Opinion

Israel's Homophobia Problem Just Got Even Worse

Still reeling from the Education Minister’s endorsement of 'conversion therapy,' we in Israel’s LGBTQ community are now told by an ex-chief rabbi we’re unfit to be Jews. Jewish religious leaders are spreading darkness from Jerusalem

File photo: Participants take part in the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem, July 21, 2016.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

"God knows that it [homosexuality] is a lust, a wild lust that needs to be overcome and it can be overcome." That is the considered position of Israel’s former Chief Rabbi and now one of Jerusalem’s chief rabbis, who once referred to gay people as perverts and abominations who "disgusted" the public. 

Shlomo Amar revealed how deep-seated his hatred for queer people is this week when he declared that being part of the LGBTQ community is incompatible with Jewish religious observance: gay Jews should "cast off their kippah and Shabbat and show their true faces." 

Rabbi Amar, I think you will be disappointed to see that under their kippot gays are still Jews, and still people. 

Israel is still reeling from comments made by Minister of Education Rafi Peretz, who two weeks ago affirmed his support for and participation in gay ‘conversion therapy.’ After a furor and public demonstrations, he retracted that support.

Even Israel’s own Health Ministry has disavowed conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ individuals as a fraudulent and harmful practice which can include severe psychological manipulation, and even electro-shock therapy. 

Why is Israel’s Jewish leadership demonizing LGBTQ people? Why are Jewish leaders rushing out of the closet with their vilification of gays and other queer people? 

As a transgender teacher I am concerned for the safety of LGBTQ students. When a gay child is hearing messages from religious and government leadership in Israel, those messages should not be of condemnation and vilification.

I would question our leadership, and ask if we have learned nothing about the ability of a government to vilify a group of people. After all, there is nothing new about a socially conservative government targeting LGBTQ people for political gain. 

Jews in the diaspora turn to Israel and the discourse provided by Israeli leaders as a source of inspiration and light into the world. I fear with this leadership, they are turning and finding only darkness. 

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

Israeli teachers, who work under his ministry’s directives, and even Israel’s prime minister, who appointed him, have responded to Peretz with public opposition and condemnation. Rabbi Amar should not be free from this condemnation.

As a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, he has a duty to protect the Jewish people - and yet he is using his position as the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem to tell Jews that part of their identity makes them unfit to be Jews, and as "abominations" they are unfit to be considered fully human. 

Already, LGBTQ Jews struggle to find spaces of worship and community that are welcoming to us because of our difference. But when it is suggested by a rabbi of such standing that we are unworthy of being looked at as Jews, or even human, it speaks to the level of hatred and intolerance which has infested religious communities. 

Israel is a nation that prides itself on tolerance, one that markets itself as a haven for LGBTQ people. Yet there is a problem with the soul of a government that would appoint officials like Peretz and Amar when both men target some of Israel’s most vulnerable Jews. 

Former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, in his Jerusalem office, September 2012
Olivier Fitoussi

To Amar and Peretz, I would offer a reminder that queer people will not go away because you don’t like them, or you don’t want to believe that we exist. I would challenge you, instead, to use your positions to gain an education.

Be active in your understanding of the realities of the queer people you vilify. Understand your words are used to dehumanize people on the basis of their identity. Understand that you cannot be invested in the future of the Jewish people if you are not invested in protecting Jews because of their sexuality.

Rabbi Peretz stated, "In my years as an education I’ve met students who felt terribly distressed by their sexual orientation and chose to be assisted by professionals to change their orientation."

Peretz possibly lacks the foresight to understand that he is part of the culture that causes students to be distressed by their sexual orientation. Jewish leaders such as Peretz and Amar have cast the first stone. 

The role of an educator is not to identify struggling students and then subject them to a process of manipulation that shames them back into a closet. Yet both Rabbi Amar and Peretz have rallied others behind their support of conversion therapy. If a student is seeking advice from a teacher, a rabbi, a leader, our role – just as a doctor’s is – must be: Do no harm. 

LGBTQ+ youth do not need conversion therapy. As a transgender woman, I know that I do not have an illness that can be cured by conversion therapy. I have met gay men who have been electrocuted, bound, and held for hours because of the false wisdom of those who practice conversion therapy. Rest assured, none of us need a cure. 

What is needed is an understanding that sexuality and gender are complex issues. Israel has passed protections from discrimination on the basis of sexuality and gender, yet absent under the leadership of Peretz in the Ministry of Education are the actual policies to protect students or employees from anti-LGBTQ discrimination. 

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

So now, the man who believes he has in the past cured homosexuality or queerness holds the power to either ignore policy protections for LGBTQ individuals - or do further harm. 

Educators, let alone the Minister of Education or the Chief Rabbi of Israel, hold a unique position in society. We are committed to practicing ethical teaching methods that develop students as engaged learners and empathetic people. 

Working as an educator for most of my adult life, I have spent many coffee breaks and planning hours discussing issues with my students around the complexities of growing up. In all these conversations, I recognize that my job is to be affirming yet critical, a listener but also a non-judgmental guide. Conversion therapy should not be part of teacher’s toolbox when dealing with troubled youth. 

This year, the hospitalization of a young transgender Israeli student violently attacked in school made national headlines. Our leadership should be focusing their efforts on confronting the culture of violent bullying, not extolling support for anti-LGBTQ practices.

Queer identities will not go away through forced manipulation. Conversion therapy is not therapy. LGBTQ students are not ill and don’t need anyone else to push them into a deeply dishonest way of living.

I would invite both Rabbi Peretz  and Rabbi Amar to think critically about their support of and participation in conversion therapy, to listen to the LGBTQ community, to consider what impact their words have on LGBTQ youth and to learn how to avoid harmful practices that teach children and adults to be ashamed of their sexuality and/or gender. 

I cannot have confidence in an Education Minister or a Chief Rabbi who fails to see that his homophobia and participation in conversion therapy make him unfit to lead in Israel. Educators have a responsibility at every level to prioritize the mental health of our students.

And leaders of the Jewish people have a responsibility to protect the Jewish people, not fall into rhetoric that has pushed people to suicide – and been been used as a license to kill. 

Alex Sanchez is a former president of PRISM, one of the largest college LGBTQ+ organizations in New Jersey. She is currently completing her MA in Education at Hebrew University, and her research is focused on the intersection of education policy and LGBTQ+ protections for teachers and students.