guest post by: Eli Ungar-Sargon
More than anyone in recent memory, Matthew Hess is testing the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. After Nancy Appel of the Anti-Defamation League released a statement condemning his comic Foreskin Man for its “grotesque anti-Semitic imagery,” many prominent intactivists felt the need to distance themselves from him and his organization MGMBill.org. Moreover, the furor over Foreskin Man undoubtedly contributed to the pressure that ultimately shut down the ballot initiative in Santa Monica. Over the past month, many people have been asking me whether Matthew Hess is an anti-Semite. I don’t know the man, so I decided to contact him and ask him some questions. Below are his unedited responses:
EUS: What inspired the creation of Foreskin Man?
MH: I first came up with the idea for Foreskin Man back in 2006 when I made an intactivist movie poster spoof to promote the MGM Bill. I thought it would be cool to create a superhero theme for that, and when it was finished I realized that Foreskin Man would also make a great character for a comic book. I developed the story for issue #1 a few years later, with the scripts for the next two issues following shortly thereafter.
EUS: In Foreskin Man #1, you write of the pro-Circumcision Lobby: “They have all of the well-connected Doctors and Lawyers.”-Is this a coded reference to Jews?
MH: The “well connected doctors” alludes mainly to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In my opinion, those two lofty groups are the biggest obstacles to ending medicalized infant circumcision in the USA because their official policy is tolerance. The “well connected lawyers” refers to the hired guns for interest groups working to squash any attempts to legally protect boys from forced circumcision. That would include some of the attorneys representing the Anti-Defamation League, who are now trying to strip our San Francisco MGM Bill initiative from the November ballot.
EUS: When you were writing Foreskin Man #2, did you think it might stir controversy?
MH: I expected Foreskin Man #2 to cause some sparks to fly because no one had ever published anything like it before. It was a direct assault on the Jewish practice of forced circumcision, and because it exposed Brit Milah as a cruel rite I knew a lot of people would feel threatened by it.
EUS: Were you familiar with the history of circumcision as an excuse for Jewish persecution?
MH: Yes. The most oft-cited cited example is how the Nazis required some males to prove their ethnicity by dropping their pants to show that they weren’t circumcised. I’m also aware that in some regions of Africa, boys and men have had to drop their pants to prove that they ARE circumcised. And if they weren’t, some of them were circumcised against their will. To be clear, I support every man’s right to undergo circumcision if he chooses it voluntarily – regardless of the reason. I am only opposed to circumcision when it is performed on someone by force.
EUS: Were you familiar with the history of anti-Semitic imagery associated with mohels when you created Monster Mohel? Did this inform your artistic decision-making?
MH: I first saw some of those cartoons in middle school during lessons about World War II and I have seen other examples since then. But they didn’t influence me one way or the other when creating the art for Foreskin Man #2. While I did not wish to borrow anything from those cartoons, I also felt I would not be doing justice if I held back on portraying Monster Mohel and his goons as evil characters simply because they were Jewish.
EUS: Is it simply coincidence that the hero has blonde hair and blue eyes while the villains have darker complexions?
MH: Foreskin Man’s blond hair, blue eyes, and fair skin reflects my own German heritage. I see absolutely no reason to be ashamed of that. Suggestions in the media that Foreskin Man is a Nazi because of the color of his hair is pure racial stereotyping. And Monster Mohel, Yerik, and Jorah were drawn based on photographs of actual mohels.
EUS: Are you surprised that there were Jews who took offense at the comic?
MH: Religion in general is a hot-button issue for most people, and when you attack a religious practice – any religious practice – there will be fireworks. The older and more entrenched the practice, the bigger the perceived offense when it is criticized. So no, I’m not surprised.
EUS: Are you surprised that some Jewish people who are against circumcision were offended by the comic?
MH: Not really, because even though the comic wasn’t attacking Jews in general, it did attack a Jewish practice – and that created some defensiveness, I think.
EUS: Do you believe that the fact that Jews have circumcised their boys for thousands of years means that there is something wrong with Jews?
MH: Circumcision of both genders has been practiced by other religions and cultures for thousands of years, too, so I don’t think it means there is something wrong with Jews in general. But I do think there is something not right when a person who is given all the facts refuses to acknowledge that forced circumcision is a serious human rights violation.
EUS: Do you think that Foreskin Man has helped or hurt the intactivist cause overall?
MH: Foreskin Man has created some friction within our movement, and as a result some intactivists have distanced themselves from both me and the MGM Bill. On the other hand, Foreskin Man has brought worldwide attention to the issue of male circumcision and that has created unprecedented public interest. Our biggest problem as intactivists has always been getting people to talk about circumcision. Well, they are certainly talking about it now, and I think the more they talk about it the less they will like it. So in my opinion, Foreskin Man has given the intactivist cause a significant boost.
Eli Ungar-Sargon is a documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His first film, Cut, is about Circumcision and Jewish Identity. He is currently working on a documentary about the Israeli Palestinian conflict.