The vast majority of the Israeli public does not know what gay conversion therapy is. At best, it is a misguided treatment that doesn’t work. At worst, it pushes people to try to change their orientation or sexual behavior in a way that leads the person to frustration, depression, and possibly suicide. And that’s why it’s illegal in many countries.
Saturday night’s statement by Education Minister Rafi Peretz that he supports conversion therapy and has even been involved in such treatments in the past has turned a huge spotlight on a hitherto largely obscure subject that all of a sudden seems to be threatening to overtake the agenda ahead of the elections.
Even if the uproar over conversion therapy dies down by the September 17 vote, Rabbi Peretz, who until recently was also relatively obscure, will still have become a central figure, precisely because of his controversial statements and the values that they represent.
While many initially reported that Peretz had made a grave blunder with his comments, undermining his position and his chance to head the Union of Right-Wing parties on election day, conversations with influential figures in the religious Zionist movement suggest the opposite: Peretz has only become more popular and stronger with his base.
The more liberal segments of the national-religious community have undergone a vast change in attitudes toward the LGBTQ community in recent years. But elsewhere in the community, many are still hesitant, suspicious, and fearful of the repercussions of accepting homosexuality — and they especially hate the attempt, they say, to silence those who speak of a “normal family.”
“On the street, we’re experiencing a violent takeover of the discourse on this subject, and Peretz fought back in the opposite direction, and that’s fine,” said one prominent activist.
The narrative in more conservative Orthodox circles remains religious and national, and it does not matter if one is a student at a far-right yeshiva in Jerusalem, or prays once or twice a week at a synagogue in central Israel: Members of the LGBTQ community are considered sinners, and therefore Peretz’s comments didn’t elicit too much resentment among his supporters; rather, he wins empathy for coming under attack.
“What do they want from him?” asked one candidate on the slate of Peretz’s Jewish Home party, one of the constituent factions in the Union of Right-Wing Parties. “All psychological treatment is acceptable, but [conversion therapy] is forbidden?”
The wall-to-wall condemnation in secular circles — from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman to Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid, along with the Sunday demonstrations against Peretz — rallied support in much of the religious camp around the education minister.
Activists in Peretz’s Jewish Home party within URWP recalled the rallying cry by left-wing activists against the settlement of Beit El decades ago. “Whoever settles in Beit El will prevent a Palestinian state,” warned the ads from left-wing NGO Peace Now. Many right-wingers, the activists recalled, went to live in Beit El precisely to prevent that from happening.
“This is a parallel universe,” one religious Zionist activist explained on Sunday. “The education minister can look like a joke among the demonstrators, but in our world he came out looking like a man.”
This is why there have been no calls to oust Peretz by members of the Union of Right-Wing Parties; anyone who took to the airwaves, tweeted or appeared on television, protected him.
Naftali Bennett, a more liberal religious political leader who heads the rival New Right, and who is trying to attract LGBTQ voters to his party, published a post decrying the “obsessive war” against the LGBT community.
But Bennett, who would need to siphon votes away from Peretz’s URWP to succeed in the election, refrained from so much as mentioning the education minister by name.
Meantime, Bennett’s longtime ally Ayelet Shaked, who has said she plans to run again in the coming elections, but has not declared her platform for doing so, has remained conspicuously silent on the subject.
Figures on the right have been talking of the prospect of a broad union involving URWP, the secular Shaked, and maybe even Bennett. With the added complication of Peretz’s attitudes on LGBTQ issues, it remains to be seen whether they can still set aside their differences and run together come September.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report, which was adapted from a version published on Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.