On May 1st 2018, Eric Clopper took to the stage of the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University to give a two and a half hour presentation titled “Sex & Circumcision: An American Love Story.” Part presentation, part stand-up comedy, and part angry rant, he knew that his one-man show would be controversial. Very shortly after the video was posted online, Eric was fired from his job at Harvard. I am not interested in the particulars of his dismissal, nor do I deny his right to say whatever he wants to say. But freedom of speech is not freedom from criticism and there is a lot to criticize here.
Eric Clopper is a Jewish man who is angry about the fact that he was circumcised and I think he has every right to be. Discovering that a valuable part of your body was forcibly removed at an age when you were too vulnerable to protect yourself is a legitimate cause for anger. But having a legitimate cause for anger is not an ethical license to say anything that you please. “Sex & Circumcision” is a case study in how anger-fueled activism can go terribly wrong. I will start by addressing some of the more glaring factual inaccuracies in the show. I will then move on to examine a disturbing passage in which Clopper expresses metaphoric violence against one of the people he is criticizing. I will then talk about the show’s overt antisemitism and conclude with some thoughts about anger.
“Rabbis designed and implemented circumcision to damage Jewish children’s sexuality.”
This is Clopper’s first “censored fact” and he repeats it multiple times throughout the course of the show at one point even calling it “irrefutable.” What stands out immediately is the strange wording. Clopper’s phrasing implies that circumcision was intended to damage children’s sexuality in particular. This is an odd and indefensible claim, but let’s overlook the language here for the sake of argument and assume that what Clopper meant to say was that the Rabbis designed and implemented circumcision to damage male sexuality. Even this amended statement isn’t factual. Jewish circumcision is an overdetermined ancient rite. It has had many meanings attached to it throughout the course of its long history. One of the meanings attached to it by some rabbis is that it reduces sexual pleasure, but this meaning arrived relatively late on the scene and is far from unanimously accepted.
Now it’s true, as Clopper points out, that the earliest known source for this rationale comes from Philo who lived around the turn of the common era. But Philo wasn’t a rabbi. He was, in fact, very far from being a rabbi and seems to not have even had a particularly strong grasp of the Hebrew language, a deficiency that he and Clopper have in common. The rationale that the rabbis were giving at the time that Philo wrote was that circumcision is a commandment and a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Nothing in the early rabbinic sources indicate that circumcision had anything to do with reducing sexual pleasure. Certainly not in the minds of the rabbis who defined the practice as we know it today. That meaning would take another millennium to show up with the medieval scholars.
“Throughout almost all of Judeo-Christian history, sexuality was deemed immoral and must be forcibly tamed.”
Here Clopper’s“Judeo-Christian” gloss gets him into some more factual trouble. While it’s true that throughout much of the Christian tradition, sexuality has been seen as an evil force, the story in the Jewish tradition is more complicated. To be sure, we have our sex-negative thinkers, but as Daniel Boyarin and others have shown, the Rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud were actually quite sex-positive when compared against their Christian counterparts. And they are the people who instituted the more radical form of circumcision that Jews practice to this day.
“If you are Christian and you are circumcised you are in direct violation of your faith.”
I’ve included this quote here, because it demonstrates a pattern of inattention to circumcising cultures that are not Jewish. It’s worth noting that while Christians have historically been strongly anti-circumcision for theological reasons, it’s not accurate to characterize the status of being circumcised as a violation of the Christian faith. The Copts would be an obvious counterexample to this assertion as would hundreds of millions of men in the English-speaking world and in South Korea who are circumcised religious Christians.
“When you grow up in a genital-cutting culture such as Judaism, you implicitly believe that the foreskin is dirty or terrible or dangerous. And you see that type of religious fanaticism reflected throughout almost all major circumcision advocates.”
