Last month, “Shai” called a hotline run by Hosen, an Israeli organization which claims to aid young men — primarily from religious or traditional backgrounds — struggling with their sexual identity. Shai’s call was answered by a pleasant young operator named Barak.
“We are a hotline for people with reversed inclinations who want guidance,” he explained to Shai, who comes from a traditional home. The words “conversion therapy” were not mentioned and remained absent from each subsequent conversation. Instead, Shai was introduced to a colorful range of alternative vernacular describing the process offered by Hosen, including “the changing of sexual preference,” “sexual reorientation,” and therapy for the aforementioned “reversed inclinations.”
“I wanted you to help me with… instead of the way it’s been up until now, with men, I want it to be like that with women. The question is — is it possible?” Shai asked Barak, who quickly assured him that he had come to the right place, and that there is a solution.
Barak told Shai that if he chose to proceed, they would discuss the details of how, with the aid of a therapist, Shai could “lead himself” to his goal.
“You’re not the first,” he said. “People we know who went before you had wonderful stories, stories that show that this sort of treatment works.”
Two days later Shai called the hotline again. “Is it possible to change?” he asked.
“It is possible, and people have succeeded,” promised Yitzhak, who took his call and made his point through expansive use of a vegetable metaphor.
“Let’s say there’s a person who comes to a therapist and says ‘I don’t like eggplant, and everyone in my family loves it. It bothers me that they all like eggplant and I don’t.’ So, he comes to the therapist and they start looking into his past,” Yitzhak said.
“Together they look back on his view of eggplants, and then slowly they talk and try to understand where it came from. They dismantle the problem so that he can eat eggplant without it bothering him,” said Yitzhak.
New facade, same foundation
The issue of conversion therapy in Israel was brought to the fore following a series of homophobic statements by public figures, most notably former education minister Rafi Peretz, whose comments included a claim to have performed conversion therapies in the past, and that in his experience they are “possible.”
Health officials around the world say that conversion therapy is scientifically dubious and possibly dangerous. Gay conversion therapies, also called reparative therapies, have been strongly discouraged in Israel, the US, and elsewhere, with major health organizations pointing to what they term pseudo-scientific methods and the treatment of homosexuality as a mental illness.
Though Israel’s Health Ministry advises against the therapy, stating that it is scientifically weak and potentially dangerous, no law limits the practice, which is still an accepted approach in some conservative and Orthodox circles. There have been several attempts to outlaw the practice since 2015, but ultra-Orthodox parties have repeatedly shot down the Knesset legislation.
A 2019 Reuters article reports that members of the Israel Medical Association (IMA) who perform conversion therapy could now be expelled if a complaint is filed to its ethics committee, according to IMA spokeswoman Ziva Miral.
“The treatments to change one’s sexual orientation have been found to be ineffective and could cause mental damage, such as anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies,” the IMA said in a position paper on the practice.
The treatments to change one’s sexual orientation have been found to be ineffective and could cause mental damage, such as anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies
There are an estimated 20 to 30 licensed psychologists and social workers and 50 non-licensed therapists who practice some form of conversion therapy in Israel, Rabbi Ron Yosef of the Orthodox gay organization Hod told The Associated Press in 2016.
And yet few have heard of the NGO Hosen: The Movement for Israel’s Social, National, and Moral Fortitude (“hosen” means “fortitude” in Hebrew). Its methods buck the unpopular branding of conversion therapy in favor of a new formulation: “therapy for reversed inclinations.”
The group has been relatively dormant since its establishment in 2016. Its official objectives are defined vaguely as “the development and establishment of social and national leadership. Activities for strengthening family values and Israel’s social fortitude.” A few months ago, however, the group’s leadership was taken over by two former members of Atzat Nefesh, another group with a similar target demographic.
In many ways, Hosen appears to function as a continuation of sorts of the previous organization, minus its somewhat negative public image. Atzat Nefesh ran a hotline for homosexuals and was founded in 2001 by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, a longstanding and enthusiastic proponent of conversion therapy who for years has argued passionately that consensual conversion therapy is legitimate.
The two rabbis who headed Atzat Nefesh at its founding and guided it through its expansion are now the leaders of Hosen: Aharon “Roni” Cohen, former treasurer of the organization, and Rabbi Zvika Dantelsky, the former secretary and Atzat Nefesh’s public face for the media.
