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A Circumcision Controversy? Blame Bloomberg.

New York's mayor did what was right—but set his successor up to fail

Getty/Spencer Platt

Only the strictest of libertarians think all personal or group practices are absolutely protected. Sometimes it’s okay for the government to infringe on civil and religious liberties for the sake of public safety. Sometimes it’s even okay when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg does it. One example is metzitzah b’peh. This obscure Jewish ritual has the mohel suck blood from the cut he has made on the penis of the eight-day-old boy undergoing the bris, or ritual circumcision. The main problem with metzitzah b’peh isn’t that it is gross or inappropriate-seeming. It is that it exposes the infant to potentially fatal disease. The New York City Health Department (leaning on research by the Centers for Disease Control) has reported 13 instances in as many years of newborns in New York City contracting neonatal herpes following metzitzah b’peh. In a few instances, the infants have died. (Many Jews perform the bris, but very few do the oral suction.)

In response, Bloomberg’s Board of Health (which is to say, Bloomberg) required parents partaking of the ritual to sign a consent form explaining the risk associated with oral contact. Most of New York’s Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews were furious. This community comprises several percentage points of the New York City electorate, and winning its support is especially valuable, because the Haredim tend to vote in large numbers and in blocs, and are concerned largely with issues that directly and especially affect them (matters regarding religious education, for example).

So it was unsurprising, if massively dispiriting, to see that nearly all of the seven Democratic mayoral candidates shamelessly pandered to these communities on the metzitzah b’peh question at a Jewish-themed candidates forum in Brooklyn on Wednesday. Only City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, widely seen as the (weak) frontrunner and closest thing to a Bloomberg successor, defended the consent forms, according to the New York Times. The other candidates either criticized Bloomberg for steamrolling it or out-and-out opposed it. Comptroller John C. Liu bashed the form and the “billionaire mayor” who “decided he knows better than anyone else.” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio slammed Bloomberg for trying “to impose his will” and suggested the consent form embodies a lack of “respect for religious tradition.” Anthony Weiner, the only Jewish candidate, pointed to an old article in which he said metzitzah b’peh is none of the Health Department’s business.

I don’t mean to absolve these craven candidates totally, but I do wonder if Bloomberg’s heavy-handedness has enabled their cravenness.1 His surer-than-thou style and willingness to spend his fortune on re-election have relieved him, to some extent, of constituency politics. Instead, he follows his own technocratic instincts. In the case of metzitzah b’peh consent forms, he was almost certainly in the right; in the case of banning sodas larger than 16 ounces, his wisdom is more debatable.

Either way, Bloomberg’s nanny state—memorably lampooned and defied by the late Christopher Hitchens—has blurred the distinction between reasonable social regulation and overreaching social regulation, with the result of calling the former into question. And Bloomberg’s apolitical approach to political questions—enabled by his rare position as one of the richest people on the planet—created no viable precedent for how future mayors should approach similar questions. In fact, not only did he fail to leave his successor with good tools for approaching them the same way he did, he actively made it easier for his successor to approach them differently and in this case in a worse way than he did by giving them the out of blaming him. On Wednesday night, the candidates were neither responsible or open about the fact that they were trolling for votes, but instead used the foil Bloomberg provided to duck and dodge. You may believe Bloomberg is a benevolent tinkerer. But he failed to account for the fact that cities require constant upkeep.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic.

  1. Apparently, this is possibly excepting Weiner, who has been craven on it for years.