Doleful Alliances

Through the end of February 2015, the exhibition "Haut ab! - Haltungen zur rituellen Beschneidung" (Snip it! Stances on Ritual Circumcision) can be seen at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Exhibition PosterExtensive media coverage consistently praises the handling of the subject matter and gives the exhibition high marks for an allegedly complex, factual, calm and informative presentation. We have gone on site to get a better idea. Just a preview of our findings: the exhibition does not live up to those lofty claims.


“Unfortunately we think that a very interesting and important topic has been handled here - sadly though in a very biased and unreflected way (...) the tongue-in-cheek tone, already visualized through the image of the banana, seems to say that circumcision is "not so bad" (...) Some (self-)critical analysis of the topic, e.g. a comparison FGM/FCM [female genital mutilation - the editors] vs. male circumcision, freedom of religion and the right to bodily integrity would have been nice. Maybe next time.

(Quote from the exhibition's visitors' book)

It’s a shame that "Haut ab!" closely resembles an advertisement for the infringements of children’s rights with the active support of various theologians and academics, who lend justification to the existence of questionable ritualistic acts. From a level-headed point of view, the exhibition barely presents anything that wouldn't also come up on a quick Google query for "circumcision" — in other words, barely surpassing mere folklore.


The off-putting title "Haut ab!" doesn’t help the controversy; rather, its underlying accusation of anti-semitism and condescension discourages an objective and factual debate [the German phrase "Haut ab!" can be read as "skin off", but in common language means "Get lost!" or "Buzz off!"]. Furthermore it comes as some surprise that, given the subtitle “Stances on Ritualistic Circumcision", neither medical nor children’s-rights aspects are more than superficially addressed. In truth, it should be called "OUR stances" for the exhibit’s almost nonexistent attention to conflicts with basic rights and the perspectives of victims of circumcision.
The self-proclaimed goal is to "give religious depth to the issue of religiously motivated circumcision of young boys within the three monotheistic religions (...) and (...) to demonstrate the essential significance this ritual has for Judaism and Islam up until today" (Dr. Cilly Kugelmann, Head of programming). And that is exactly what it does, by limiting its focus to religious, cultic and mystic aspects.


The Tour

At the very start of the exhibit there is a well-known WHO world map dating from 2007 that lists the countries where foreskin-amputations are carried out. The percentage rates shown on the map are meant to clue in the visitor to a worldwide acceptance of the operation, a simple message of “When so many are doing it, it can't be wrong". A similar simplification was employed during the 2012 debate and it does not reveal any new arguments: after all, the statistically traceable high numbers are a result of the fact that foreskin-amputations are forced on children, meaning they occur for the most part without the informed consent of the person that endures the surgery and must deal with its considerable consequences for the rest of his life.

Concerning the acceptance of forced circumcision, the chart is as meaningful as a map listing all the dictatorial states, from which one might come to some conclusion about how many people like to live under tyranny. In order to more accurately inform the visitor, the map should provide rates of complications, at least those that require hospitalization (ranging from excessive bleeding and infections up to cases in which the entire penis has to be amputated later), as well the cases of deaths documented in the world press.

The audience is further presented with a smattering of folkloric objects. A cushion, statues, vestments, a prince’s costume like those that Muslim boys wear during the ceremony, a variety of historic circumcision instruments and other related relics catch the viewer's eye. An explanation of their respective meaning, however, falls short; if you didn't know why boys are portrayed as princes beforehand, you still won't glean that knowledge from the exhibition.

Also seen is a modern, sterile, disposable circumcision set, which seemingly includes everything needed for a circumcision, from the knife to medical dressings to a bag of scented herbs for the blessings. On closer look it becomes obvious that no anesthetics are included - not even the freely available EMLA cream, which despite its officially discredited effectiveness in circumcisions is still the vehicle of choice for many circumcisers where analgesia is intended.

"I do miss "stances" - as the title implies. And do agree on keeping circumcision legal - but oppose it very much - it is mutilation and irreversible. (...) And no info on historic roots in Judaism!"
(Quote from the exhibition's visitors' book)

All in all, a stale aftertaste remains that intends to distract from the actual surgery and all of its potential and unavoidable consequences, in the name of protecting the myth of the "tiny cut" and its harmlessness. It is quite significant that a look into the visitors' book and a quick browsing of the literature available in the museum's bookstore (it only really lacked Prof. Franz’s book "Die Beschneidung von Jungen") offers more information than the actual exhibition.

Surprise in the Media Room

In the media room at the conclusion of the exhibition, along with footage from the parliamentary debate and various medial crudities, a real surprise awaits: in a short outtake of Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon's film "Cut”, one learns some medical details on the male foreskin and the consequences of its loss. Unfortunately, the presented controversial point is not addressed anywhere else within the exhibit, even though it is internal to Judaism as well.

