August 12, 2020 at 6:00 am EDT | by Kaela Roeder
Israel lawmakers move to ban conversion therapy
Knesset, gay news, Washington Blade
The Israeli Knesset (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Israeli Knesset in late July approved a preliminary bill that would criminalize so-called conversion therapy practices.

The measure targets psychologists who administer conversion therapy and would suspend their licenses for at least five years. This move follows the U.N.’s formal call in early July to ban the practice as outlined by Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ issues.

Nitzan Horowitz, head of the left-wing Meretz party, introduced the bill and the Knesset approved it by a 42-36 vote margin. Horowitz said the measure would be a “historic change” for Israel, the BBC reported.

Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, who chairs the centrist Blue and White party, welcomed the result.

“Conversion therapy was born in sin and its place is outside of the law and the public norm,” he tweeted, according to the BBC.

Despite the step towards the ban, LGBTQ advocates in Israel are hesitant to call the movement a success. Conservative and Orthodox Jewish groups remain vehemently opposed to the bill.

The BBC reported United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox group, has threatened to introduce bills that centrist and left-wing lawmakers “would find objectionable.” Rafael Peretz, an Orthodox rabbi who is the head of the ultranationalist United Right party, last year condoned the use of conversion therapy when he was Israel’s education minister.

Hila Peer, chair with Aguda, the Israeli LGBT Task Force, said she is being a “realistic optimist” about the preliminary vote. Aguda and several other organizations that include Havruta and Shoval, two religious organizations in the country, helped draft the bill.

Peer said while many in the Knesset believe conversion therapy should be banned in the country, the decision comes down to politics because many right-wing and Orthodox parties control it.

The bill as it stands only includes a ban on psychologists using conversion therapy, and does not address religious leaders or schools. This was a tactic by lawmakers, Peer said, because an outright ban would most likely not pass. Taking religion out of the conversation improved the likelihood of moving the law forward, she said. 

As the bill moves to committee review in the Knesset, it is possible that a ban on religious leaders using conversion therapy can be tacked onto the legislation, Peer said. In order to pass, the bill must be approved in two more Knesset readings.

Five members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party voted in favor of the bill, going against their colleagues. Amir Ohana, the country’s first openly gay Cabinet minister, crossed party lines and voted for the measure.

Peer and other advocates attempted to ban the practice five years ago. She said conversion therapy bans and other pro-LGBTQ laws have been difficult to pass because of Orthodox and conservative control over the Knesset.

The preliminary bill has yet to go to committee.

Peer said the ban could take a long time to come to fruition because of Israel’s ongoing budget crisis and election turmoil. She is now advocating for the bill to continue through the legal process.

“It’s our job to just keep on the pressure on it,” said Peer. “It just doesn’t make any sense that in 2020 conversion therapy is considered a viable option.”

Ethan Felson, executive director of A Wider Bridge, an LGBTQ organization that provides education and grants to advocates in Israel, said this ban is necessary to save lives in Israel.

“This is a practice that can take a vulnerable young person and put them into a downward spiral at a time when they need nurturing and support,” he said.

This ban would be first of its kind in the Middle East.

Israel has also the most progressive attitude towards LGBTQ people in the region, despite conservative ideologies. LGBTQ individuals are able to serve in the military, are protected by anti-discrimination laws and have adoption and same-sex inheritance rights.

The Israeli government also continues to face accusations of “pinkwashing,” the promotion of LGBTQ rights in an attempt to divert attention away from its policies towards the Palestinians.

Germany, Brazil, Ecuador, Malta and Taiwan have already banned conversion therapy. Maryland, Virginia and D.C. are among the U.S. jurisdictions that ban the highly discredited policy for minors.

Editor’s note: International News Editor Michael K. Lavers traveled to Israel in 2016 with A Wider Bridge.

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