The president of the Board of Deputies and a Jewish GP have clashed over the merits of male circumcision in boys during a Newsnight debate, after Iceland said it was banning the practice.
Dr Antony Lempert, a GP and chair of the Secular Medical Forum, said: “Any operation should have a valid medical reason. In the absence of that, the person should be in a position to give consent. Clearly, children of a very young age do not have the capacity to consent to this procedure.”
Lempert, who was brought up in a Jewish home, added: “Every procedure has risks but particularly a procedure on an intimate part of a child’s body. It should be something the person chooses for themselves.”
Challenged by Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis about circumcision’s cultural significance for Jews and Muslims, Lempert said he had grown up in a similar environment.
“It wasn’t something that you gave much thought [to],” he said. “It was a minor snip that didn’t cause much harm. The reality of course, when you look at the evidence, is quite different… It’s one of the most sensitive, important parts of the body.”
He added: “To assume that any child is going to belong to the religion of their parents, and even if they do, that they’re then going to want to have a branding procedure, to be marked, is extraordinary.”
Maitlis challenged Arkush on whether Jewish parents “don’t think about [circumcision] enough and go ahead with that procedure because it’s ritual, because it’s cultural”.
Arkush said: “As a Jewish father myself, of a son, I absolutely thought about it, as did my wife. We had no doubt whatsoever. We wanted our son brought up in traditional Jewish religious values and complying with what we understand to be a divine commandment in the Torah.”
He added: “I would not have wanted my son to have grown up with other Jewish boys, going into the changing room at the swimming pool, and being different. I wouldn’t have thanked my parents if, under Mr Lempert’s rule, at 16, I’d have been asked whether I want the procedure and told at 16, of course, it is rather painful and rather more hazardous. I’d much rather they did it when I was eight days old.”
Challenged by Maitlis that it was the parents’ prerogative, Lempert argued that “any permanent body modification is not something that should be done by parents… of course parents should share their values and ideas, but making a permanent bodily change, especially to the most intimate part, is going way too far and breaks all the codes of child safeguarding that I’m involved in”.
Asked about the irreversibility of the procedure, Arkush said: “I don’t know any Jewish boy would ever want to reverse it. We’re proud of the way we look. It is integral to our core values and our identity.”