Avoid
Avoid inciting violence. When Jewish people call those who oppose circumcision “Nazis” or compare them to Nazis through accusations of antisemitism, they are calling for violence against survivors. Calling for violence against survivors of sexual assault is morally wrong, full stop. Violence against those deemed “nazis” is socially acceptable, with even major media like the New York Times asking “Is It Okay To Punch a Nazi?”1 When Jewish people attempt to frame survivors as “Nazis” they are suggesting it would be okay to engage in violence against survivors.
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt acknowledges that calling someone a Nazi is an attempt to incite violence in his book It Could Happen Here when he describes attempts by Palestinian activists to equate Zionists with Nazis. “Nobody in any segment of society believes that Nazis have a place in public life. Society does not condemn those who oppose Nazis. If the notion that Zionists are Nazis goes mainstream… the danger will be profound.”2 The same is true of the false claim that survivors who speak about the harm they experienced as children are “Nazis.” Jewish claims that survivors are “Nazis” or antisemites put their lives in danger.
Avoid harassment. Survivors frequently experience harassment from Jewish people. For example, after interviewing a Jewish US Senate Candidate, I received harassing messages from her suggesting that I kill myself, which included references to my genitals and my relationship with my family.3 While this might sound extreme, this behavior is normalized in the Jewish community through cultural ideas about circumcision, the foreskin, and those who want their intact body.
Survivors often experience harassment in the form of body shaming when Jewish people describe the natural male body as “unclean,” “dirty,” or more prone to disease. Jewish people often engage in personal attacks when survivors share their feelings or say that they did not like how an adult touched their genitals without their consent as a child. The targets of these attacks range from the survivor’s psychological state to their sexuality and are often an attempt to deny or suppress the survivor’s testimony. Survivors should be able to share their stories and feelings without fear of harassment.
Avoid racial slurs. This should be obvious, but using racial slurs is surprisingly common in the Jewish community. One article which attacked survivors as “alt-right”4 cited a page run by a pro-circumcision Jewish organization as their source for anti-racism that had personally attacked me with a racial slur. The post which triggered this slur? “Jewish men have the right to share their feelings against circumcision.”5 How am I supposed to take Jewish claims about “antisemitism” seriously when those they cite as experts on antiracism target me with racial slurs? This kind of abuse is wrong, as is the gaslighting Jewish people engage in when they attempt to claim that these terms are not a slur when directed at survivors.
Avoiding inciting violence, harassment, and racial slurs is a reasonable request for any discussion, especially one involving marginalized survivors of sexual assault.
Behaviors To Practice
Center the survivors. Discussion of social justice issues should be centered on the survivors harmed, rather than the fragility of perpetrators. Since many Jewish people view themselves as oppressed, the idea of a space where their suffering is not centered is a new concept. However, on the issue of genital cutting Jewish people are oppressors. That means that in discussions of this issue, Jewish people must center survivors’ stories rather than stories of their own suffering.
Bringing unrelated subjects into discussions of circumcision is an attempt to center the discussion on Jewishness, rather than survivors. In discussions of circumcision, I have seen Jewish people bring up unrelated stories about antisemitism, the Holocaust, and even the Biblical story of Exodus as tools to center discussions on themselves rather than listen to the stories of survivors. Unprovoked emotional outbursts like yelling or crying are also forms of fragility used to center Jewishness rather than survivors.6
If a survivor is speaking about a sexual assault they experienced as a child, let them tell their story. If any other type of survivor was speaking, it would be considered extremely inappropriate to interrupt them with unrelated political discussions. Let discussions about the issue of genital cutting be about the issue of genital cutting, rather than other issues. Centering survivors means uplifting their voices, rather than trying to silence them by changing the subject or bringing up unrelated issues.
Accept survivors’ feelings. Everyone has the right to their own feelings. Those who’ve experienced oppression might feel grief, sadness, or rage. These feelings are legitimate. Yes, even rage. As Myisha Cherry, author of The Case for Rage: Why Anger is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle puts it, those who are angry about injustice “are simply striving, through their anger, to advertise these shared values of equality and the necessity of putting them into practice… Rather than discounting their anger, we must hear the love and compassion they are expressing with it.”7
Everything that has been written about rage on other social justice issues applies to this one as well. On other social justice issues, we understand that rage is a legitimate response to injustice. However, when survivors experience anger over circumcision, Jewish people often center the survivors’ feelings on themselves, making their rage over circumcision about Jewishness by calling it “antisemitism.” This deliberate misunderstanding of survivors’ rage is a form of epistemic violence that denies survivors their ability to be heard. Be present with survivors’ feelings, even if it triggers your own fragility.
