How to Deradicalize a Movement
By: Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon
I’ve been a public Jewish critic of male infant circumcision since I released my first feature-length documentary, Cut: Slicing Through The Myths of Circumcision (2007). Over the course of my involvement with the Intactivist movement (sometimes more broadly referred to as the Genital Autonomy (GA) movement or by the older name, the anti-circumcision movement) I have watched the problem of bigotry go from something one might see occasionally, on the fringes, to taking center stage on platforms viewed by hundreds of thousands. Last week marked the culmination of an effort that I engaged in along with a number of concerned leaders in the genital autonomy movement to push back against the expression of antisemitism. This is the story of how and why a small activist community is currently being radicalized and what some of us are doing about it.
First Impressions, 2006-2011
I look back on my early encounters with Intactivists with great nostalgia. From my first conversations with them to the present, I can report that the vast majority of these people are among the most ethical, conscientious, and dedicated human beings you will encounter. Their activism comes from a desire to protect infants from harm. And whatever you may think about circumcision, you must admit this is a good-faith motive for activism.
Criticism of Jewish circumcision has a long and shameful history of being used as a cudgel against Jews. When I was making my film, the activists I interviewed were aware of this history and extremely cautious to avoid contributing to it. On occasion, in those early days, I would hear someone cross the line and say something, for example, about “Jewish influence” being the reason why the intactivist cause wasn’t more widely adopted, but these expressions were rare and inconsequential.
San Francisco, 2011
In the spring of 2011, a group of intactivists in San Francisco collected sufficient signatures for a ballot initiative that, if adopted, would have banned the medically unnecessary circumcision of minors. There was no religious exemption and the initiative kicked off a few months of public debate. One central figure in the effort was Matthew Hess. A longtime anti-circumcision activist, Hess, through his MGMBill organization, had always focused on legislative initiatives to outlaw the circumcision of minors in the United States. And so he was the guy who wrote the language for the initiative. Hess also had a side gig. He was the creator of a circumcision-themed comic book series called “Foreskin Man.”
When the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council got their hands on Issue #2 of Foreskin Man, which featured a villain called “Monster Mohel,” they pointed to it as evidence that the initiative was motivated by antisemitism. The proposal was ultimately struck from the ballot after a judge ruled that regulating medical procedures was a state, not city, matter.
At the time, I offered Hess an opportunity to help clear up the accusations of antisemitism that had been made against him. He agreed to answer written questions and I posted his responses here on Jewschool. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was not hard-hitting journalism. I was settling for what Hess had agreed to, which was basically a take-home test. He could have written anything and there were no follow-up questions. Still, when I asked whether it was a coincidence that the hero of his comic had blonde hair and blue eyes and the villains had darker complexions, he wrote:
“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.”
This answer pushed me to admit that there was probably something going on here beyond a simple misunderstanding. Many Germans don’t have blonde hair and blue eyes and the connection of these features to “German heritage” has clear racist undertones.
My experience with Hess gave me pause, but he was legitimately an outlier at the time and not representative of the people whom I was getting to know in the movement. For the next part of this story to make sense, I need to take a little detour into the origins of the alt-Right and the migration of hate groups online.
The Rise of the alt-Right, 2010-2014
“The Alternative Right” was originally the name of an online magazine published in 2010 by the White Nationalist Richard Spencer. The term was later abbreviated to “alt-Right” by far-right participants of /pol/ which is the politics board of the website 4Chan. This rebranding of old hate was part of an intentional move by White Nationalists to appeal to a younger, more online audience. In addition to the rebranding, the far-Right adopted a set of tell-tale tactics. Hiding in plain sight by using insider code was always the way of hate groups in the United States, but these millennial hate mongers took the old strategy to a whole new level. Using symbolism rooted in the insular culture of the internet, along with humor and irony to create layers of deniability, they perfected the online dog whistle. The alt-Right would go on to infiltrate many online communities in a deliberate attempt to radicalize these spaces and spread their noxious ideology.
