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Likud's gay minister Amir Ohana defies order, supports bill

Bill banning gay conversion therapy passes initial vote, enraging ultra-Orthodox

Coalition parties Blue and White and Labor support legislation despite objections by Netanyahu’s religious allies; Haredi MKs warn Benny Gantz: ‘You will not be prime minister’

Illustrative: Religious Jewish activists protest same-sex parenting and LGBTQ families, across from LGBTQ advocates in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Illustrative: Religious Jewish activists protest same-sex parenting and LGBTQ families, across from LGBTQ advocates in Tel Aviv, December 16, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A bill outlawing controversial “gay conversion therapy” passed a preliminary vote in the Knesset on Wednesday, drawing cheers from LGBT rights advocates and angering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox political allies.

The bill advanced after Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party supported the legislation, in a move that generated a fresh coalition crisis. The government’s Labor party also broke with the coalition to back the bill.

The opposition-spearheaded motion passed with 42 lawmakers supporting it and 36 objecting.

Among the supporters were many Blue and White MKs, as well as Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, an openly gay member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, whose members were officially told to vote against the bill. Many other Likud ministers and lawmakers were not present.

The Knesset plenum on July 22, 2020. (Screenshot: Twitter/Knesset Channel)

Gay conversion therapies, also called reparative therapies, have been strongly discouraged in Israel, the US and elsewhere, with major health organizations criticizing what they term pseudo-scientific methods and the treatment of homosexuality as a mental illness.

Though discouraged by the Health Ministry, the practice remains legal in Israel, and is still accepted in some conservative and Orthodox circles. The proposed legislation only bars psychotherapists from performing conversion therapy and doesn’t forbid rabbis from continuing to perform it.

The bill still has to pass three readings and be approved by a Knesset committee before it becomes law and the practice is outlawed.

After the vote results were announced, many in the plenum started applauding, but ultra-Orthodox lawmakers were visibly furious.

They shouted at Gantz, “You will not be prime minister,” an apparent threat to topple the government before the defense minister is set to replace Netanyahu as premier in November 2021.

Likud sources accused Blue and White of violating the coalition agreement, which states that no decisions — apart from West Bank annexation — can be promoted without the mutual agreement of both parties.

“Blue and White are creating cracks in the coalition and leading Israel to elections… it’s brazen and shameless, against all coalition agreements,” Likud Minister David Amsalem told the Knesset after the vote.

Likud breached the coalition agreement earlier this month by supporting the formation of a state commission of inquiry to probe Supreme Court judges’ alleged conflicts of interests, which was opposed by Blue and White. That move was ultimately rejected by the parliament, despite Likud’s support.

A Blue and White source was quoted by Channel 12 news acknowledging the vote was “retaliation” for Likud’s backing of the proposed panel to investigate judges.

“We’re not suckers,” the source said.

Blue and White had been under immense pressure to support the bill, since the party repeatedly highlighted the issue of conversion therapy during several Knesset election campaigns over the past year and a half.

Before the vote, Gantz told his party members via WhatsApp to support the bill.

“We promised that and we will deliver,” he wrote. “There could be repercussions. Nevertheless, this is a top-priority moral issue and it’s the right thing to do.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 28, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, leader of the United Torah Judaism party, was livid with both Likud and Blue and White after the vote.

“Blue and White’s poor conduct, in violation of coalition discipline, is an open affront to our political partnership,” he said in a statement. “Likud must decide whether it knows how to manage a coalition or if it is committing political suicide.”

Litzman’s No. 2, Moshe Gafni, said the party was “weighing our options.”

United Torah Judaism leaders Yaakov Litzman (R) and Moshe Gafni (L) at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 23, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We won’t cooperate with Blue and White,” Gafni said. “But also Likud isn’t worth anything. Where was Prime Minister Netanyahu? Why did Amir Ohana vote in favor?”

In a follow-up statement, United Torah Judaism said it would no longer cooperate with Blue and White.

Fellow ultra-Orthodox party Shas decided to boycott all other plenum votes and called on Likud to “come to its senses.”

However, Blue and White’s faction leader, MK Eitan Ginzburg, said he was “proud” of his party’s vote.

“Nobody is prouder than me,” said Ginzburg, who is openly gay. “The horror that harms and abuses young people and creates lifelong damage must leave this world.”

Explaining his vote, Labor Party chief and Economy Minister Amir Peretz decried conversion therapy as “inhumane, immoral and un-Jewish.”

“Alongside coalition discipline there is also [our] conscience,” he wrote on Twitter.

Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli, also of Labor and who is gay, said the practice was a “crime.”

“LGBT youth should be accepted, not changed,” he tweeted.

The legislation was proposed by Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing Meretz party and and one of a record six openly gay Knesset members.

In his bill, Horowitz cited the overwhelming professional consensus that the practice is harmful and causes severe mental distress.

The preliminary reading of the bill was originally planned for last week, but the opposition pulled it after realizing it didn’t have a majority supporting it. Instead, it continued to pressure various parties and lawmakers to support the bill.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Alternate PM and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, both wearing protective mask due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Many celebrities have backed the bill on social media. A group of people who had undergone the controversial therapy sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to not “abandon teenagers to mental abuse by ‘therapists’ who will make them believe they are flawed due to a natural and human orientation.”

“We are all carrying the scars that refuse to heal to this day,” they wrote. “We suffered in the treatment. We hated ourselves, we suffered from depression, and some of us wanted or tried to commit suicide. It goes without saying that the ‘therapy’ didn’t convert a single one of us. Our sexual orientations and identities haven’t changed.”

Dr. Zvi Fishel, chairman of the Israeli Psychiatric Association, called on lawmakers to outlaw the practice, before the vote was held.

“The first law in medical ethics is ‘first of all, don’t do damage,'” he said. “It is not an issue of religion or principles; it is a matter of life or death.”

Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber at the June 9, 2015, ordination celebration of the first cohort for Har’el Beit Midrash. (Sigal Krimolovski)

A prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi last month issued a religious ruling against the use of conversion therapy, lambasting spiritual leaders who claim the practice can be effective and warning that it can have severe, long-term consequences.

“This treatment, according to competent evidence, is not effective at all. It can cause great, physical and psychological suffering, even long-term consequences of severe damage,” rabbi and professor Daniel Sperber wrote in a response to a query from the Israel Society for Sex Therapy.

Sperber, an Israel Prize-winning Talmud and Jewish Studies scholar at Bar-Ilan University, wrote that “some of the conversion therapy methods involve torture, and therefore important international bodies have” outlawed its use.

In May, the Israeli Medical Association and the Tel Aviv municipality announced the creation of a new hotline for reports and complaints of conversion therapy.

Callers to the hotline will be directed to welfare services and the police if necessary and will receive help in dealing with the authorities if they wish.

The hotline can be reached at 03-7244660, and is available from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., Sunday to Thursday.

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