Tonight's Channel 4 film War Cries: It's a Boy! is the first television documentary to explore the issue of male circumcision. The fierce controversy it has already provoked among the communities that practise male circumcision goes beyond the question: does it hurt? Practised by Jews, Muslims, Africans and Australian Aborigines, male circumcision raises further, more profound questions about cultural and religious identity and group bonding, survival and historical continuity.
The answer to the question, "does it hurt?" is yes. A lot - even though "minor discomfort", "no worse than having fingernails cut", "babies also cry when you change their nappies" and "they forget about it the minute it's over" are the usual defences. Biological facts speak for themselves, however. The inner lining of the foreskin constitutes one third of the most erogenous tissue of the penis, and has a greater concentration of fully developed nerve endings even than the glans. Yet circumcision without anaesthetic continues to be performed.
Can we justify doing surgery on a healthy baby? Non-Orthodox Jews, such as Victor Schonfeld, the film's maker, would suggest not. But are there not frightening echoes of racism in challenging a practice sacred to religious and ethnic minorities? In the Jewish community, an issue once utterly taboo is now being debated; it is the women who are breaking the silence.
Twenty of us sit in a circle on uncomfortable wooden chairs. Our ages range from 20 to 60, and we are attending a discussion session on circumcision - the first of its kind - at a Jewish women's conference. Judy speaks first: "I'm so glad to be here because I've never even talked about this before - I thought I was the only one who worried about it." So did we all. One by one, the stories pour out.
Rebecca is a grandmother, but she has never forgotten the day her son David was circumcised. "It's etched on my memory. It's supposed to be a day of celebration, but for me it was an awful day. I really felt I was betraying David, and yet I couldn't have said no. Everyone told me to relax, it would all be over in a flash. I wasn't there when the mohel [ritual circumciser] actually did it, of course, but when they gave him back to me he was still screaming. The nappies were bloodstained for days, and it seemed to hurt him a lot when he peed."
She pauses, and looks around at some younger faces. "In those days we didn't question tradition. We went along with it; we didn't think we had a choice." Some of the younger women squirm. They still do not quite believe that they have a choice.
As a Jew, I took Bris Milah (Covenant of Circumcision) for granted, and attended many such ceremonial operations when a son was born to friends or family. And as a medical student and young doctor, I considered myself less squeamish and more detached than average, so - unusually for a woman - I watched the procedure. I watched it carefully; the forcible tearing of the foreskin from the head of the penis (to which is it attached in early childhood), and cutting off of the foreskin with a scalpel or knife. There were variations of technique between Orthodox and Reform circumcisers, but the essentials were the same. I watched the baby's face contort, I saw the little limbs that could not even flail, as they went ahead with the operation.
"The parental pressure is unbelievable," says Hannah, another of the women. "My parents aren't especially religious, nor are my husband's, but if we hadn't done it they would have been heartbroken. They would have felt we'd broken the chain."
This cultural pressure mediated through the family, this burden of history, is as binding, psychologically, as the Orthodox rabbi's sense of being commanded by God. "He among you who is not circumcised will be cast out from among his people." "Do you realise," asked one rabbi, "that our persecutors, from the Romans to the Nazis, have tried to stop us circumcising our children? That's how they've always tried to destroy our faith. In Soviet Russia and throughout our exile we have risked our lives to carry out this commandment. Often we have died for it. So important is it that even in the cattle cars on the way to Auschwitz ..." he shudders. So do I. "Even there, parents would carry out this command for the honour of the Holy One. And you - you want us to stop doing it?"
Circumcision has become, in the collective Jewish psyche, a symbol of the defiant survival of a beleaguered people.
Questioning it, as Jewish women are now doing, arouses deep fears of anti-semitism, fears which are not groundless. But if dissent is stifled, then space is created for racists to determine the agenda. Both Judaism and Islam teach that the human being is created in the image of the Divine, and so - one could argue - needs no correction by human hands. Judaism forbids causing pain or harm to fellow creatures, and even forbids body- piercing and tattooing as damaging. Neither male nor female circumcision is mandated in the Koran.
Sarah is the one woman in the room who has not yet spoken. She is seven months pregnant. She is carrying a boy. Rebecca turns to her: "We think it makes us unique, doing circumcision. But it doesn't. Muslims and other peoples do it. And it's thousands of years older even than Judaism. When we say it's so essential to Jewish identity, we actually mean male Jewish identity. We Jewish women have kept our identity alive without altering our bodies."Reuse content