Homosexuality ‘almost nonexistent in Arab society,’ Joint List MK says

Homosexuality ‘almost nonexistent in Arab society,’ Joint List MK says

Walid Taha’s comments come as lawmakers say future of Arab political alliance in doubt after leader Ayman Odeh supported bill banning gay conversion therapy

MK Walid Taha in the Knesset, November 19, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
MK Walid Taha in the Knesset, November 19, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A Joint List lawmaker representing the political alliance’s more religiously conservative wing called its leader’s support for a recent bill banning some gay conversion therapy “particularly problematic” on Sunday, stating that it went against the views of “the vast majority of the society that elected him.”

In an interview with national broadcaster Kan, MK Walid Taha denied the existence of any significant homosexual demographic within the Arab community, asserting that the “phenomenon of gays is almost nonexistent in Arab society” and adding that, if it exists at all, it is “of limited dimensions.”

A freshman lawmaker belonging to the Ra’am faction, Taha said that he opposed Joint List chief MK Ayman Odeh’s support for the bill, which would ban therapy by psychotherapists and which passed an initial reading in the Knesset on Wednesday, because Arab society was “overwhelmingly opposed to these laws.”

“The issue is not being discussed in Arab society” and “if it exists it is on a very small scale and those who suffer from it are in no hurry to identify themselves,” he stated, adding that he believed same-sex relations to be unnatural.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh speaks to reporters outside his home in Haifa on March 3, 2020. (Flash90)

Homosexuals “have the right to undergo treatment to change their sexual orientation,” he asserted. “This law comes to prevent them from [receiving a] treatment that will return them to a normal state.”

On Saturday, the head of Taha’s Ra’am faction warned that the future of the Joint List could be in doubt because of Odeh’s support for the measure.

According to Kan, MK Mansour Abbas stated that the continued existence of the alliance depended on the behavior of its lawmakers in the near future and that many supporters were already demanding its breakup.

While Arab Israelis are largely socially conservative, LGBT Arab Israelis have slowly been gaining more prominence. The funeral of Ayman Safiya, a renowned Arab Israeli dancer who drowned this May, drew thousands of mourners despite his queer identity.

However, there is still significant resistance to LGBT acceptance. When a local Arab-owned tahini company recently decided to fund a crisis hotline for LGBT youth, it sparked a strong public backlash, with many in the Arab community calling for a boycott of its popular products. Odeh publicly opposed those calls.

The bill barring psychotherapists from performing the controversial treatment 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.

Israelis participate in a protest rally for LGBT rights in Tel Aviv on June 28, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

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 its continued practice by rabbis — by many estimations the most common practitioners.

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

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 wholly supported the bill, while many Likud MKs avoided the vote and the party’s Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is openly gay, voted for it.

“Blue and White’s poor conduct, in violation of coalition discipline, is an open affront to our political partnership,” Litzman said in a statement on Wednesday. “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.”

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

Shas MK Moshe Abutbul at the Knesset on September 25, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2013, during his tenure as mayor of Beit Shemesh, current Shas MK Moshe Abutbul asserted that there were no homosexuals in his “holy and pure” city and suggested that it was the responsibility of the Health Ministry and the police to “take care of them.”

Last year, Netanyahu appointed Ohana as the first openly gay cabinet member in Israel’s history.

Michael Bachner and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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