The key to understanding how this is relevant to the genital autonomy movement comes from noticing whom the far-Right targets. White, aggrieved men have always been the bull’s eye for fascists. You might be a nerd, or a guy with poor social skills, or just a working-class family man who can’t make a decent living. If you are a white guy and you feel alienated from society for any reason, fascists will sell you bigotry as a solution to your problem.
There are, at this moment, an unknown number of men who are deeply upset about the fact that they were circumcised as infants. There are also very few places in mainstream society where these men can talk about this without becoming a punchline. You can see where this is going, right? These men are vulnerable to all sorts of regressive ideologies, from men’s rights activists who sell the idea that men are actually the oppressed gender, to antisemites who will gladly explain that it’s “the Jews” who are responsible for their circumcisions.
A Turning Point, 2014
In 2014, vanishingly few people knew that the alt-Right was infiltrating online spaces. The larger forces they would so effectively exploit were taking shape beneath the surface of cultural awareness. Social media companies were in the early stages of tweaking their platforms to prioritize engagement above all else, and what they would discover very quickly is that anger was one of the most reliable ways to drive that engagement.
Around this time, genital autonomy organizations were starting to take note of a very large increase in their online traffic coming from young white men. For a movement that had historically struggled to demonstrate the importance of its cause to the public, this influx of new interest from a younger generation was simply too enticing to ignore.
At the 13th International Symposium on Genital Autonomy and Children’s Rights in 2014, Georganne Chapin, the executive director of Intact America and one of the conference’s organizers, gave a presentation titled “Whose Political Correctness? Changing Language, Viewpoints and Tactics in Today’s Intactivist Movement.” She talked about this new group of young white men visiting her organization’s Facebook page as an opportunity that the movement needed to make adjustments to accommodate. This is a direct quote from that presentation:
“Those of us who consider ourselves to be the elder statesmen of the movement must be willing to embrace or at least tolerate language, viewpoints and tactics that may not have been palatable in the past…We also could talk about whether the portrayal of Monster Mohel ‘set the intactivist movement back,’ as some have claimed. I will explain why I don’t think that is true, and will argue instead that an over-concern about anti-Semitism within this movement is misplaced, distracting, and destructive, and that we must grow beyond it if we are to defeat the real enemy.”
This willingness to embrace objectionable views, and refusal to be troubled about antisemitism, were also demonstrated by conference organizers who gave a speaking spot to Matthew Hess to discuss his comics, despite the strong objections of some Jewish intactivists.
At the time of the 2014 conference, the process of radicalization had already begun. But these two pivotal events — Chapin’s speech and Hess’s invitation to speak — set the stage for the movement’s continued failure to publicly address the bigotry that would ultimately find new voices.
Sex and Circumcision, 2018
In the spring of 2018, a young intactivist named Eric Clopper took to the stage of the Sanders Theater at Harvard and delivered a one man show called “Sex and Circumcision” that would ultimately get him fired from his job as a systems administrator at the university. He expressed many objectionable ideas during the performance. There’s one part where he jokes about raping a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics task force on circumcision (an organization which stands alone among world medical associations in defending routine infant circumcision). If joking about rape sounds unhinged, you probably haven’t spent much time in far-Right online spaces where this sort of “humor” is commonplace. The antisemitism that Clopper unleashed in his show was so over-the-top that it doesn’t take any special knowledge or sensitivity to recognize it. Here are some examples:
“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. Well guess what? I just fucking spoke it. 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.”
“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.”
As of this writing, the YouTube video of Clopper’s performance has over 230,000 views. Clopper would go on to sue Harvard, its newspaper, and several others. To fund these suits, Clopper set up a GoFundMe campaign. Many intactivists contributed and some in the movement still view Clopper as an important figure and believe that his antisemitic stance is a necessary catalyst for change.
