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Campaign against circumcision evokes images of anti-Semitism

Anti-Defamation League criticizes "Foreskin Man" comic book, in which a superhero battles villains dressed as ultra-Orthodox Jews. Author Matthew Hess says he is merely in favor of human rights.

June 04, 2011|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

The image of a bearded, black-hatted Jew with an evil grin and a bloody blade seems straight out of the annals of classic European anti-Semitism.

In this case, however, it is straight out of the pages of a comic book that landed in the middle of a campaign to outlaw circumcision in San Francisco for males under the age of 18. "Foreskin Man," featuring a blond, buff hero who battles dark, evil Jewish characters, has added a strange and possibly sinister element to the November initiative campaign, which was already heated.

The Anti-Defamation League, which was established to fight anti-Semitism, issued a statement Friday calling the book's publication "an advocacy campaign taken to a new low." A spokeswoman for San Francisco's Jewish Community Relations Council called it "outrageous."

"Foreskin Man" was written and created by Matthew Hess, a key figure behind the initiative to ban circumcision, the ritual cutting of foreskin on a baby's penis that, in the Jewish religion, is considered central to the covenant between the Jewish people and God. It is also practiced ritually by Muslims, and for nonreligious reasons by some Christians and others.

Opponents consider it painful and barbaric, akin to female circumcision rites in Africa that have attracted international condemnation. Supporters say it has health benefits, and is only briefly painful.

Hess is president of a San Diego group, MGM Bill, which is also seeking signatures to put a similar measure on the ballot in Santa Monica. MGM stands for male genital mutilation.

In the comic, the blond superhero takes on "Monster Mohel" — a bearded, black-hatted man wearing a prayer shawl. In the traditional Jewish community, a mohel is a person trained to perform circumcisions. The "Monster Mohel," who leers as he sets after a baby with bloody scissors, is flanked by gun-toting henchmen dressed in the traditional clothes of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Most of the "good" characters in the book have blond or light-brown hair and features that might be termed Aryan.

The publication of the comic book was first reported Thursday by a San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Debra J. Saunders, who asked Hess if he considered it to be anti-Semitic. "A lot of people have said that, but we're not trying to be anti-Semitic," he replied. "We're trying to be pro-human rights."

Abby Michelson Porth, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, called it alarming that Hess would use such images in the anti-circumcision campaign.

"The images, in addition to being offensive, are not particularly original," she said. "They're reminiscent of millennia-old stereotypes that have been used to persecute and oppress Jews."

She said the measure to ban circumcision was "an affront to medical science, to the sacred relationship between physicians and the moms and dads with whom they are making this choice, and … would undermine the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion."

Hess did not return phone calls Friday.

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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