Truly Enlightened? Liberalism and the Science of Being Gay

Some things to consider before we congratulate ourselves on the establishment's liberal response to the 'conversion therapy' being offered by some rabbis to ultra-Orthodox homosexuals.

David Bachar

It’s not every day that the political unconscious vaults into the headlines attired in fancy liberal dress and chattering in the naturalistic language of science. This is what Israeli liberalism – which, with its solipsistic thrust, resides within a fraction of itself so as to remain untroubled by the rest of the picture – looks like: Try to hold a serious discussion about the interconnection between the “political” and the “psychic” – such as the corrupting consequences of the occupation and the oppression of the Palestinians on the psyche and sexuality of the country’s citizens; or on the connection between state-sponsored violence and the violence on Israeli streets, in the schools and in the family – and you will have a hard time finding even one therapist who will agree to voice his thoughts on the subject. But give Israeli psychologists and psychiatrists an opportunity to flay the primitive religious population and declare war on the “conversion therapies” they offer ultra-Orthodox individuals with homosexual tendencies, and you’ll get a committee of experts with operative recommendations, warnings to the public and “a great day for the community.”

Earlier this month, the Health Ministry warned the public against “conversion therapies” aimed at changing individuals’ sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.

Adopting the approach of both the Council of Psychologists and the Israel Psychological Association, the ministry stated, “Therapists using this method create a false impression of scientific recognition of the method, even though in practice there is no research evidence indicating the success of any method in regard to the possibility of conversion, and there is actually evidence of possible damage.”

The Health Ministry’s chief psychologist added that if the ministry receives evidence that a psychologist is using therapy of this kind, he or she is liable to be summoned for a hearing before an ethics committee or be the subject of a complaint for behavior unbecoming a psychologist or professional negligence. The British and American versions of the dispute over therapies aimed at “correcting” a patient’s sexual proclivities ended with similar results.

Anyone following the drama of conversion therapy will instantly be able to identify the enlightened progressives, as opposed to the benighted clerics, in this argument, and to breathe a sigh of relief. But things are not so simple, and we would do well to add a few reference points to the discussion before congratulating ourselves.

In the first half of the 20th century, a person’s body and sexuality became an object for “punitive,” “purifying” and “corrective” intervention by the state.

Aided by systems of culture, knowledge and power, liberal and totalitarian regimes alike appropriated control of their citizens’ psyches from the church and foisted the state’s ideological discourse on their body and their sexuality. Mental-health professionals became notorious collaborators with totalitarian regimes, as sexuality became an arena of political struggle for control over the private sphere, and the concept of the psyche in its dynamic modern version was, implicitly, denied.

Bolshevik sexologists and psychologists, for example, held hair-raising discussions about the place of masturbation in a revolutionary society.

A particularly ludicrous development was the “free body culture” that was cultivated in Communist East Germany. The state, which regimented every aspect of its citizens’ lives, encouraged them to spend time in the summer at nudist sites, where they could be free and equal. Free to lick ice cream and romp about naked.

The encounter between two modernist movements of ideas – Zionism and psychoanalysis – was rife with paradoxes that resonated in the lively “sex education” discourse that took place in nascent Israel.

The Zionist revolution was intent on putting an end to hypocrisy and lies in the sexual realm, and on stripping away from the development of adolescents the erotic ambiguity that represented the stereotype of the Diaspora Jew.

Liberating the young Jew from the shackles of bourgeois sexuality, however, was never an end in itself. The question of sexual and gender identity was always accompanied by the collective ideology. For many years the kibbutz movement prided itself on the coed showers of boys and girls, and on its quasi-permissive approach to the body.

Then as now, Zionism found it difficult to accept a concept of man that was not cohesive and essentialist.

In Israeli society, a special thrill always accompanies purist discussions of questions such as: Who is a “real” Jew? What is the “real” left? Who is a “real” homosexual? Freudian psychoanalysis suggests that human subjectivity is constituted by sexuality, and that sexual and gender identity, like any other aspect of our identity, is a kind of “territorial compromise” among a panoply of demands, counterdemands, rifts and repressions that sexuality – the stranger within the self – imposes on a person’s inner world at different junctions of his life. The more simplistic and vulgar Israeli identity politics becomes – or, if you will, “represses” the possibilities embodied in psychoanalytical thought regarding the concept of identity – the more Israeli liberalism sounds – even when it raises the right banners and dances bare-breasted on colorful Gay Pride days – like “liberalism de la schmatte.”

‘No vice, no degradation’

Here’s an abridged version of Sigmund Freud’s letter to an American mother who wanted him to treat her gay son:

“I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am most impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term yourself in your information about him. May I question you why you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness The result of treatment cannot be predicted. What analysis can do for your son runs on a different line. If he is unhappy, neurotic, torn by conflicts, inhibited in his social life, analysis may bring him harmony, peace of mind, full efficiency, whether he remains a homosexual or gets changed. If you make up your mind he should have analysis with me — I don’t expect you will — he has to come over to Vienna. I have no intention of leaving here.”

The letter was written long ago, in interwar Vienna. I find its contents far more serious, sincere and meaningful than the “warning note” dispatched by the Health Ministry to conversion therapists.

By the way, in liberal Berlin, to which the LGBT community looks, psychoanalytic treatment has been part of the basket of services offered by health maintenance organizations for some decades.

In Israel, in a somewhat sweeping generalization, psychoanalysis is passé, both in academe and in the public mental health system.

Possibly the humanities faculties will never forgive Freud for not knowing what a woman really wants – that is, for living and writing before the feminist revolution.

Perhaps the psychologists of the Hebrew University’s, who have long since sold the human psyche to the brain sciences, will one day go back to trying to understand people by means of words.

Until then, we will make do with an expert committee that will examine in all seriousness the “effectiveness of conversion therapy” and reach the conclusion that “there is no conclusive evidence of its effectiveness.”

This is the price of the grotesque scientism that has taken hold of the humanities and the social sciences in Israel. Even when it reaches the right conclusions, it generates hollow liberalism. “Evidence-based” liberalism, devoid of meaningful ideas.