An Eritrean asylum seeker in Israel is facing a charge of child abuse and 14 years behind bars after she performed a circumcision on her four-year-old son.
The unnamed woman, who works as a hotel cleaner and has been in Israel for over a decade, carried out the circumcision at her home in March 2016 and did not use the traditional instruments used in Jewish rituals.
The woman, known only as “A”, told the court: “This is my son, my baby. After so many requests I made to all sorts of places about how to do it, I took it upon myself and cut. In Ethiopian culture, Eritrean culture, anyone who knows how can do the circumcision.”
Her lawyer, Moshe Serogovich, argued that no law regulates the work of mohels, who normally perform circumcisions, and A acted “according to her cultural heritage”, as reported by Haaretz.
“For us, a man with a beard and kippa says a few blessings and performs the bris for an 8-day-old baby, and that seems to be the most natural thing in the world to us,” he said.
“But if the boy is a bit older and the instruments are different, the same act is suddenly considered abuse that needs to be punished severely.”
Prosecutors replied that the cultural defence argument could be used a way to cover up abuse, similar to cases where men accused of beating their wives claim it is normal or acceptable in their culture.
Circumcisions are not regulated by law and there is no requirement for a doctor to be present. The question debated in court is what is the definition of circumcision, who can perform it and when.
According to the indictment, “The defendant held the complainant in her hands and instructed him to sit in silence,” and “The defendant did not respond to the complainant’s crying and appeals, and continued to cut his skin in the upper part of the sexual organ.” A’s lawyer said this description could be applied to any circumcision.
The indictment also stated that the child had “minor swelling” three days afterwards and he might need surgery in the future, yet an urologist who examined the child said there was “no need for urgent intervention”.
Prosecutors claimed A hurt her son as punishment for defecating in bed, but the charge was strongly denied by both A and her lawyer.
According to experts, circumcisions are often performed by women in rural areas among the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and it is still a common practice when the child is a few years old.
The defendant took her son to nursery school three days after the incident, and asked him to lower his trousers so she could explain what happened to the teacher. The teacher, who noticed he allegedly had a limp and was injured, alerted authorities. He was taken to hospital and handed over to foster care the same day.
Authorities went to A’s home and took away her two daughters. Police charged her with interfering with an officer in the line of duty as she physically resisted.
Her daughters were returned to her partner several months later and the boy remains with a foster family.
If the court rules in A’s favour, it would set an important legal precedent.
Past attempts to regulate male circumcision have been defeated.
In 2013 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe called on member states to implement restrictions on circumcision, and the resolution also covered female genital mutilation and the coercion of children into getting body piercings or tattoos. The resolution was not welcomed within the Israeli government and the Council dropped its attempt to legislate against male circumcision in 2015.