Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration is approaching a public health issue in the New York Orthodox Jewish community very sensitively. It’s a demonstration of how politics sometimes requires almost surgical movement to balance competing demands, especially in an election year.
Jews circumcise eight-day-old baby boys and some Orthodox Jewish communities hold by a practice called metzitzah b’peh or oral suction. The mohel who makes the cut places his mouth on the wound to draw blood away. This risks transferring herpes, which is common in adults but can be fatal to infants.
Since 2000, there have been at least 24 connected cases of neonatal herpes. Two babies died and another two suffered permanent brain damage. However, a number of Orthodox Haredi Jews dispute the connection and holds that metzitzah b’peh is a religious obligation.
Bloomberg’s response and de Blasio’s political realities
Under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the Board of Health required parents to sign a consent form acknowledging the risks of the practice. This incited uproar from the Orthodox community. Although only 6% of American Jews belong to the Orthodox Haredi population, they are a powerful political bloc, especially in Brooklyn.
Mayor de Blasio, a Brooklynite, represented some Orthodox communities as a City Council Member and built strong ties. Running for Mayor, he won their support on a promise to repeal the Bloomberg rule, arguing that education was a better approach.
However, over the last two years, the Health Department reported six cases of neonatal herpes linked to metzitzah b’peh and that’s provoked a re-evaluation.
What now for metzitzah b’peh?
As Dan Goldberg reports for Politico, the de Blasio administration says that the Orthodox Jewish community refused to identify the mohels who had performed the circumcisions. Now, the city Health Commissioner will send out a health alert whenever a case of neonatal herpes is believed to be connected to metzitzah b’peh and will ban mohels believed to be spreading herpes. However, the bans will not be public and so parents will have to ask mohels if they are banned.
Orthodox groups respond that the Health Department can’t trace the herpes to the mohels, and many are likely to ignore the city’s rules.
Politics is complicated
The controversy around metzitzah b’peh highlights just how complicated a balancing act politicians sometimes face. Heading into the 2017 Mayoral election, Bill de Blasio does not want to anger long-time supporters but he also doesn’t want babies to get sick and potentially die. He’s trying to move slowly and deliberately in a situation without any easy answers.
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