Three years after Atzat Nefesh was founded, a third member joined the administration as chairman: Reuven Israel Welcher.
Welcher did not stop at the chairmanship; despite having no certification as a mental health expert, he began treating people who approached the organization — which falsely claimed to refer clients only to professional psychologists — as well as running his own workshops on such topics as “The Journey to Masculinity.”
This ended in 2015. After a decade in his position, Welcher was criminally charged following accusations of sexually abusing patients during his conversion therapy sessions.
Last January, Welcher, as part of a plea bargain agreement, confessed to, and was convicted of, two counts of fraudulently obtained consent during sexually indecent acts. Unsatisfied with the requested two-year sentence, the judge made the exceptional ruling to impose a longer sentence due to the severity of the crimes. Welcher was sentenced to three years in prison, a decision appealed by his attorneys.
It would appear that the senior staff of Atzat Nefesh also understood the severity of Welcher’s actions, although neither a public nor a private apology was ever made to the victims. The new organization emerged from a desire to distance itself from Welcher and his crimes post-conviction.
“I left Atzat Nefesh after serious disagreements with the management following the story with Welcher,” Dantelsky confirmed to Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew language sister site of The Times of Israel. “It is a painful subject and people were hurt. There was a malfunction, a very unpleasant and upsetting one. Through careful introspection, I examined how I can stop it from happening next time as chairman of an organization.”
Dantelsky and Cohen’s partnership with Hosen lead to the involvement of a third dominant figure: Yonatan Branski. Former deputy commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division, Branski established Hosen in 2016 as an organization devoted to “the development of social and national leadership in Israel.” In 2017 he lost the race for leadership of the Jewish Home political party to Naftali Bennet.
Aviner, head of Yeshivat Ateret Yerushalayim, was also involved in connecting the three. When Hosen’s hotline was launched, Aviner invited Branski to his yeshiva to address potential volunteer phone operators, those who would ultimately need to pick up the phone and listen sensitively to the plight of the young people seeking help.
Aviner began the meeting by saying that the volunteers’ job was “helping those with reversed inclinations get out of the swamp.” He framed his ideas in clear terms of good and bad: “Maimonides explains that a man is commanded by the Torah to have good values, not only good actions… meaning that, not only must he not sin by lying with a man — for which the punishment is death — but also he must not even have that inclination at all, because it is an unkosher inclination.”
People for whom it is obvious that God cannot tolerate them… inside they know how worthless they are
Branski spoke next and did not diverge from Aviner’s harsh statements. He encouraged the volunteers not to be preoccupied with definitions and classifications, but rather to focus on the essence: “People for whom it is obvious that God cannot tolerate them… inside they know how worthless they are, what nothings they are, the extent to which their free will is distorted, and they always choose that which is wrong.”
The Israeli Association of Psychologists rejects the bias implicit in Branski’s stance, as written in their mission statement: “It is wrong that the opinions, values, and preferences of the therapist should influence how he or she relates to a patient, and certainly should not influence the course of treatment.”
The association further states that “if [the therapist] cannot accept the patient with empathy and without judgement he or she must refrain from treating that patient.”
But Branski told Zman Yisrael that the issue of religion is utterly relevant: “It is written in the Torah ‘You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.’ I didn’t come up with that. It’s like how the Torah forbids desecrating Shabbat, meaning desecrating Shabbat is a bad thing according to the Torah.”
“I can’t say anything to a man who is attracted to other men. If he comes to me, I can refer him to a therapist who can help him,” Branski said. “If the therapist is serious, and follows the ethical rules for psychologists — with which I agree — then he won’t force anything on the patient, but will rather work with him to see what he wants, and if the patient is convinced that this is what he wants, and it’s from his own free will, then the therapist must help him get there.”
Aviner himself sees the propagation of these groups as a blessing.
“The question shouldn’t be ‘Why do we have two organizations?’ but rather ‘Why aren’t there more?’” Aviner said. “We get so many calls, the line is always busy. Many people have reversed inclinations and want to change but don’t know how. They are so happy to reach our hotline. We know hundreds of people who managed to get married, and these men love their wives and are even crazy about them. I personally know dozens of people like that.”
