Opinion

Gay Conversion Therapy Is an Abomination, an Offense to the Spirit of Judaism

Conversion therapy assumes that homosexuality is a shameful, but curable, 'illness.' That a religious Israeli government minister condones such an abhorrent practice is an affront to the Torah

An Israeli woman from the LGBT community calls for Israel's Education Minister Rafi Peretz to resign over his support for gay conversion therapy, near his house in Moshav Avshalom near the Israel/Egypt border. July 14, 2019
Tsafrir Abayov,AP

"Conversion Therapy" – it has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Rolls off the tongue like physiotherapy, aqua therapy, aromatherapy and of course – psychotherapy.

The terminology suggests a tested, proven and acceptable methodology to cure a medical condition. And that was precisely the sentiment the term was designed to evoke by those who coined the phrase. In fact, it disguises a wild and disparate range of approaches all designed to relieve people of a terrible illness – homosexuality.

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On the milder end of the spectrum, some "therapists" may use techniques inspired by traditional psychotherapy; more commonly however, the methodology includes bizarre mind-altering techniques, some of which read like a leaf out of the Inquisition's manual - hypnosis, excessive exposure to pornography, repeated sexual interactions with sex workers, electroshock therapy, self-harming techniques designed to repress sexual urges, and violent "masculinity enhancing" behaviors.

Survivors who voluntarily subjected themselves to the process often describe unbearable emotional strain and humiliation, coupled with frustration (and often – horrible sanctions) when they failed to be "cured." For those who were forced into "therapy", as many are, consequences are often far worse.

And as we learned earlier this week, it is a practice condoned and possibly even administered by, Israel's interim Minister of Education, Rafi Peretz.

He is not alone. The Israeli government has, in recent years, struck down legislation intended to outlaw conversion therapy for minors, leaving the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community at the mercy of cruel charlatans.

The hundreds of protestors who turned out Sunday to condemn Peretz know well that there is nothing "therapeutic" about conversion therapy.

One speaker painfully described the humiliating, soul-crushing experience to which he and his lover were subjected in an attempt to "cure" them of their homosexuality. Others in attendance either bear the deep emotional scars of undergoing such a process themselves, or know people who do.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many in the audience appeared to be the appalled parents of LGBTQ children (my own included), there to unequivocally reject the flippancy with which our chief educator would subject young people to the horrors of conversion therapy.

Members of the LGBT community call for Israel's Education Minister Rafi Peretz to resign over his comments in support of gay conversion therapy, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, July 14, 2019
Oded Balilty,AP

The crowd repeatedly erupted in a collective Game of Thrones-esque chant of "shame, shame, shame" when the words "conversion therapy" were spoken on stage. The sentiment is apt.

While Minister Peretz didn't go so far as to say he supported conversion therapy, his comments indicated that he believes it to be a viable option for people coping with the discovery of their sexual orientation, and that he himself had been involved in similar practices or had referred students to undergo them.

In 2019, that is a shameful position for anyone, particularly for an educator, to hold. In fact, it should be a sackable offence for someone responsible for the education of our young people.

My twins are about to start pre-school in Tel Aviv in September. From birth, they have been educated to embrace their identity as the children of two fathers. In age-appropriate terms, they are proud and excited to explain surrogacy to anyone who cares to listen, and if you ask them what the rainbow flag signifies they will tell you with conviction and confidence that it stands for everyone's right to love whomever they choose.

Growing up in liberal Tel Aviv, surrounded by adoring family and friends, they have thus far been immune to the prejudice, discrimination and bigotry still rampant against LGBTQ people and their families.

Listening now to the minister of education endorse a practice that, at its core, is designed to shame my children's gay fathers and discredit the family into which they were born, I cannot help but wonder whether the education system under his stewardship will uphold the values with which they have been raised, or assault them.

To reject conversion therapy on the science is an argument easily made. The medical profession throughout the western world (and in Israel) has disassociated itself with the practice. In a growing number of jurisdictions, it has been outlawed. Licensed practitioners engaged in such "therapy" stand to lose their license.

Members of the LGBT community hold a banner reading in Hebrew "A homophobic Racist Has to Quit" during a rally against Israel's Education Minister Rafi Peretz following his remarks on gay conversion therapy, in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 14, 2019
AFP

The practice, however, would be abhorrent even if it were medically sound. Quite simply put – it is one of the most disgusting expressions of homophobia. Conversion therapy presupposes that homosexuality is a curable illness. It is predicated on a social and moral foundation that sees homosexuality as inferior and shameful.

It capitalizes on the fear, confusion and vulnerability of young people who are likely already coping with a combination of self-loathing, social rejection and familial alienation. Rather than offering them the support they need and deserve, those advocating or engaged in conversion therapy exacerbate their hardship.

The advocates of conversion therapy are often (though not exclusively so) motivated by religious attitudes against homosexuality. That appears to be the case for Peretz (who shares a party ticket with MK Bezalel Smotrich, another outspoken homophobe.) 

I grew up in a religious home, and was taught from birth that the Torah was a fountain of life and that God was to be approached through love. To my mind, a practice that is designed to crush participants' spirits, mutilate their capacity to love truly, and in some cases – put their bodies, minds and very lives at risk, is an offense to the true spirit of Torah.

How can one truly love God with "all their heart, soul, and might" (as Jews recite daily in the Shema), if they have been taught to deny their own heart, or if their soul has been scarred by the hateful intolerance of others?

Thankfully, I was spared the horror of conversion therapy. I was fortunate enough to have been able to draw on the kindness and support of the LGBTQ community when coming out, and in the years that followed. Others around me were not so fortunate.

If there is any hope to be drawn from the events of recent days, it is in those many voices that have condemned Minister Peretz and his shameful comments.

Though it appears unlikely that Prime Minister Netanyahu will heed the calls to remove Peretz from office, one can only hope those voices will encourage public discourse on the subject, and ultimately – greater protection against this terrible phenomenon and its eventual eradication.

As one of the speakers at yesterday's protest said: it's not LGBTQ people that need to be "converted." It's the homophobes that do.

Yehoshua Gurtler is a partner with the law firm Herzog, Fox & Ne'eman and an Israeli LGBTQ activist.