The Catalog

Those who spend 25 Euros for the lavishly designed exhibition catalog can get much deeper insights into the intellectual world of those that so vehemently preach foreskin-amputation on non-consenting boys. It contains various essays that tackle the issue from a religious-cultural point of view, and discloses some views and interpretations that are even more irritating than the described context-poor exhibition itself. The 175-page catalog does not neglect to mention that 60% of all male Jews in Sweden live with intact genitalia. There is also mention of a movement called "Jews Against Circumcision". A sentence about the vehement opposition to the legalization of forced circumcision by the German Professional Association of Paediatricians (Berufsverband der Kinder- und Jugendärzte, BVKJ) is also included, and even Maimonides’s 12th-century works have been referenced, in which he clearly names the loss of sexual sensitivity as one of the goals of circumcision and (like Ilkılıç still does 900 years later) considers the retention of fertility as being of importance. Yet none of it is further explained and none of the contradictions that arise against the propositions of the exhibition are tackled.

The mentioned clues therefore seem almost exotic and as if they were not actual "stances" worthy of further consideration. In the end, an estimated 10 isolated sentences containing contrary descriptions remain framed by 165 pages of postulations for the abolishment of children’s rights; blanket allegations of anti-semitism; well "justified" myths; and false claims.

Children's Rights as a Coincidence

Dr. İlhan Ilkılıç, Medic and islamic Scholar, proclaims the following:

"The implications of children's well-being can not be determined universally and without cultural context. (...) ... the child would experience discrimination and ostracism within its own cultural and religious community."

Ilkılıç ignores the possibility that ostracism and discrimination could be avoided by means other than a forceful adjustment of the child to the adults' ideological world. He not only depicts ostracism and discrimination as unavoidable fact, but also hereby defends them. He diametrically opposes any attempts to abolish discrimination against individuals and minorities by elevating the act to be the core of the community, deserving protection. The huge successes that were achieved by human rights activism in the past, like the equality of women or the end of apartheid, would under those conditions not only have been impossible, but would have to be seen as culture-destroying as well.

"We are not dealing with a life-threatening situation for the child here (...)"

He goes even further by widening the range of acceptance to unimaginable limits: as long as it is not life-threatening, it is supposedly OK.

"Also we can not speak of a damaging of the organ, or of an associated organ dysfunction, like occurs during genital mutilation of girls and women. As we know, in some countries - like the United States - circumcision belongs to the accepted medical sanctions of prevention (...) Therefore, any identification of this activity with damage to health — as is often alleged in public debate — is intolerable."

Ilkılıç trivializes the possibility that there are unavoidable consequences of foreskin-amputation. He takes a position that is repeatedly directly against — amongst others — the BVKJ, who clearly acknowledge that this intervention is a harm to health, and who consider the extensive loss of sensitive tissue as prima facie evidence of damage. Same goes for the suggested acceptance of infant genital cutting as a valid preventive measure - this view is only to be found within a single paediatric association worldwide, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Ilkılıç’s very low bar by which the surgery should be considered harmless opens the door to countless other practices. Given his view that from a surgical standpoint most of these can be performed without grave consequences and the organ in question is not massively damaged, he sees no obstacle; conservation of fertility is his apparent benchmark. The fact that similar criteria of justification can be effortlessly assigned to tattooing infants, childhood piercings, corporal punishment and last but not least the less invasive forms of female genital mutilation either slips his mind, or he simply does not care.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in any case would become largely moot given an adaptation of this perception.

Dr. Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek und Dr. Cilly Kugelmann from the Jewish Museum strike the same note:

"Bodily interventions have been among the symbolic expressions of religions for thousands of years and have survived in a variety of religions until present day. There are communities that traditionally tattoo, cut ornamental scars, pierce and circumcise or perform other bodily modifications."

This is an attempt to justify the surgery solely on the duration of its occurrence in history. No distinction is made among the ages at which it is performed or or whether it takes into account the consent or volition of the affected party, nor do they differentiate between a symbolic act and an actual bodily alteration. Again the tenor can be heard that everything is justifiable if only it exists long enough and, like Ilkılıç’s pronouncements, this position provides a fertile ground for a veritable flood of possible practices that infringe upon commonly accepted children’s rights, which surfaces in the wording "or perform other bodily modifications".

„Nice historic exhibit, but let’s not pretend it’s unbiased. Circumcision is a Human Rights Issue. Religion, tradition and the desire of parents do not constitute a reason to cut a newborn child.“
(Quote from the exhibition's visitors' book)

Love and Caring as a License for Violence

Dr. Yigal Blumenberg, a Berlin Psychotherapist, offers his views on the psychological relationships in the catalog:

"The question about a possible traumatization of the infant is therefore a question of the stability and salvaging qualities of the carer figures felt and recognized by the child; those who guard the self-love."


"Therefore, the inner attitude of the parents, their identification and the guardians of tradition present during the circumcision have a decisive influence on the emotional integration of the experience."