I’m not sure that people who grow up Jewish have implicit beliefs of any kind about the foreskin. Most of the Jewish people that I know really don’t think about it much. In a way, this is much more insidious than demonizing it. The body part rather disappears from cultural consciousness. But there’s a deeper problem with this statement that takes the form of a gloss between different kinds of identity. As a result of the fact that Jewish identity is sometimes defined in religious terms and sometimes defined in ethnic terms, the word “Jewish” can refer to both the ethnic group and the religion. Clopper here slips between the two as if they were the same thing. It is a fact that many of the most prominent American circumcision advocates have been ethnically Jewish. It is not true, however, that they were religiously Jewish. The notion that their enthusiasm for circumcision came from “religious fanaticism” is absurd.
“An ideology that compels its followers to mutilate its own children’s genitals, now that is evil. But an ideology that not only compels its followers to mutilate its own children’s genitals, but is hideous and duplicitous enough to fool an entire nation to mutilate all its children’s genitals? Now that is an unspeakable evil.”
The idea that Judaism fooled the United States into circumcising their children is so wrong that it beggars belief. The Jewish faith is famously hostile to converts. It’s one of those obvious characteristics that distinguishes the religion from Christianity and Islam. In Jewish law, non-Jews are expected to keep what are called the “Seven Noahide Laws,” and-spoiler alert-circumcision is not one of them. This notion that Judaism is responsible for the American adoption of circumcision is patently false and plays to antisemitic conspiracy theories.
“The US media continues to feed us the AAP’s circumcision recommendation, which is a blatant lie unapologetically motivated by religious ideologies.”
This is Clopper’s fourth “censored fact.” To understand what he’s talking about here, a little background is in order. The American Academy of Pediatrics has released position statements going back decades on circumcision. The statements have swung back and forth over the years and in 2012 they took a much more favorable view of circumcision than they had in the past. To support the idea that the AAP’s 2012 statement was motivated by religious ideology, Clopper focuses on one of the task force members, a man by the name of Dr. Andrew Freedman, who is Jewish. As it happens, Andrew Freedman is a terrible poster boy for the fantasy of a Jewish circumcision conspiracy. On multiple occasions, Freedman has demonstrated that he is far from a pro-circumcision zealot, including in the very quotes that Clopper cites in his show:
“I circumcised [my son] myself on my parents’ kitchen table on the eighth day of his life. But I did it for religious, not medical reasons. I did it because I had 3,000 years of ancestors looking over my shoulder…In my practice I like to sort of define it as a tribal custom and if you belong to a tribe that does it, then you really want it.”
Now Clopper interprets these comments as disqualifying religious biases. I’m not persuaded. I see a man with whom I disagree, who is clearly able to distinguish between his medical opinion on the one hand and his religious beliefs on the other. Having said that, I do think that there is evidence that the AAP task force was biased. In a 2016 article in Pediatrics, Freedman had the following to say about what motivated the task force:
“The ethical standard used was ‘the best interest of the child,’ and in this setting the well-informed parent was felt to be the best proxy to pass this judgment. Protecting this option was not an idle concern at a time when there are serious efforts in both the United States and Europe to ban the procedure outright.”
This is, I believe, evidence that the task force took political considerations into account and had a cultural bias in favor of preserving the parents’ ability to make this decision for their children. What it is not evidence of is any kind of religious motivation. Let alone “unapologetic religious ideology.”
Unfortunately, Clopper doesn’t stop with mischaracterizing the AAP’s motivations. After he concludes his critique of their methodologies, he says the following:
“That’s right, I just made them all publicly my bitches. Except for you, Andy. You’re not my bitch. You’re my little piggy. Will you show them how you squeal for me, Andy? [pig squealing sound]. Oh that’s a good little piggy, Andy!”
This passage alone would have stripped Clopper of any credibility with a fair-minded viewer, but I want to spend a beat reflecting on its meaning. Clopper here is referencing a film called “Deliverance,” the plot of which involves a group of friends who are attacked and raped by a madman. Clopper, in this disgraceful reference, is dominating Andrew Freedman by rape. This reference betrays a stunning and negligent insensitivity to rape. Which brings me to another instance of negligence, the overt antisemitism in Sex and Circumcision.
