Bill banning gay conversion therapy up for vote, could spark coalition crisis

Gantz’s Blue and White, which highlighted opposition to practice in election campaigns, under pressure to support legislation despite objections by Netanyahu’s religious allies

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” threatened to generate yet another coalition crisis, as Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party was expected to support the proposal despite the objections of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and its religious allies.

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.

A coalition agreement signed by Netanyahu and Gantz states that the government’s decisions will only be approved by mutual agreement.

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

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)

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.

Despite the ruling coalition having four openly gay lawmakers — including one in the Likud party, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana — the passage of the law would likely infuriate the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu’s staunchest allies.

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.

Blue and White hasn’t decided yet how to vote, according to Hebrew-language media reports, but some assess the centrist party will support the legislation.

In addition to the party’s election campaign, Blue and White could also use the vote to retaliate against Likud, which violated 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. That move was ultimately rejected by the parliament, despite Likud’s support.

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.

“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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