Israel's Openly Gay Health Minister Talks Conversion Therapies, Surrogacy and Religion

On the eve of celebrating one year in office, Nitzan Horowitz warns that Israel is still far from being a ‘pink heaven’

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Health Minister Nitzan Horowiz, right, with his partner Ido Ricklin.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowiz, right, with his partner Ido Ricklin.Credit: Hadas Parush
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz may have hoped that this interview could focus solely on his achievements in advancing LGBTQ rights during his short term as health minister – perhaps the most significant thing achieved by the left in Israel’s gradually disintegrating coalition government. However, it arrived at one of the toughest moments of his political career, a time when his own electorate is pursuing him with daggers drawn.

Asked what he would say to party supporters who are calling for his head following the resignation of Meretz lawmaker Ghaida Rinawie-Zoabi from the government, after a prolonged silence and clearing of his throat, Horowitz, 57, replies slowly, choosing each word carefully: “Our public is very critical, and vocal, and it has lots of expectations. I’m trying to achieve something within the government as Meretz, and also to preserve the government – which is not a left-wing government. To manage these two things together is a complex matter.”

Health Minister Nitzan Horowiz gives a speech during the Jerusalem pride parade, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

What hurts you most about this government – the settler outpost at Homesh that has yet to be evacuated? The right-wing Flag March through the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City last month?

“What hurts me most is that we’re not entering into a diplomatic process with the Palestinians. I know it’s in [the coalition agreement to maintain the status quo], but I think there’s an opportunity right now. It’s a shame because the problem isn’t disappearing; it’s only blowing up in our faces.”

Even if the government falls tomorrow, it would be remiss not to recognize Horowitz’s achievements for the LGBTQ community during his time in the Health Ministry. In a country where legally enshrining LGBTQ rights is an impossible dream – unlike in most liberal democracies – his term is characterized by efforts to find ways around this obstacle.

He revoked the ban that prevented gay men from giving blood; issued a director general’s circular that forbids conversion therapy – with violation of this order likely to lead to the revocation of a therapist’s licence; worked to shorten the wait for transgender surgery and to introduce unique medications and treatments for the community through their health insurance coverage, and more.

'We’ve encountered cases where they sent 13-year-olds for conversion therapy and ruined their lives'

“Previously, there were ministers here who, in my opinion, weren’t even familiar with the words, didn’t know the meaning of transgender, didn’t know what PRP [a treatment to prevent HIV infection] is. They certainly didn’t adapt or deal with these things, so I deal with them. It’s about time,” he says.

During one of our discussions prior to the March 2021 election, you said you were afraid of the reaction. You warned [openly gay former Minister] Amir Ohana and his partner that everything could go back to where it was before for the LGBTQ community.

Openly gay former right-wing Minister and Likud politician Amir Ohana.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“Look, today there’s a lawmaker called Avi Maoz from the Noam party [within the Religious Zionism alliance]. This party is based entirely on homophobia. It’s a warning sign that there are still people like that – and there are quite a few of them. I also see the reactions to what I’m doing. When we banned conversion therapy, I saw an article in [right-wing religious Zionist weekly] Makor Rishon, for example – very whiny, to the effect that psychologists are afraid to treat LGBTQ people for fear of being accused of conversion therapy.

“That’s so unrealistic. If a psychologist isn’t sure whether or not what he’s doing is conversion therapy, then he’s better off not treating that person. The psychologists know exactly where to draw the line; it’s not a twilight zone.”

'Even among the knitted-kippa community, as in every other society, there are gay men, lesbians and bisexuals'

I’ll challenge you here: If an adult – and I’m not talking about minors – wants to see a therapist in an attempt to change their sexual proclivity, why are you preventing them from doing so? After all, you believe in individual freedoms.

“So, first of all we have to talk about minors, because we’ve encountered cases where they sent 13-year-olds for conversion therapy and ruined their lives. A substantial percentage of these things happen to minors. As for adults, a psychologist is a professional who operates according to an accepted practice that is supervised by the psychologists’ council and the Health Ministry. We received the most vigorous requests to ban conversion therapy from the Psychological Association, the Psychiatric Association – in other words, from the professionals. Based on their professional knowledge, they asked us to ban the practice.

“As a professional, you have to administer treatment that helps a person, and this therapy – I’m saying this in the most professionally oriented manner, forget about my own private opinion – is destructive. It’s not therapy, it’s torture. In the Health Ministry, we can’t give a license to people to administer destructive treatments. Not even to adults.”

Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz holding a news conference in Jerusalem last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Symbolizing oppression

Horowitz takes pride in the fact that, thanks to the ban, the number of victims of conversion therapy – which are most common among psychologists from the religious Zionist community – has been significantly reduced.

From what you’re saying, I understand that the Religious Zionism party is turning out to be a considerable problem in the field. Even more than the ultra-Orthodox parties?

“That’s correct. The Haredim are opposed, but there is no active reaction among them. But the Religious Zionism party – this is one of its prominent causes,” he says, reeling off the names of right-wing extremists like Maoz, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich.

Do they represent the religious Zionist community?

Nitzan Horowitz celebrating with the petioners who asked the High Court of Justice to allow surrogacy for same-sex couples and single men, last July.Credit: Emil Salman

“In my opinion, not on this issue. I’m in contact with organizations of religious gays and lesbians – it’s a benighted policy that most of the knitted-kippa community doesn’t favor. It’s not that most of them are enthusiastic and will come to Pride parades. But they reject what these lawmakers are doing in this area. First, because even among the knitted-kippa community, as in every other society, there are gay men, lesbians and bisexuals. It exists in families; people see it with their own eyes. Also, because they realize that this approach symbolizes oppression against other groups as well, such as women.”

What kind of relationship do you have with the Islamist party, United Arab List, in light of that? They’re not exactly pro-LGBTQ either.

“It’s problematic. They don’t support these things and there’s a gap between us on this subject.”

Do you get the impression that it’s a personal agenda of party leader Mansour Abbas, or that he has simply caved to pressure?

'Children in Israel are sacred. People want children and lots of them, both lesbians and gay men – three or even four'

“It’s their agenda. It comes from a religious, conservative place. Who are the LGBTQ people in distress nowadays? Where are they? Mainly in Arab and religious societies. And there we have to help. But instead of helping them, they only increase the pressure. It’s saddening, but it won’t stop me. Although they’re with us in the government, and although we cooperate on many things and there’s a very good discourse with Abbas and the other [United Arab List] members, on this subject we don’t agree. This year I’ve overseen many revolutions in the ministry on the LGBTQ issue, and I haven’t heard any criticism from within the coalition. Nobody came to me with complaints, including from the United Arab List.”

Would you prefer to bring a liberal like Joint List leader Ayman Odeh into the coalition?

“At the moment of truth, the Joint List didn’t support measures that I put forward either.”

You have ties with a gay former minister, Amir Ohana. What are your thoughts on him?

'Look, the most common curse in Israeli schools today is still ‘homo.’ People still suffer because they are LGBTQ. They are thrown out of their homes'

“We don’t have any special relationship and neither do we have any particular conflict. I oppose his positions, especially his assault on the Supreme Court. The community has gained many of its rights thanks to the court. So to attack it is to saw off the branch we’re sitting on.”

Does his position help or hinder the LGBTQ community?

“It’s good that the community has more representatives. But the fact that he can live with a male partner, with children, and that he is accepted for who he is and doesn’t have to hide it – that is very much thanks to the Supreme Court and the progressive position of the court, which he as justice minister, and later as public security minister, was opposed to.

People taking part in the annual Pride parade in Jerusalem last week.Credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

“Meretz is still the leading party in this field, and will always be at the vanguard because for us it is genuine. It’s part of a wider political sensibility – not just toward the LGBTQ community, but also toward Arabs and women.”

The way I see it, conservatives focus on the LGBTQ cause because they see this as the front line of the progressive ‘steamroller’ and what they feel as some assault on human nature.

“A real steamroller,” Horowitz snorts. “Look, the most common curse in Israeli schools today is still ‘homo.’ People still suffer because they are LGBTQ. They are thrown out of their homes. They are physically assaulted and sometimes murdered. I deal with such cases. It happens every day. That’s the story. It’s good that we’re finally partners in government, that we can get things done, and they’re shouting from the other side. Not that they’re doing and we’re shouting.”

Birthday party invites

One of the achievements Horowitz is most proud of is the High Court of Justice ruling last July that same-sex couples and single men should be able to have children through a surrogate. Even though these equal rights were once again won through the courts and not through legislation, he is happy to take credit for it.

