Rites or rights?

As I mentioned in my previous article, “It’s a no-brainer really”, in an inspirational address to the Annual Conference of Republic last June, the journalist Tanya Gold cited as one of the reasons she was anti-monarchy was the fact that, at birth, royal babies had no say in their inherited life-style. It was a reason with which I found agreement with Tanya (and which found its way into my personal top ten reasons for being anti-monarchy). It is curious, therefore, that in a recent newspaper article (“A ban on male circumcision would be anti-Semitic. How could it not be?”, The Guardian, 12 October, 2013), Tanya tenaciously defends the practice of male circumcision within the Jewish faith.
Tanya laid down a basis for the argument in her article with the view that, in contrast to the views of many notable British Jews and Jewish organisations, she believed that, in some recent publications of the Daily Mail newspaper,  there was no intended antisemitism in the attacks on the late and esteemed Marxist sociologist, Ralph Miliband (father of Ed Miliband, the current leader of the British Labour Party). The attacks on Ralph Miliband included the view that, in spite of choosing to come to the UK as a refugee, he hated Britain and British institutions.
Having read some works of Ralph Miliband for my university studies in Sociology, I would strongly dispute this assertion by the Daily Mail and would, furthermore, defend the right of any citizen – of the UK or any nation – to criticise the nation of birth or adoption. Of such stuff is democracy developed.
Tanya’s article then proceeds to what amounts to a diatribe against a resolution passed by the Council of Europe which, seemingly tongue-in-check, she refers to as the “continent’s leading human rights organisation”. The resolution was called Children’s Right to Physical Integrity and speaks against the violation of these rights. These violations include, amongst others, female genital mutilation and the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons. The latter is, of course, related to the practice of male circumcision in the religious traditions of Judaism and Islam.
Tanya goes on explain the Jewish rite of male circumcision, giving a context (Jewish religious tradition) and the method employed in circumcising Jewish male babies (she argues strongly, and rightly, for correct medical procedures within Judaism as elsewhere). Her argument intensifies as she expresses the view that to be in favour of a ban on the Jewish religion’s tradition of male circumcision is to be antisemitic. It is at this point that Tanya’s argument seems to be at odds with some of her previously expressed views about the sanctity and dignity of the very young child and warrants a return to her opinions about royal families and monarchy.
 Is a male child born into a Jewish family any different in having his life pre-determined by circumcision than a male child born into royalty? Whether a long established religious tradition or not, male circumcision is also part of a modern Jewish community’s culture and the practice is sacrosanct, for, as Tanya states, it is almost “the only ritual that both progressive and ultra-Orthodox Jews, so often at each others’ throats as to who is the most righteous kind of Jew, agree on”.
However, even though something is considered essential to the endurance of a group of people, does that render it immune from criticism from those who are not part of the group and, therefore, may have a different point of view – held with a similar fervour and breadth and depth of rationale? A basis for understanding is surely the acceptance of a contrary point of view and the latter may often comes as a criticism.
In a similar vein,  it could be argued that, irrespective of political or national colours within the UK,  royal birth’s and the accompanying heritage is part of the contemporary British community’s culture. The existence of royal families are, of course, as old as any religion’s “covenant with God” (a major tenet of the Jewish practice of male circumcision), and usually more historically evidenced. Further, much religious tradition, particularly in Judaism and Christianity, has been protected and enunciated through royal families.
In common with religious traditions, monarchies of various kinds have resorted to communion and continuity with their ancestors in order to emphasise their legitimacy and make an appeal for their continuing relevance. Tradition of all kinds tends to be specific  and referenced in its philosophy and selective in its ethical practice.
Therefore, to argue that to oppose male circumcision is to be antisemitic, which, unfortunately in my view, Tanya appears to be saying, is to say that being anti-monarchical is being anti-British! As a republican, and a secularist, I would dispute her logic and find her argument a little disconcerting. Ralph Miliband was critical of some aspects of the British state and its institutions, but it does not follow that he hated Britain. The differences brought to one’s circumstances and outlook  as a consequence of being a citizen rather than a refugee, are quite profound.
To be critical of some aspects of Judaism, be it in reference to religious tradition, historical narrative or community culture,  does not make the critic antisemitic. Perhaps the answer to the enigma of the latter is to be found in other, perhaps more personal and profound,  physical and psychological differences.

About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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