“I grew up in a traditional home that believed in God … But not once did we really talk about who God is.” This is the story of Tzachi, a young Israeli man who left the “single-sex life for a new life with God,” according to a Hebrew-language video ad published on YouTube by an evangelical organization focused on Israel.
The video, titled "From Same-Sex Life, To a New Life With God," has had over 101,000 views since it was posted by the account, called “Hear O Israel”, just over a week ago – an impressive number considering the account has only 21,000 followers on YouTube. If we compare the Hebrew video of Tzachi’s story to the English version, from the account of Israel Media Ministries, the evangelical organization that is behind the campaign – we can see that even though the English version was posted four days earlier, it has only a mere 589 views. The account in English also has less followers - only 5,170 – but that is not enough to explain the big difference in the view count of the two videos.
The Hebrew clip’s popularity has a simple explanation: It was distributed as a paid ad. In other words, YouTube is profiting from ads funded by evangelicals aimed at proselytizing Israeli Jews and spreading the word of Jesus in Israel. The videos suggest that moving closer to Jesus can also be a “wonder drug” in the form of instant conversion therapy for members of the LGBT community.
Some social networks have decided to ban content deemed hateful against the LGBT community, with TikTok going as far banning videos promoting conversation therapy. However, the definition of what constitutes homophobic content, for example, is illusive on YouTube and it falls short of banning such content directly. Instead it says ads will not be permitted on videos “that incites hatred against, promotes discrimination, disparages, or humiliates an individual or group of people.” It also lists "sexual orientation" as a protected group.
Israel also bans proselytizing and last year an evangelical television channel called God TV was taken down for violating Israel’s media law by using television for missionary ends.
‘Free from the same-sex lifestyle’
On YouTube, the aforementioned channel seems to be publishing both evangelizing and anti-LGBTQ content.
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“Wow! Watch this Israeli man share how he was set free from the same-sex lifestyle through an encounter with Jesus. Everything is possible with God!” is how the text accompanying the video ad puts it.
“I grew up with a very deep sense of confusion because from a young age I felt that I wasn’t really like the others. On one hand I felt like a completely normal child who liked sports and liked to play with everyone. On the other hand, I also like gymnastics and at an older age I started a career as a professional dancer,” he says in the clip in Hebrew.
“Suddenly I was in a very, very accepting environment, very, very embracing towards all sorts of things that were not normal. All sorts of alternatives or liberal things - from smoking drugs to extreme sexual behavior,” Tzachi says, telling of how he moved to Tel Aviv and began to have same-sex relationships.
According to the video, this “extreme” lifestyle came to an end when Jesus was revealed to Tzachi one day when he was sober. He drew closer to God, the video says, and thus stopped all his old relationships and began his personal journey to Jesus.
As Haaretz has reported before, YouTube has had no problem with making a profit from ads that promise miracles in Hebrew – even though this is banned by their policies. But the not very subtle promotion of evangelism, which promises not only to bring you closer to Jesus but also a sort of conversion therapy, in Hebrew is new – at least as far as is known to this reporter.
Google has not hesitated to accept ads that have come from channels that promote figures who push out such hateful talking points in Israel - for example, the convicted sexual offender rabbi Eliezer Berland. When Haaretz asked YouTube’s parent company Google in August 2019 about the ads, YouTube officials said “the use of the clip as a paid ad has been ended.” Google said at the time that it had a clear policy for approving ads “and we enforce it firmly.”
Five days later, another video was uploaded to the disgraced rabbi’s channel. In February 2020, this reporter noticed that this clip was also distributed as an ad on YouTube and it had received over 100,000 views.
YouTube received a request for comment about Hear O Israel's videos on Sunday. After trying to delay the story’s publication by asking for more time to respond on Monday, the company finally responded on Tuesday, after this story was published in Hebrew, with a spokesman for YouTube saying: “We have a strict policy that protects people from deceptive, inappropriate or harmful ads, and when we see a violation of our policy, we take immediate action, as happened in this case. In 2019, we took down 2.7 billion ads that didn’t meet our terms of service – over 10 million ads a day.”