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Conversion Therapy in Israel and the World: A Comparative Look

February 2, 2017

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In Malta, "conversion therapy" for changing a person's sexual orientation has become illegal. The Ministry of Health in Israel has also condemned this phenomenon. So why are we still lagging behind in legislation?

# Lee Ilan

In the beginning of December, Malta became the first European country to ban conversion therapy – treatments pretending to change a person's sexual orientation. The law forbids not only the execution of such treatments, but also publicizing them or directing people to providers. Penalties in Malta are considerable: A person breaking the law will be given a heavy fine of $ 5,383 or five months in prison. This legislative initiative is in line with the trend in recent years of a worldwide change regarding conversion therapy. The change began in 2012 in the US when California prohibited forced conversion therapy for minors. Vermont, New Jersey, Washington, Oregon, Illinois and New York followed over the years 2013-2016. The legislative prohibition followed a sharp change in the attitude of the establishment, as well as the world of psychology and medicine, towards the phenomenon. The change in professional attitude reached Israel as well, when in November 2011 the Israel Psychological Association published a position paper expressing opposition to conversion therapy, and stating that it involves treatments with a very small chance for success, lacking scientific basis, which might cause the patient irreversible physical and emotional damage. This position was adopted by the Ministry of Health in 2014.

When it comes to legislation, however, we are still lagging behind. In 2016 the Criminal Code proposed bill (Amendment – Ban on Conversion Therapy for Minors, 2015) - which demanded imprisonment of up to a year for a person performing conversion therapy on a minor – was rejected. It was a private bill initiative by the Hod organization of advocacy for religious homosexuals, in cooperation with MK Yael German and the Yesh Atid party. In the meantime, not only does Israel avoid banning this phenomenon, but it turns out that conversion therapy institutions find it very welcoming for their purposed. For example, the JONAH organization, closed by court order after offering conversion therapy treatments in New Jersey, found a home in the State of Israel and is operating here under the name People Can Change. In 2014, the JONAH organization was ordered to pay significant compensation to four former patients, to whom the organization pretended to provide conversion therapy and who sued it for fraud and emotional distress. In addition to this organization, there is also Atzat Nefesh ("Psychological Advice"), an organization founded in 2001 that offers, among its services, treatment of what it terms "reverse inclinations".

According to data collected by the Hod organization, there are between 20-30 therapists in Israel who engage in conversion therapy, and 50 unauthorized providers. This means that nobody supervises these treatments. Why is that? In fact, Israeli law does not provide any supervision authority for counsellors who are not psychiatrists, psychologists or clinical social workers. The result: lack of enforcement by the Psychological Association or the Ministry of Health.

Conversion therapy treatments are offered in Israel particularly in the religious community, whose members are subject to significant pressure to avoid the homosexual way of life. The Atzat Nefesh organization, for example, pretends to offer its clients a complete change of sexual orientation, not only for the sake of adhering to the Biblical prohibition on homosexual intercourse, but in order to relieve the emptiness, promiscuity and lack of spirituality the organization attributes to the LGBTQ way of life. A study conducted by Hod, which included 291 men who experienced conversion therapy, painfully demonstrates the damage of these practices. It turns out that many of the patients reported that the treatment resulted in depression, self-hate, loss of libido and a crisis of faith, and that 57% of them eventually abandoned religious observance. Of the total number of patients, only 30 reported the treatment to be successful. 

Awareness of the damage caused by conversion therapy has been on the rise, along with significant revolutions in the field of LGBTQ rights, such as legislation allowing same-sex marriage in many western countries. It seems Israel is sending a contradictory double message when, on the one hand, it prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but, on the other hand, allows a parent or a cleric to send a child to treatment that denies his/her gender identity and might cause him/her long term damage. The law prohibiting conversion therapy in Malta is more comprehensive than the bill that failed to pass here, by banning the phenomenon and its support, and not only its implementation on minors, and by the simple fact that it has passed. We can only hope that Malta does not remain the exception.

*Lee Ilan is a student at the Multiculturalism and Diversity Clinic.