“I practically invited the High Court of Justice to give this ruling, because I said it’s not politically feasible to pass this [legislation] in the Knesset and the ministry is ready to fulfill any decision made by the court,” he notes.

What is your position on surrogacy?

“Given that the law in Israel has for many years allowed surrogacy, there should be equal access to surrogacy. That was the pretense for the petition to the High Court.”

Setting LGBTQ issues aside for a moment, what is your position on surrogacy itself?

“It has challenging aspects, but if one is strict about the process, and everything is done in an orderly fashion and exploitation is prevented, then surrogacy has its place. I believe this is the way we do it here in Israel. And gay couples have already received authorization from the Health Ministry committee for the carriage of embryos. I expect to be invited to birthday parties.”

For years, people have said there is no hope for legislation that will enshrine LGBTQ rights. Why not? If we put aside the ultra-Orthodox and the radical fringes of the religious Zionists, are there no partners on the right to help back such legislation?

“There are a lot of partners, as there are with other matters – civil issues, public transportation on Shabbat. If the Knesset held a secret ballot on these issues, there would be a large majority. There are people who are scared, but in my opinion they have nothing to be afraid of. Certainly not for Likud. That’s not where their voters are at.”

We have placed medications for voice change or plastic surgery for transgenders in the health insurance coverage

Nitzan Horowiz

Health Minister Nitzan Horowiz, right, with his partner Ido Ricklin.Credit: Hadas Parush

You mentioned earlier that Meretz was at the vanguard of promoting LGBTQ rights in the years when there was no consensus. Is it not a failure, then, that many members of the community don’t vote for you?

“There are other issues. Not everything is LGBTQ-related, and not all members of the LGBTQ community hold the same views. We have a large base of LGBTQ support in the party, but there are many who also vote for other parties. This is understandable. At the end of the day, though, there is no party that’s more committed to this than Meretz. It’s in our DNA. Other parties understand this and accept it, but we were and remain at the forefront.”

Horowitz has lived with his partner Ido Ricklin for 19 years. When I ask if they still go to parties or attend other events on Tel Aviv’s gay scene, he laughs. “I’m invited, and 20 or 30 years ago I would have gone for sure. But now I’m tired – who has the strength? By 10:30 at night we’re exhausted!” They chose not to have children, a decision that used to be the norm among gay men but today often requires an explanation.

What do you think about the crazy birth rates on the gay scene here?

“It’s the most Israeli thing. Children in Israel are sacred. People want children and lots of them, both lesbians and gay men – three or even four.”

Is it a social edict? Is it capitalism?

“There’s a strong family mentality in Israel. People are close to their parents, they meet them at least once a week. It isn’t like that everywhere.”

You’ve talked about hate crimes against the LGBTQ community, but the acceptance of the community here is greater than for other minorities. How do you explain that? Is it a liberal fig leaf?

“It may seem like this in Tel Aviv, but that isn’t the situation at all in many parts of Israel. Not just geographically speaking, but also from a social perspective – there is still very severe violence and hostility. We have yet to reach a situation where we can analyze why the LGBTQ community is more accepted than, say, Arabs. The fact that some members of the LGBTQ community already lead a ‘normal’ life, as it were, is thanks to a years-long battle. It’s only now that we’ve managed to reach a breakthrough in all sorts of archaic practices, such as blood donations.”

The LGBTQ community is not homogenous. It has many members who are very strong economically and socially – most of them, by the way, gay men. Then there are the women, many of whom are vulnerable, and the transgender community, many of whom are in a state of distress.

“Correct. We’re not in ‘pink heaven.’ We’ve now got all the Pride Month events: On the one hand, that’s wonderful; it’s really nice and fun, and it’s great progress. But on the other, it glosses over the things that aren’t as good – and, unfortunately, there are a lot of those. I’m here to fix this.

“We’ve done a lot of quite significant things for transgender people: We will expand the possibilities of gender [surgery] to more places in Israel – at the moment, it’s only available at Tel Hashomer [near Tel Aviv]. We have placed medications for voice change or plastic surgery in the health insurance coverage. We were laughed at and told, ‘What is this privilege?’ There’s just no awareness of the kind of suffering these people go through, and as soon as we enable these things they are life-saving.

“I’m not personally involved in what goes into the health insurance coverage. But there are people that I appointed, and I’m not ashamed to say that I appointed people who are open-minded and liberal – because that needs to be the attitude adopted by the health system.”

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