As a prominent critic of both circumcision and the State of Israel, I am frequently exposed to ideas that fall in the grey zone of what some might consider antisemitic and what others might not. Eric Clopper’s show falls well outside this zone. It includes passages that are so unambiguously antisemitic that it is impossible for anyone even remotely familiar with the prejudice to arrive at any other conclusion in good faith. I’ll get to these passages in a moment, but let’s first take a look at how Clopper talks about the role that circumcision played in persecuting the Jews.
“It’s important to understand that Jews were largely discriminated and ostracized against[sic] throughout all of history not exclusively, but largely because of their covenant of cutting. Largely because everyone and their mother knew that these were radical acts of sexual violence. And the thinking went, although it’s untrue, it’s not completely unreasonable, that if these people were doing this to their own children, could you imagine what they’re doing to non-Jewish children?”
First of all, this idea that Jews were largely discriminated against because of circumcision is false. Circumcision was often used as a pretext for persecution, but the pretext that antisemites use and their actual motivations are two wildly different things. Second, according to Clopper, it is “not completely unreasonable” to assume that Jews who circumcise their children would act violently towards non-Jewish children. This is a gratuitous rationalization for antisemitism and a revealing unforced error.
“It is a step away from child sacrifice! It is a fucking satanic ritual and these mohels are rapists. Savages. Animals. Take a moment to grasp the true magnitude of this ideology’s evil.”
Here we see what might charitably be interpreted as hyperbole giving way to flat out dehumanizing language, a staple of antisemitic rhetoric.
“The Jews, in my case my own fucking father, raped me. He gave his rage to me. Let’s not allow them to rape the next generation of children.”
In this passage, “The Jews” are “raping children” and we are supposed to stop them. Infant circumcision is an unethical violation of a person’s right to bodily integrity and self-determination. It is not rape. It may share some superficial characteristics with rape, but it is not in the same moral universe. Moreover, this slippage from talking about individual Jews to talking about “the Jews” is a hallmark of antisemitic rhetoric.
“If you are an American man, if you take your penis in your hand, you will see a scar where you have been raped of essential elements of your humanity, because of the demonstrably evil influence Judaism has on this country.”
Here, Clopper is calling on hundreds of millions of American men to blame Judaism, a religion that as we have demonstrated has no interest whatsoever in what non-Jewish men do with their penises, not only for their circumcisions, but for depriving them of their humanity. Finally, we have the following at the end of the show, delivered in a quiet voice like he’s letting the audience in on a Jewish secret:
“The Jews, I know, I’m one of them, are an unmasked genital mutilation cult. That is why we are so clannish. It is our shared delusion of superiority that we must uphold to maintain our perverted tribal identity. Circumcision is the evil that binds us together.”
To some of my readers this may seem beyond obvious, but it’s 2018, so I’m going to say it anyway. The Jews are a diverse group of people who do not meet any sane definition of the word “cult.” We are no more or less clannish than other groups of people. We do not share a delusion of superiority and we do not have a perverted tribal identity.
So what are we to make of this and more importantly, what can we learn from it? I have for the past few years been studying Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. At its core, NVC is a way of maximizing the chances that all parties in an interaction will get their needs met, but it’s also a deep rethinking of how we relate to one another as human beings. What Rosenberg says about anger is of direct relevance to this conversation:
“At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled. Thus anger can be valuable if we use it as an alarm clock to wake us up-to realize that we have a need that isn’t being met and that we are thinking in a way that makes it unlikely to be met…Anger, however, co-opts our energy by directing it toward punishing people rather than meeting our needs.”
When I watch Eric Clopper, I see a man torn apart by unmet needs who has allowed his anger to co-opt his energy and direct it towards blaming and punishing others. In Nonviolent Communication terms, his one-man show betrays an incomplete expression of anger that covers up a series of deep unmet needs that many men face when confronted with the fact that they were circumcised as infants. The tragedy of violent communication is that it all but guarantees that these needs will never be met. Sex and Circumcision: An American Love Story is factually inaccurate, negligently insensitive, and unambiguously antisemitic. Eric Clopper is a human being in pain and I hope that he can learn better strategies for getting his needs met in the future.