A Circumcision Deal?

A couple of weeks ago, I described Health Commissioner Tom Frieden’s decision not to ban a controversial circumcision practice outright as “backing down.” Looks like I read it wrong; and that’s certainly not how the community took it.

There have been rumblings of protest in the community since Frieden announced that he would circulate advisories, in Yiddish, warning that the practice could transmit herpes to babies, and that at least one baby had died that way.

But one segment of the Satmar community (supporters of Aaron, if you follow the Shakespearean politics of the Satmar) is pushing back much harder, most recently in an editorial from a Satmar Yiddish paper published in Williamsburg, Der Blatt.

The paper’s editors claim to have understood that City Hall made a campaign promise to leave circumcision practices unregulated; now they accuse unnamed intermediaries (read: their communal opponents) of distorting the result of the community’s negotiations with the Mayor.

The editorial isn’t online. Here are a couple of excerpts from a translation:

“What has been promised to us prior to the recent elections — and this was the only request we made — was that the subject of ‘Metzitzah B’peh’ should completely be untouched by the City Department of Health.”

The way the paper sees it, the Mayor himself didn’t know what he was supposed to have agreed to:

“[A]t the big rally (in Williamsburg) the crowd heard a fiery speech in the Yiddish language at which the speaker spoke with much emotion and power about ‘Metzitzah B’Peh’. But upon switching to the English language so order the mayor should also listen in, he didn’t even mention a single word about ‘Metzitzah B’Peh’. He spoke only of social issues as housing, crime, and clean streets.”

City officials have denied that there was any deal. And note that the allegation isn’t that Mike or his aides decieved anyone; it’s intra-communal. It was, however, a serious campaign issue in parts of Brooklyn.

A person familiar with the controversy, meanwhile, told The Politicker that the situation has been rising to a head since the Health Department identified at least one other herpes infection, and the community refused to give them the name of the mohel. Tensions rose at a meeting Friday in which representatives of the Central Rabbinical Council (read, in this context, the moderates) asked Frieden to relinquish his authority to the state health department, which they assume will be less aggressive.

Frieden’s response? That would be like asking the rabbis to relinquish their authority to the Catholic Church.