In response to what felt to me like a serious problem, I made a video that I posted to my YouTube channel and Facebook pages hoping to start a constructive, good faith conversation about antisemitism in the movement. I also wrote a critique of Clopper’s show in which I talked about the many issues I had with it. The response to these efforts was a short-lived harassment campaign that included antisemitic attacks against me in the comments section of the video.
In February of this year when Brendon Marotta, director of the documentary film American Circumcision (2017) self-published his second book, he included a chapter in it about Jews. Brendon was once a friend and I both helped him with his film and contributed to his Kickstarter campaign for it. This was before I learned that he had been radicalized in online alt-Right spaces and had hidden his extremist views on race from me.
Shortly after I gave up on talking him out of his racial separatist convictions, Marotta appeared on Stefan Molyneux’s Freedomain radio show to promote his film and wrote the following in a November 21, 2016 blog post on his website: “I have been a fan of Stefan’s work for a long time, so it was really great to finally talk with him.” Molyneux is a known Eugenicist and White Nationalist who has since been banned from YouTube and Twitter for violating hate speech policies.
Marotta has built quite a following for himself over the years and in his new book he argues that the genital autonomy movement should take a page out of the anti-racist playbook and start dividing the world into pedophiles and anti-pedophiles. If this sounds bizarre, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time in far-Right online spaces, where the appropriation of progressive ideas (eg. “Woke” becoming “Red Pill”) and an obsession with pedophilia courtesy of Q-Anon are commonplace. The antisemitism in Marotta’s book is extensive. Here is a little taste of the buffet of bigotry in Children’s Justice:
“The reciprocal Jewish justice of ‘eye for eye’ applied to this issue would mean holding down perpetrators of systemic pedophilia and cutting off part of their genitals without anesthesia…This model would create more harm in the name of punishing harm.”
“While Jewish people might want to separate Jewish identity from systemic pedophilia rather than abolish it, it is not enough for Jewishness to not be pedophile. ‘Not a pedophile’ is not an identity. Jewishness would have to be antipedophile, meaning that Jewishness would have to be an identity that actively opposes systemic pedophilia or the person participating in Jewish identity would have to have such a critical consciousness that their participation deconstructed the aspects of that identity that involved systemic pedophilia. This borders on impossible.”
“Jewish people should participate less in this inherently pedophile-identity and become ‘less Jewish.’…To become less Jewish is to become less pedophile.”
“Only once freed from the social construction of Jewishness will people be free from systemic pedophilia.”
As you can see, Marotta’s antisemitism is inclusive. He draws on the past with some old Christian anti-Jewish theology (Jewish as an adjective in the phrase “Jewish Justice”), but he also serves up a perverse misapplication of critical theory which he clumsily attempts to weaponize against an entire people’s identity.
The Uncertain Future
Over the past few weeks, I led a number of concerned activists who have a stake in the genital autonomy movement in tackling the problem of antisemitism. We formed a working group and our first project was crafting a statement that defined antisemitism, provided examples of it that are relevant to the movement, and condemned bigotry. You can read our full statement here:
While I’m proud of the statement and the collaborative work it represents, I have no illusions about the road ahead. What we need to do is come to a consensus that discipline in the movement regarding bigotry has moral and strategic value. That many high-profile individuals and organizations were willing to join our statement is heartening, but signing a statement and enacting a zero–tolerance policy are two very different propositions. People who spew bigotry of any kind shouldn’t be given the legitimacy of speaking at official movement conferences. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and of course antisemitism, should not be tolerated on social media platforms or in any other spaces that are associated with the movement. Most importantly, if we don’t address the core issue that makes circumcision sufferers vulnerable to exploitation by the forces of bigotry in the first place, nothing meaningful will change.
And this is where you come in, dear reader. I hope you have found my experiences interesting and informative. If you’ve made it this far, I have a request. The next time you hear a man complain about the effects of his circumcision, instead of laughing at or dismissing him, try listening with compassion instead. I know it sounds quaint, but it’s actually really important. Every man who has a safe place to talk about his feelings around this topic is one less target for the bigots. And we could all do with a little less bigotry and a little more compassion in the world.