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May 10, 2016 4:12 pm

New York Times Illustration Likening Circumcision to Pencil-Sharpening Prompts Uproar

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avatar by Ira Stoll


The Jewish doctor who authored a New York Times article about the medical benefits or disadvantages of circumcision is distancing himself from the accompanying illustration.

The illustration, which depicts a pencil being inserted into a sharpener from which a flower is emerging, has provoked a stunned and offended reaction in the Jewish community.

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“WarningGraphiteImages,” hashtagged a former spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg and Senator Schumer, Stu Loeser.

“What is up with that graphic? I know I am not the only one to be seriously offended?” tweeted a San Francisco resident using the handle @suldrew.

“Can someone explain this circumcision illustration to me?” asked an editor at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Andrew Silow-Carroll.

The article itself wasn’t terrible. The author, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University named Aaron E. Carroll, wrote:

I’m Jewish, and I’m circumcised, as are both my sons. The procedure has a spiritual weight in my community. When confronted by people who use terms like mutilation, I generally recoil. Circumcising my boys was a personal decision for my wife and me, and I understand the various arguments for and against. People angry about this choice seem to imagine that we haven’t thoroughly considered it.

I also live with the knowledge that it’s possible that my children might have chosen differently. But we also have to recognize that parents make many, many decisions for their children with a greater and more meaningful impact on them than circumcision. That’s what parents do. Assuming that this is the most consequential one we might have made about our boys’ lives, and focusing so much attention on it — when evidence makes the value of either choice unclear — seems out of proportion.

Neither Dr. Carroll nor the illustrator, Alvaro Dominguez, immediately responded to my email queries about the controversy and about whether they thought the choice of the image was appropriate. It does seem to liken the covenant of Abraham to a procedure that, with pencils, makes them more useful but eventually erodes them to a mere stub, and that, if applied to human flesh, would be so excruciatingly painful and damaging that no one in his right mind would ever choose to do it.

In a post on his own blog, “The Incidental Economist,” Dr. Carroll wrote, “These are things I can’t control at the NYT! … I do not choose the artwork or the photos. Any compliments and complaints can be directed elsewhere.”

More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.

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