Crisis racism and ‘cultural circumcision’

Like everyone else, I was appalled by the revelations of Prime Time Investigates on Monday 30 May about the impact of the cuts on disabled people and their carers. So appalled that I felt unable to watch the whole programme. I was distressed by the stories of the parents of a Downs’ Syndrome boy going hungry because the mother’s carer’s allowance was cut by €16 a week; of the woman who had to wait more than a year for an MRI scan leading to her back deteriorating beyond the possibility of operation; and of the mother who had to carry her adolescent son upstairs for a bath – the son’s scoliosis beyond operative repair because the waiting list was simply too long.

On the following night the Minister for Health Dr James Reilly came to the studio to react to the findings and was very sympathetic, commiserating with the families and promising action. The following day the Taoiseach promised, in his usual unspecific way that ‘the government will know the “scale of the priority” it can give to those with an intellectual disability and children with special needs on completion of its consideration of the review of public spending’, meaning I am not sure exactly what.
Dr Reilly was reassuring and comforting but I wonder how many viewers noticed his throwaway remark, explaining the delay in operating on the boy with scoliosis on the number of ‘cultural circumcisions’ performed in Crumlin Children’s Hospital.

Yet again, immigrants are blamed for the shortcoming of the system. The French sociologist Etienne Balibar calls it ‘crisis racism’: viewing immigration as a problem and linking every social problem – employment, accommodation, social security, schooling, health services, morals or criminality – to the presence of immigrants serves to spread the idea that the reduction (or ending) of immigration would solve ‘our’ problems, which are certainly not of their making.

This explains, for example, the blame the Irish state laid on migrant mothers for the overcrowding of the maternity hospitals in the run up to the Citizenship Referendum. And now – almost as an aside – the Minister for Health blames ‘cultural circumcisions’ for the inability of Crumlin children’s hospital to operate on serious acute cases such as scoliosis.

But there is a twist to the tale. Let me tell you that although I am not a practicing Jew (and although many modern Jewish parents refuse to circumcise their sons), all the male members of my own family have been ‘culturally circumcised’ to fulfil the covenant of the Hebrew God with his people. It is usually done at home when the boy is 8 days old by an expert ritual circumciser, takes fifteen minutes and is relatively painless. Yet nobody speaks of Jewish circumcision today, but rather deflects the problem to those seen as ‘culturally different’ – Muslims and Nigerians.
The Minister’s throwaway remark is spurious on another account too: according to Crumlin Hospital’s report, circumcisions are quick operations and do not require lengthy hospital stay – notwithstanding the tragic case when a Nigerian baby died in 2003 in Waterford because the local Regional Hospital did not admit him when he bled after a ritual circumcision.

Balibar asks whether we should remain quiet about the link between immigration and racism or should we rather send home all those ‘foreign bodies’ whose presence gives rise to ‘reactions of rejection’, while assimilating those who are assimilable (that is are not black, or Muslim)? Immigration remains the name of racism and all the Minister’s good will did not prevent him blaming migrants for what we now know for sure is an inadequate and punishing health system.