The Constituency That Keeps ‘Conversion Therapy’ Legal in Israel

Despite the Health Ministry issuing an official warning against such practice in 2014, a small group of licensed professionals who immigrated from the U.S. continue to perform 'conversion therapy'

Protesters call for the ousting of Education Minister Rafi Peretz following gay conversion remarks, Tel Aviv, Israel, July 14, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

So-called conversion therapy for LGBT people is against the law in 11 U.S. states as well as in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and may European countries, but in Israel this is far from the case.

Four bills that would have made such efforts illegal, including one sponsored by Yael German when she was health minister, failed to pass at an early stage in the Knesset.

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“We tried a number of different versions of the bills, from a criminal law [version] to a lighter civil law one,” German says. “Above all, what was important to us was the legislature’s declaration and the recognition that conversion therapy is a practice that shouldn’t exist.”

>> Read more: Drawing fire for gay conversion comments, 'Rabbi Rafi' doesn’t look moderate anymore | Analysis 

The failure of these bills isn’t necessarily surprising; probably many Israelis, in the Knesset as well, believe that homosexuality is worse than “conversion therapy.” Thus even the Health Ministry’s official warning against such “conversion” efforts in 2014, when German was minister, has not taken hold.

An example of this was presented during a State Control Committee hearing in 2017, where it emerged that a Health Ministry panel for examining complaints about health professionals who perform “conversion therapy” had not met for two years. The ministry says the panel resumed operations nearly a year ago.

“The ministry doesn’t recognize conversion therapy as a treatment, just as it doesn’t recognize sexual orientation as a disorder,” Gabi Peretz, the official state psychologist, told Haaretz. “We know that such treatment causes harm, and if a psychologist or a professional who is licensed by the Health Ministry performs such treatments, he will be dealt with.”

Peretz says that in most cases these treatments are not performed by professionals, and the Health Ministry has the tools to act against a counselor, rabbi or anyone else who declares himself a therapist.

Dr. Shai Itamar, who is on the Israel Psychological Association’s executive committee, agrees that “conversion therapy by professionals in Israel is a relatively marginal phenomenon; the vast majority of psychologists in Israel don’t deal with practices that pose professional and ethical problems.”

He added, however, that there is a small group of licensed professionals who immigrated from the United States over the past 10 to 15 years “who have the audacity to work this way openly.” 

It’s hard to know how many certified professionals actually do “conversion therapy.”

“These are treatments that are very hard to find out about and identify because they’re usually carried out in pretty closed societies, and you don’t always know for sure whether someone is getting these treatments,” says Dr. Ruth Gopin, head of the LGBT medicine division at the Israel Medical Association, which in January published a position paper against “conversion therapy.”

There may also be instances of professionals cooperating with such treatments without being totally aware of it.

“I gave a lecture to family doctors in Jerusalem,” Gopin says. “A doctor in the audience from a religious community said that when someone comes to her who has doubts about his sexual orientation, she refers him to someone in the community who deals with this, without even realizing that she is referring him to conversion therapy.”

That’s why her group issued the position paper to doctors, so they should know not to refer people to such therapists. “There is no parallel situation in which a doctor refers a patient for treatment by nonprofessionals who could be dangerous,” Gopin says.

The bottom line was underscored by Dr. Zvi Fishel, chairman of the Israel Psychiatric Association. “Medicine in general, especially psychiatry, has established that homosexuality isn’t a disorder, so there is no need for any treatment of the orientation itself,” he says.

“Referrals for such treatment aren’t only ineffective, they’re dangerous. Conveying a message that [homosexuality] is a phenomenon that must be eradicated causes emotional distress that could lead to suicide.”