Thus, if the parents just believe strongly enough in the supposed benefits and downplay the violent act performed on the child, and generally love and care for their child, he won't experience this as an act of violence. So, is sexual abuse less traumatizing if it occurs, as it does so often, within a familiar environment? Why do so many known cases of circumcision trauma go unmentioned, when it was particularly traumatizing that the assault on the child’s most intimate parts occurred in a familiar setting and still triggered potentially lifelong trust issues?

Mutilation as Perfection of the Body

Dr. Thomas Lentes, Historian and Theologian at Münster University and member of their "Cluster of Excellence: Religion and Politics" fits seamlessly into this undifferentiated canon of justification. In a radio interview with Deutschlandfunk regarding the exhibition, he referred to criticism of cultural and religious rites of marking as age-old, tired and likely motivated by resentment and arrogance, dating as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. Lentes therefore denies the objectivity of criticism - which amazes, with all the cultural arguments in favor or circumcision being just as time-honored.

His complete indiscriminateness is terrifying. In this context he mentions — along with ornamental body painting and tattoos — footbinding as was practiced in Imperial China. In this act, little girls had pedal bones repeatedly broken and their feet tightly bandaged to obstruct growth, forming a club foot. Lentes obviously considers this no-longer-practiced cultural body marking as a simple cultural difference, without giving any thought to the consequences to the affected girls.

He expressed himself similarly in the Frankfurter Rundschau in July 2012 :

"Only through cultural and religious transformation - in clothing, tattoos, mutilation - is one’s humanity and integration into the cultural and religious group fulfilled."

"Like with the binding of the feet in Asian cultures, that of the head in some African ones, the cultural manipulation of the ears or the pricking of a tattoo in many cultures, circumcision aims primarily at one thing: the cultural-religious perfection of the body, certainly not its mutilation!”

Therefore, in his opinion, mutilation may be judged only from the perspective and by the intent of the adults imposing the act, not by the surgery itself or by the suffering of affected children. The exploitation of the power differential between adults and children is obviously portrayed without a second thought, as a suitable way to enforce patriarchal structures.

"With all due respect for faith and religion, the exhibition makes one thing clear, circumcision is solely utilized for subjugation. Sadly, more questions than answers."
(Quote from the exhibition's visitors' book)

Highly visible and most unfortunate is the feckless attempt, through comments of the organizers as well as in several instances in the catalog, to retroactively frame the 2012 public debate about the legalization of non-medical foreskin-amputations as being largely motivated by anti-semitism. Presumably this also hinted at discrediting the ongoing educational work of many children's-, women's- and human rights activists, as well as all paediatric associations. In light of the consistently high occurrence of complications, as noted by the Professional Association of Paediatricians, and the ever-growing number of negatively affected men that dare to speak publicly about their suffering — despite the statutory denial of empathy — this approach by the exhibitors reveals a strong tendency to ignore reality.

The exhibit also lacks appropriate commentary on alternative rituals that do not require surgical intervention — like brit shalom, which is enjoying a growing popularity in Jewish communities. It is also silent on the fact that in Islam there is no religious obligation to perform foreskin-amputations on minors, but only a recommendation regarding adults. This information is the minimum that one would expect from an exhibition that has a religious emphasis. Instead, Ilkılıç stresses circumcision as an "elementary, indispensable and irreplaceable obligation". At any rate, even in this sweeping statement untruths do not become truth simply by mantra-like repetition.

Critical scientific publications that have appeared meanwhile on the topic remain unaddressed. A child-rights perspective does not find any place in a compilation about an infringement committed on children. Their pain und suffering have no space in the world of these adults and the justifications they construct.

Aversion and Keeping Silent as Subject Matter

It is alarming that the museum offers both workshops for students and seminars for teachers based on these basic concepts. Against the backdrop of what the museum offers to its audience, one can assume that this ritual-biased and otherwise completely unreflected vision is meant to be carried unfiltered into the classroom. Additionally, given the great medical, legal and especially individual-sexual aspects of this subject, it is questionable whether school-age visitors even can thoroughly and appropriately assess it on a "pro & con" basis.

Children are thereby denied a chance to develop an understanding of this ritual that includes various suffering from its consequences. Criticism of the practice and empathy with the victims tends to be associated prematurely with feelings of guilt towards the circumcising communities, with a virtually instilled lack of compassion, aversion and silence in the face of this infringement of children's rights.

Dear museum, unfortunately the exhibition was presented very one-sided. (...) I personally miss the references to sexual self-determination and to real-world sexuality. What effects does circumcision have on a man’s sexual sensation, as well a woman’s.”
(Quote from the exhibition's visitors' book)

The exhibition wants to "advocate acceptance for the religious and cultural ritual of circumcision", according to the curator. Is it simplistic to say that it looks like they’re trying to achieve this by disingenuously avoiding any potentially imperiling (to themselves) perceptions and dismissing the personal concerns of negatively affected children, whose bodies and rights to self-determination are infringed?