Revised and updated April 16, 2021
”You deserve to die. You are guilty of the crime of assault with a weapon against infants. … I hope they burn you alive, literally burn you on a stake over a flaming heap.”
Sound like a threat from an anti-abortion extremist? Think again. This disturbing email was sent to a mohel who has performed thousands of infant circumcisions.
Although lacking the attention given to abortion, the debate over circumcision is no less controversial. Unfortunately, some circumcision opponents - who call themselves intactivists - do not accept that reasonable people can disagree. They consider the procedure to be a violent assault, equating it with child abuse. Intactivists seek to end all underage circumcisions worldwide. Despite their efforts, more than a million newborns are snipped in U.S. hospitals each year, and thousands more are circumcised in Jewish ritual ceremonies.
Unable to prevent circumcisions through persuasion or the legal system, some opponents have responded by trying to shame parents. An army of keyboard intactivists constantly monitors social media for any post or comment that mentions “circumcision” or “brit milah.” They share these posts with groups that spring into action.
An unsuspecting parent may post a photo or comment about her son’s circumcision on her Facebook page. Or she may ask a question about circumcision in a private group for new or expectant mothers. Within minutes she receives dozens, perhaps hundreds of messages from strangers vilifying her as a horrible mother.
Doctors and nurses who perform (or even mention) circumcision are aggressively targeted. Activists routinely protest outside hospitals and medical conferences. They bark and yell at conference attendees, and they take photos and videos of the doctors without permission.
In 2013 an intactivist leader drove 820 miles (1,300 km) from Sacramento, Calif. to Spokane, Wash. to confront a nurse in her medical office - because he was offended by a Facebook post. In 2019 three male intactivists marched into a Denver, Colo. office building and tried to force their way into a medical office. They assaulted a female pediatrician who blocked them from the office door.
Rabbi Michael Rovinsky of St. Louis is a national consultant for doctors, midwives and other mohels, and he has performed more than 10,000 circumcisions for Jewish and non-Jewish families. Shortly before he was to speak at a medical conference, he learned of growing pressure to cancel his appearance, including death threats against him. When he declined to cancel, the sponsor hired an armed bodyguard to escort him from the airport to the event.
Dr. Fred Kogen, a mohel in California, has performed several thousand circumcisions throughout the state. He includes Hollywood stars among his past clients. Kogen has received a few threats, including the aforementioned email back in 2012. He immediately notified the FBI about the message, which warned:
“You are a violent criminal and you belong in jail. Cease and desist from all mohel training activities, all bris ceremonies, and kill yourself. … If there were no repercussions I would kill every mohel I could myself, but because the law forbids it, I will merely implore you to stop what you are doing. … There will be more and more people who grow up with a righteous vendetta against you and one day you will face the consequences of your actions at their hands. — Mr. Nat Taggart”
Kogen found the threat so unnerving that he applied for a concealed firearm carry license. Since his first meeting with clients is often in their homes, he worries that one day he might arrive at the home of an unknown client to find a “Nat Taggart” lying in wait.
To be sure, many circumcision opponents behave and converse in a civilized manner. Moreover, none of the doctors or mohels I contacted has been deterred by any hostility. Although some were reluctant to draw attention to the rabid fringe, that fringe has created a frenzied atmosphere that likely will lead to physical violence.
It’s time for action to curtail the bullying.
Medical and Jewish authorities must warn physicians, nurses and mohels about potential threats.
Prenatal classes should advise expectant parents to be discreet about what information they posting online. Social media users should adjust privacy settings when sharing personal information and family photos.
Facebook and other social media platforms need to crack down on groups that encourage cyberbullying. Individuals who feel threatened should notify law enforcement, which must investigate and prosecute crimes of intimidation.
Infant circumcision is a legal procedure in the United States and throughout the world. The harassment of parents, doctors, and mohels must stop.
Andrew Gross is a member of Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City, Calif. He is an admin for the Circumcision Choice Facebook page and a contributor to this website.