Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: what should the Left say?

The following podcast is based on my speech presented in a debate with Marcus Halaby of Workers’ Power at the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty Summer School in July 2010. Also, below this link, is a brief photo essay of what happened when Sheffield Workers’ Liberty comrades participated in a Palestine Solidarity Campaign rally in January 2009.

Sheffield demonstration against the Israeli military offensive in Gaza, January 2009.

Sheffield Workers’ Liberty comrades at a demonstration against the Israeli military offensive in Gaza, January 2009.

The demonstration was organised by the Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

The demonstration was organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

With a struggle, one of our placards was grabbed off us.

With a struggle, one of our placards was grabbed off us.

Our placard that expressed political opposition to both the Israeli Defence Force and Hamas is deemed so offensive that it is ripped up and stamped upon.

The placard expressed political opposition to both the Israeli Defence Force and Hamas. It was deemed so offensive that it was ripped up and stamped upon.

I was left to pick up the pieces while the crowd looked on.

I was left to pick up the pieces while the crowd looked on.

In sum, Sheffield Workers' Liberty was, literally, pushed to the margins for our politics.

Our politics was pushed to the margins.

Ritual circumcision of male minors, and the political befuddlement of Eric Lee

I am grateful for Eric Lee’s response piece to my article here and in the socialist newspaper Solidarity. On his website there are a number of end comments that I recommend people read.

Here I expose what I consider to be Eric’s confused notion of politics, or rather, the lack of politics that Eric considers politics.

At the start of his rejoinder, Eric declares: “Camila Bassi’s “basic socialist demands” regarding male circumcision have no foundation in Marxist tradition”. So I am guessing that Eric missed the footnote in Marx’s Grundrisse that demands: “non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure”. Okay, seriously then, let’s do away with this sense of clunky Marxist doctrine, because, for me, Marxist tradition is about autonomous, self-governing critical thought and practice, hence I ask in my original article: as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?” At no point does Eric address this question.

Eric suggests that I soften the blow of my article by reference to Scandinavia; he sarcastically notes, “Scandinavians, after all, are modern, progressive people”. What’s he getting at here – as against Jews and Muslims? Eric incorrectly states that “Bassi writes that the correct socialist position would place the Left in opposition to [Jewish and Muslim] communities”. And, “[a]lmost as an afterthought, she adds opposition to racism, support for socialism, whatever”. This is not true. It is him not I that homogenizes ‘communities’ of people on the basis of their ‘race’ / ethnicity and religion (stripping people of their differential social, economic, political, and cultural positions, ideas and practices, and individual agency), and it is he not I that panders to the status of so-called ‘community leaders’. I don’t assume, as he does, that all people who might fall under the category of ‘Jews’ and ‘Muslims’ are opposed to a discussion on the question of informed consent for ritual circumcision. Moreover, before I arrive at my end set of demands, I both emphasise and reference the ascent of the populist Right in Europe, and a rising tide of anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, including in Scandinavia, as critical context. Marxism is about analysing given material realities, the forces and relations involved, and the actualities and the potentialities from and through this. The Scandinavian debate of 2013 and 2014 on the ritual circumcision of male minors is simply that, a given material reality to engage with.

As I was aware, Eric points out that a previous debate on banning ritual circumcision for male minors occurred in Germany. However, he fails to provide and assess the details. As noted in DW, in May 2012 a ruling from the Cologne district court – on a incident of ritual circumcision in which the child was subsequently hospitalized – deemed the circumcision as “grievous bodily harm”. From this, as Reuters reports:

“Some doctors and children’s rights associations submitted a petition in September [2012] calling for a two-year moratorium and a round-table of medical, religious and legal experts to study circumcision fully. “In the clear opinion of experts, the amputation of the foreskin is a grave interference in the bodily integrity of a child,” Georg Ehrmann, chairman of the child protection group Deutsche Kinderhilfe [states].”

The outcome? In December 2012, Germany went on to approve a national law to legitimate parents’ right to ritually circumcise their male children. What Eric chooses to accentuate about the German case are the Jewish and Muslim leaders across the European continent who condemned the ban.

When Eric challenges my position that non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision should only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure, on the basis of a child’s right to bodily integrity and to later sexual autonomy, he retorts:

“Using the same reasoning, why not also support the ban on kosher and halal slaughter? After all, socialists like all right-thinking people oppose cruelty to animals, right? And while we’re busy banning these things, why not close down all faith schools, because after all, they’re not teaching children what we’d like them to be taught, and they’re forcing children to accept their parents’ religion? Shouldn’t that decision be reserved for adults who are “mature, informed and able to consent”?”

But what is his political reasoning? What is his political method? He surely doesn’t mean what he actually says, which is “using the same reasoning”, i.e., on the basis of a child’s right to bodily integrity and to later sexual autonomy, why not ban the ritual slaughter of animals and faith schools? Eric fails to politically engage with some of the key forces involved in the discussion in Scandinavia. What about the statement – “Let the boys decide on circumcision” – signed by the Ombudsmen for Children from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and Greenland, and eleven paediatric experts from Norway, Sweden, and Iceland? What of the Nordic Association of Clinical Sexology’s “A statement on the non-therapeutic circumcision of boys”?

And, of course, one cannot crassly bundle together the ritual circumcision of male minors (and therein the crucial question of consent), with the ritual slaughter of animals, with faith schools, and (I’ll add to Eric’s list) with schoolgirls wearing Islamic headscarves. Why not? Because the Marxist tradition I am applying is about arriving at an independent class position based on a theoretical analysis of the specific empirical realities, and their forces and relations, and the actualities and the potentialities from and through this, and each of these cases are different.

Eric asserts that moves to ban ritual circumcision amongst male minors is “closely linked to” moves to ban the ritual slaughter of animals – all of which are “rightly seen by Jews and Muslims as racist attacks on their communities”. Is it that simple? I certainly don’t deny that there might be some forces involved that are racist motivated, but there also appears to be forces involved that are not racist motivated. If Eric wants an empirical reality to build a case for his claim, I suggest he examines the Danish social and political scene, and asks: what are the nature, composition, and balance of forces? Eric concludes that “[s]ocialists have always defined religion as a private matter. Socialists defend the freedom of religion, and of course the right of people to have no religion”. What he misses is this: on the question of the ritual circumcision of male minors there is a distinct intersection of religious freedom for parents with the right of the child to bodily integrity, and to later sexual autonomy.

Eric Lee’s befuddlement can be explained by what he does, which is to respond to a debate on ritual circumcision among male minors by not responding to it at all and instead conflating it to a European climate of anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism, and thus cancelling out politics. He says, defend religious and ethnic minorities from racist attack, and fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia across Europe”, and ignores the question in hand: again, as socialists, feminists, and labour movement activists, what do we ‘independently’ think about the practice of ritual circumcision amongst male minors, and how does this relate to the Scandinavian debate and the political trends and forces involved?”  I stand by the basic socialist demands from my original article:

  • The right of children to bodily integrity
  • The right of children to the sexual autonomy of their adult life
  • Non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure
  • Opposition to the rising intolerance of immigration across Europe
  • Opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism, and all forms of racism and xenophobia
  • For an internationalist and independent working class culture and politics