Educate yourself. Many Jewish people believe they are educated on circumcision merely because they grew up in Jewish culture. However, knowing only your cultural bias is not the same as an education. In fact, only knowing a privileged or oppressor standpoint actually makes one less authoritative on a subject, not more. To become educated, you have to seek out perspectives beyond your own culture. These include contrary perspectives, like the perspective of survivors.
It is not the survivors’ job to educate you. You have to educate yourself. There are entire films and books that teach about this issue. Seek out information beyond your own culture. Educating yourself also includes educating yourself about the survivors themselves and their lived experiences.
When Jewish people reply to survivors by saying any statement that begins “I’ve never heard” such as “I’ve never heard anyone complain about circumcision” or “I’ve never heard of that study before” they are engaged in willful ignorance. If you haven’t heard someone complain about circumcision before, it is likely because you haven’t created the emotional safety for someone to share their story with you. When you hear new information, that is the time to listen, not reassert your previous ignorance.
Be an ally. Stand up for survivors against Jewish attempts to incite violence. While I have seen Jewish people call survivors “Nazis,” harass them, engage in body shaming, use racial slurs, etc. I have rarely seen a Jewish person publicly stand up to other Jewish people against these forms of abuse. When people in your community engage in harassment, it is important to call them out, even if it might be challenging to do the right thing. When Jewish people do not call out abuse in their own community, they are complicit in that abuse.
This is standard advice for engaging any marginalized group: center the survivors, accept their feelings, educate yourself, and be an ally.
Why I’m Writing This
I’m writing this because the current relationship between Jewish organizations and survivors is abusive. Jewish people have targeted survivors, including myself, with incitements of violence, harassment, racial slurs, and other forms of abuse. At the same time that Jewish groups have demanded survivors cater to their fragility, there has been no reciprocal effort on the part of Jewish organizations to treat survivors with a fraction of the respect they demand for themselves.
In the past, I endured this abuse, thinking that it was the unavoidable cost of social justice activism. The heroes I admire went through far worse to do the right thing. As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that no survivor should have to tolerate abuse to share their story, that part of the injustice we face is the various forms of relational violence that perpetrators engage in, including Jewish perpetrators, and that it would be okay and even healthy to set boundaries on what treatment I allow in my life. In short, I’m writing this because I will no longer tolerate abuse.
Furthermore, those who support my work also have the right to be free from abuse. In the past, I have heard of attempts by Jewish individuals and organizations to engage in similar abuse against people who support my work, including attempts to threaten and intimidate them into withdrawing their support. I consider attempts to silence my supporters an attempt on me. Where possible, I will stand up for my supporters and other survivors as well.
I encourage other survivors to decide what their own boundaries are around how they will allow others to treat them. You have the right to make your boundaries known to those who interact with you and require them to respect those boundaries if they wish to interact with you. We can stand against the abuse we have endured in the past.
I recognize that by writing this there is the possibility Jewish abusers might further target me with harassment. As a social justice activist, I am willing to take that risk. I believe we have a moral responsibility to stand against injustice. It is time to end this abuse and begin centering survivors.
Stack, Liam. “Attack on Alt-Right Leader Has Internet Asking: Is It O.K. to Punch a Nazi?” The New York Times, 22 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/politics/richard-spencer-punched-attack.html.
Greenblatt, Jonathan. It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable―And How We Can Stop It. Mariner Books, 2022, p. 88.
Marotta, Brendon. “Why Did Circumcision Proponent Dr. Cathleen London End Her US Senate Campaign?” Brendon Marotta, 29 Jan. 2019, brendonmarotta.com/3557/why-did-circumcision-proponent-dr-cathleen-london-end-her-us-senate-campaign.
Schofield, Daisy. “How Intactivist’s Anti-Circumcision Movement Was Co-Opted by the Alt-Right.” Dazed Digital, 9 Apr. 2020. www.dazeddigital.com/beauty/body/article/48684/1/how-intactivists-anti-circumcision-movement-was-co-opted-by-the-alt-right.
Antisemitism in Intactivism. “Facebook.” Archive. 4 Feb 2020. https://archive.fo/WO9gV. Archived 4 Feb 2020.
Note: I am using an archive link because the original Facebook page has been banned, presumably for violating Facebook’s terms of service.
Accapadi, Mamta Motwani. “When White Women Cry: How White Women's Tears Oppress Women of Color.” The College Student Affairs Journal 26 (2007): 208-215.
Cherry, Myisha. “BLM Protests: Anger Can Build a Better World.” The Atlantic, 25 Aug. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/08/how-anger-can-build-better-world/615625.