By Christopher Hitchens
Posted Monday, Aug. 29, 2005
I can never read the name "Michael Bloomberg" without an automatic free-association that flashes up in my mind. "Little putz," is what my internal prompter always cues to me. Obviously this and other intuitions must be prompted by whatever grand intelligence originally designed me, because here's what I read on page B5 of the New York Times on Friday, Aug. 26:
"Circumcision ritual practiced by some Orthodox Jews has alarmed city health officials, who say it may have led to three cases of herpes—one of them fatal—in infants. … The practice is known as oral suction, or in Hebrew, metzitzah b'peh: after removing the foreskin of the penis, the practitioner, or mohel, sucks the blood from the wound to clean it".
Last week, Emily Bazelon launched Slate's circumcision research project, a "study of men who have experienced sex as both circumcised and uncircumcised." The continuing scandal of this practice, which most Jews abandoned many years ago, is newly illustrated by the death of one little boy from type-1 herpes, and the infection of two others, in Staten Island and Brooklyn, after they had been subjected to this ritual by the same mohel. Let's be clear what's involved here. The Times refers to an article published last year in the journal Pediatrics that argued that metzitzah b'peh carries a serious health risk and is, for that reason alone, a violation of Jewish law. ("We suspect … that this entity is underreported for cultural reasons and that the studies described here are only the "tip of the iceberg" of the true incidence of the disease," the authors note). None of this should be hard to comprehend: If it risks the life or health of an infant, then no religious allegiance is or should be required for its condemnation. Q.E.D., as you might say.
What's Bloomberg got to do with this, you may be impatient to know by now. Well, the mayor of the great city where these children were deliberately exposed to infection and death has had a meeting with the Orthodox authorities who like to see this happening to small putzes, and he has expressed himself thus, on his own radio show, again as per the Times:
We're going to do a study, and make sure that everyone is safe and at the same time, it is not the government's business to tell people how to practice their religion.
Study? What study? Can't the fool get through an article by a Jewish authority in Pediatrics? For the Times reporter to add that Mayor Bloomberg's comment appeared to be designed not to "upset a group that can be a formidable voting bloc" was, in the circumstances, worse than superfluous.
Where to start with this? I could wish that Bloomberg were always so careful about keeping out of other peoples' business: He has made it legally impossible to have a cigarette and a cocktail at the same time, anywhere in the city. But I'll trade him his stupid prohibitionist ban if he states clearly that it is the government's business to protect children from religious fanatics. Female genital mutilation, for example, is quite rightly banned under federal law, and no religious exemption is, or ever should be, permitted. The Mormons were obliged to give up polygamy and forcible marriage before they, or the state of Utah, could be part of the United States. A Christian Scientist who denies urgent medical treatment to his or her children may well be hauled up for reckless endangerment, as may those whose churches teach redemption through violent corporal punishment. The First Amendment does indeed forbid any infringement of religious freedom, but it is not, as was once said, part of a suicide pact, let alone a child-abuse one.
Let's by all means hear from Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who emerged from his meeting with Bloomberg to inform us that: "The Orthodox Jewish community will continue the practice that has been practiced for over 5,000 years. We do not change. And we will not change." You can preach it, rabbi, but you have no more right to practice it than a Muslim imam who preaches the duty of holy war has the right to put his teachings into effect. And Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer, the 57-year-old man who ministered to the three boys in question, is currently under a court order that forbids him from doing it again—pending an investigation by the health department. What "investigation?" If another man of that age were found to be slicing the foreskins of little boys and then sucking their penises and their blood, he would be in jail—one hopes—so fast that his feet wouldn't touch the ground. If he then told the court that God ordered him to do it, he would be offering precisely the defense that thousands of psychos have already made so familiar. Preach it rabbi. Preach it to the judge.
A few years ago I traveled to Calcutta with the brilliant photographer Sebastião Salgado, who has made the eradication of polio his signature cause. In 2001, there was a real chance that this childhood-wrecking and frequently lethal malady could go the way of smallpox. Only a few outposts, usually in very bad war zones like Afghanistan, had not been reported as "clear." (The two sides in the civil war in El Salvador observed a truce so that the vaccine could be safely distributed.) But some mullahs in Bengal spread the rumor that the vaccine led to impotence and diarrhea (a bad combo) and urged mothers to keep their children away from the nurses and physicians. Most Bengalis are too smart to listen to ravings like these, which exactly resemble the view of Dr. Timothy Dwight, one of America's founding divines, that vaccination against smallpox was an interference with the divine design. However, in northern Nigeria, where imams now hold state power in many provinces, the polio vaccine has been denounced as a plot "by the US and the UN [!]" to "sterilize Muslims." In consequence of this fatwa, the disease has returned to Nigeria this year and also spread back to several African countries that thought they had bidden farewell to it. Decades of patient and skillful work have been ruined, along with the lives of uncounted children.
Jewish babies exposed to herpes in New York, thousands of American children injured for life after the rape and torture they suffered at the hands of a compliant Catholic priesthood, prelates and mullahs outbidding each other in denial of AIDS … it's not just your mental health that is challenged by faith. Anyone who says that this evil deserves legal protection is exactly as guilty as the filthy old men who delight in inflicting it. What a pity that there is no hell.