We know hundreds of people who managed to get married, and these men love their wives and are even crazy about them
Despite Welcher’s conviction for sexually abusing his patients, Aviner refuses to disengage from him, asserting that some of Welcher’s work with Atzat Nefesh was legitimate.
“To this day, for over 20 years, I have never heard a complaint about his work with the hotline,” Aviner said. “There are many who say ‘he saved me,’ and there were those who said he destroyed.”
Psychologists specializing in the field make no distinction between conversion therapy and reorientation.
“It’s word play. Reorientation and conversion are one and the same,” said Prof. Tuvia Perry of Bar Ilan University’s psychology department. “Any treatment promising a change in one’s sexual orientation is conversion therapy, and they are hiding behind words. There exists a great amount of scientific evidence for the emotional damage caused by such promises — hopelessness, depression, and loss.”
Perry — who is himself Torah observant — opposes the melding of halacha, or Jewish law, and psychological treatment.
“Professionally, it is very grave,” he said. “The Torah forbids many things, but a homosexual can decide how to live his life. You can’t say that because halacha forbids something, I will formulate a psychological treatment to fit halacha. It is mixing two separate species.”
The organizations fighting this phenomenon are similarly distraught.
“Like Atzat Nefesh before it, Hosen views homosexuality as a disorder or problem and presents the false pretense that a person can change their sexual orientation,” said Gil Friedman, one of the founders of the Information Center for Conversion Therapies in Israel.
“A young religious man who is a homosexual is in a state of conflict from the moment he admits his sexual orientation to himself,” Friedman said.
“Into this emotional turmoil comes Hosen, which refers him to conversion therapy and shows him magical — and fabricated — success rates, manipulating his state of mind and creating a terrible storm of emotions. Many young adults and adolescents have been profoundly damaged; some are in psychiatric care to this day. Some took their own lives,” said Friedman.
‘A serious emotional and physical disease’
Before referring Shai to a therapist, the hotline operator recommended he read some of the material available on Hosen’s website. The first piece on the site is titled “The Battle for Normality: A Guide for (Self) Therapy for Homosexuality” — a summary of the research conducted by Dr. Gerard van dem Aardveg over the course of 30 years and involving more than 300 female and male subjects.
Van dem Aardveg’s terminology doesn’t come close to depicting homosexuality as a legitimate, normative, or natural attraction to the same sex, and it is difficult to see this text as anything but extremist, hateful, and anti-homosexual. As one excerpt from his text says:
“Homosexuality is not a solitary preference but rather a specific expression of a neurotic personality. [Treatment for homosexuality] is like that for other neuroses and emotional disorders: phobias, obsessive behaviors, depression, or other perversions. Many sexual perversions, particularly masochism and sadism, are performed by homosexuals…
“Surrender to homosexual desires creates an addiction… sexual… the comparisons to alcoholic urges or addiction to cigarettes are on point.”
Negative feedback has been documented by the Information Center for Conversion Therapies in Israel about at least one of the therapists recommended to Shai by Hosen. The complaint details a long treatment full of questionable techniques including masturbation to female pornography, wandering around the beach, envisioning old men (in order to repel attraction), and internalizing the concept that “no good future” will result from an attraction to other men.
As the treatment progressed, the complaint details, the patient became increasingly depressed.
“For eight months I came to the therapist and left each meeting overwhelmed by guilt that I wasn’t trying hard enough, that I need to change, and that I will destroy my life if I don’t succeed. That I have no future. These negative thoughts worsened as the treatment continued, until I climbed into bed and didn’t get out,” read the complaint.
The “Journey to Masculinity” workshops recommended by Hosen have been criticized for their implementation of invasive methods to bring about a change in sexual orientation.
“The highlight of the workshop is a special psycho-dramatic activity in which each participant shares an early memory related to homosexuality, and the whole group participates in its reenactment, like a play,” writes Yochai Greenfeld in an account published by the Information Center for Conversion Therapies in Israel.
“My therapist tied my hands behind my back, wound a rope around my waist and instructed the participants to pull me in every direction… to cover me with blankets and mattresses while laughing and cursing at me. I asked the therapist to stop, but he laughed at me and told the group to continue until I almost collapsed,” writes Greenfeld.
Adapted from an in-depth Hebrew-language article on Zman Yisrael. With contributions from Times of Israel staff.