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California

Stephen Schwartz
Cruel Cuts
San Francisco’s anti-circumcision initiative threatens religious liberty and public order.
24 June 2011

Conservatives and libertarians often warn about the dangers of the nanny state. But San Francisco could be taking nannying to a new extreme. In May, the city’s department of elections certified a referendum for the November 5 ballot that would criminalize male circumcision. The measure, sponsored by so-called “intactivists,” would make circumcision of a male under 18 a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and a jail sentence as long as one year. Exemptions in cases of “a clear, compelling, and immediate medical need” would be permissible. Religious exemptions for Jews and Muslims would not.

The referendum qualified for the ballot with only 7,743 signatures, or less than 1 percent of the inhabitants of the city and county. “Intactivists” belong to a “body integrity” movement that seems to have originated in San Francisco. The referendum’s public champion, Lloyd Schofield, is cagey about his background, telling the San Francisco Chronicle only that he is 58 and has worked in the hotel industry. The Chronicle story carried the headline, “Meet the man behind SF’s proposed circumcision ban,” but aside from a photo, disclosure of his past employment, and mention that he has a website, failed to tell much about him.

The rise of “intactivism” in San Francisco has run roughly parallel with a revival of nudism in the city. Naked people occasionally parade through the Castro district and unclothed bicyclists appear at AT&T Park, where parents and children wishing only to watch a baseball game become victims of exhibitionism. The “intactivists” and the nudists are more or less allied, according to George Davis, the “naked guy” candidate for mayor in 2007. (He lost, winning only 644 votes to 105,596 for the victorious Gavin Newsom.) Davis, who touts what he calls a “Free Body Culture,” has been arrested at least six times for public nudity. Asked about the proposed circumcision ban, Davis said he supported the idea in principle and compared circumcision with tattooing an infant. But he said he would probably not vote for the measure in November, and predicted it would go down to defeat “because of the comic books.”

Ah yes, those comic books—Foreskin Man, Numbers 1 and 2— disseminated online by the “intactivists” and produced by another obscure individual, Matthew Hess. Hess also reportedly wrote the ballot initiative’s language. His comic books are startling in their anti-Jewish content. Foreskin Man is a blond-haired, muscular “superhero” who flies through the air to rescue infants from circumcision. The first issue of Foreskin Man features a physician, “Doctor Mutilator,” who undergoes a Jekyll-Hyde transformation into a bestial creature when performing a circumcision. The image recalls the contributions of the Nazi luminaries, Joseph Goebbels and Julius Streicher. Foreskin Man complains how “the pro-circumcision lobby . . . (has) all of the well connected doctors and lawyers,” a familiar Jew-baiting stereotype. The “hero” then breaks the windows of a hospital and assaults the doctor—actions that don’t need a referendum to qualify as criminal.

In the second issue, which also may be purchased as a set of cards, the villain is “Monster Mohel,” a hideous-looking figure in Hasidic garb, accompanied by two “goons” in Jewish outfits carrying automatic weapons. Once again, Foreskin Man physically attacks the Jews, then takes the child “Glick” away from his parents—that is, kidnaps him—and hands him over to “the intactivist underground,” a happy band of bikers and pneumatic women who promise to “raise him as one of our own.” It is a “nanny state” nightmare: that of the nanny who makes off with the child in her care.

Debra J. Saunders, the Chronicle’s conservative columnist, phoned Hess to ask if he intended to foster anti-Jewish prejudice. She recorded his weaselly demurral: “We’re not trying to be anti-Semitic. We’re trying to be pro–human rights.” Hess’s argument is quite old. Bigots and anti-Semites have for centuries claimed they don’t hate Jews (or Muslims, or Armenians, or gypsies . . .); they merely wish to secure their own rights. And though the term “fascist” is now greatly overused, glorification of child-stealing, attacks on doctors, and other violations of public order are unarguable indicators that enthusiasts of a “cause” have strayed from crank abstractions to “activist” law-breaking of the kind not preached by Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

Interviewing Schofield or Hess is a waste of time. The comic books speak for themselves. Jewish, Muslim, and other groups have formed a Coalition for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom, with support from most city and county elected officials, as well as Catholics and other Christians. If the referendum passes, it will almost surely be tossed out as a violation of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. Hopefully, San Francisco voters won’t let things get that far.

Stephen Schwartz is a widely published journalist and author who worked from 1989 to 1999 as a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle.

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