Linda Burstyn ("Female Circumcision Comes to America," October Atlantic) is right on target. Female genital mutilation is child abuse, a serious human-rights violation, and a crime as serious as rape. The United States needs to outlaw the practice, to see that its practitioners are prosecuted, and to do everything possible through international organizations to eliminate the practice worldwide.
Respect for cultural differences cannot justify toleration of genocide, torture, slavery, child prostitution, and other violations of universal human rights. Female genital mutilation is no different from these other crimes.
Linda Burstyn's article is based on claims of a dubious character, to say the least. The mention of cultural relativity in connection with female genital mutilation is a laughable attempt at being cynical. The whole story, in fact, is laughable journalism--a collection of unchecked claims and impromptu interviews of nameless men.
I am not sure how much FGM is practiced in America or by whom. Mimi Ramsey says that families chip in to pay the airfare for a traditional person to perform female circumcision. What nationality are these families? Among the several Ethiopian families I know all over the United States, I have not heard of even one that practices female circumcision. I realize this does not give me the authority to say that no Ethiopian practices female circumcision. But I can confidently say that an appreciable percentage of urbanized Ethiopians at home and abroad have abandoned female circumcision altogether--not only because of the suspiciously unscientific claim that it has an adverse effect on female sexuality but also because it is now rightly regarded as a hazardous ritual.
Mimi Ramsey need not claim Ethiopian parentage to prove that some depraved parents in Athiopia have their children mutilated in an unspeakable manner. Unfortunately, barbaric acts are performed on children all over the world, the extent of barbarism being greater among the depraved. The unfortunate Ramsey perhaps needs medical attention even more than the money she is trying to attract from generous, liberal Americans who are often exploited by such characters.
By any logical thinking, cultural relativism entails that our culture can assert itself within its purview. It should be glaringly obvious that our commitment to working out contradictions within our culture, such as racism and other forms of oppression that preclude autonomous choice, does not entail abdicating the very values in service to which we try to end oppression and domination. Using our respect for difference to justify letting people destroy the future autonomy of children is just self-contradictory--and, frankly, stupid.
Robert T. Fancher
Why, oh, why, did "Female Circumcision Comes to America" give no information as to just how the first bill introduced by Representatives Pat Schroeder and Barbara-Rose Collins "died in the previous Congress"? Who killed it, and how? Whom should we write or call to encourage the passage of the law? How could such an article be so apolitical?
The anti-FGM legislation first proposed by Schroeder and Collins died from the inertia that often kills bills low in congressional priority. Technically, the House passed the conference report that contained the legislation, and the Senate simply never got to the legislation to vote on it one way or the other.
At the time of this writing the anti-FGM legislation in the House (HR941) and the Senate (S1030) has been sent to the Judiciary Committee in the Senate and the Judiciary and Commerce committees in the House. So far no action has been taken on the legislation. Those who are interested in voicing their opinions about these bills can write to the chairpersons of these committees or write or call their representatives or senators.
Slavery and Jews Readers of "Slavery and the Jews" (September Atlantic), by Winthrop D. Jordan, should be informed that in January of last year, in an action that was virtually unprecedented in its 111-year history, the American Historical Association issued a policy resolution that "condemns as false any statement alleging that Jews played a disproportionate role in the exploitation of slave labor or in the Atlantic slave trade." The AHA was defending the historical record from egregious assaults, staged by those using the tract under review as a guide, to assign Jews a major role in the Atlantic slave system. The statement that was published along with the resolution, written by David Brion Davis and Seymour Drescher, "noted experts on the history of slavery," concluded that these "claims so misrepresent the historical record . . . that we believe them only to be part of a long anti-Semitic tradition that presents Jews as negative central actors in human history."
Given what Davis called "the very marginal place of Jews in the history of the overall system" (New York Review of Books, December 22, 1994), it is unfortunate that Winthrop Jordan chose to dwell on their role in the Dutch trade. For even here, Davis explained (citing the work of the Dutch historians Pieter Emmer and Johanes Postma), "Jews had a very limited and subordinate role even at the height of the Dutch slave trade in the 17th century." As Drescher has noted, in the British academic journal Immigrants and Minorities (July, 1993), Jews' investment share in the Dutch West India Company at this peak period "amounted to only 0.5 percent of the company's capital." And since Jordan chose to mention Brazil (New Holland), he should have indicated that Jews were allowed to play a role there only for about twenty-five years, during which less than one percent of the slaves ever imported into Brazil were landed there. He might also have said that Jews owned only six percent of Brazilian plantations during those years.
The Davis-Drescher statement concluded by observing that "Jews played only a nominal role in the slave system in the American South. Never more than a tiny fraction of the white population, they never formed more than a minuscule proportion of slave holders." Jordan could have informed his readers that in 1830, the year on which the tract under review dwells, there were only 1,500 Jews in the American South and, as the historian Harold Brackman has shown, only twenty-three of the 59,000 slave holders who owned twenty or more slaves were Jews. Indeed, in 1830 African-American slave holders outnumbered Jewish ones by fifteen to one. In short, Jews had a negligible role in American slavery and in the Atlantic slave trade.
Eunice G. Pollack
Winthrop Jordan's review of the Nation of Islam's The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews demonstrates conclusively that the key premises of the book (Jewish domination of the Atlantic slave trade and a decisive role in American slavery) are absolute fiction. However, Professor Jordan should have warned readers that this is not a serious piece of history at all, but rather a collection of anti-Semitic deception and pseudo-scholarship. To cite just a few examples:
1) The anonymous authors actually refer, apparently with a collective straight face, to "the Jewish pilgrim fathers."
2) The book asserts that Jews used black slaves in numbers disproportionately greater than "any other ethnic or religious group" in the New World. The fact is that there were twenty Jews--less than 0.2 percent--among the 12,000 southerners who owned fifty or more slaves in 1830. That year's census records that 3,775 free blacks owned 12,760 slaves.