In comments that aired Saturday, new Education Minister Rafi Peretz said he supports conversion therapy for gay youth and claimed to have personal experience carrying out the practice.
The comments from Peretz, a former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces and the leader of the national religious Jewish Home party, sparked an uproar from political opponents and led to rebukes from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Justice Minister Amir Ohana, the country’s first openly gay minister.
Asked in an interview with Channel 12 news if he favored and believed it was possible to convert people who have a homosexual “tendency,” Peretz said: “I think it is possible.”
“I respect every person, whoever they are,” he said. “As a rabbi in Israel, I admit our Bible says other things [about homosexuality]. But this doesn’t mean I’m giving them grades.”
But he added, “I have a very deep understanding of education” and had been involved in conversion therapy.
The statements by Peretz, who also said in the inteview that he hoped to remain minister of education for a decade, were roundly condemned by lawmakers, and he received a swift rebuke from Netanyahu.
“The remarks by the education minister regarding the gay community are unacceptable to me and do not reflect the position of the government under my leadership,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “I spoke this evening with Rabbi Rafi Peretz, who made it clear that the Israeli education system will continue to accept all of Israel’s children… regardless of their sexual orientation.”
During the interview, Peretz shared how he responded to a student who confided in him that he was gay.
“First of all I hugged him and told him very warm things. I said to him: ‘Come, let us think, let us learn, let us contemplate.’… First he should get to know himself well and then decide,” Peretz explained. “I put the information before him and said ‘Listen, at this point, I am leaving you. Now you decide.'”
He did not say what information he was referring to.
Peretz said he would “not touch” his ministry’s funding of the Israel Gay Youth group. But when asked whether he would allow its representatives to continue to speak at schools throughout the country, Peretz said that he wanted to study their “messaging” before making a decision.
The minister, who earlier this week touched off outrage when he said that the rate of intermarriage among US Jews was “like a second Holocaust,” released a clarification statement two hours after the interview aired, stressing that he had not said anyone should send their child to conversion therapy.
“During my years as an educator, I met with students who felt terribly distressed over their sexual orientation and chose to turn to professionals to change their [sexual] orientation. What I said in the interview was from my personal acquaintance with similar cases,” he said, adding that his ministry would continue accepting every Israeli child, no matter who they are.
Ohana, the justice minister, said the clarification did not go far enough, warning that lives were at risk over Peretz’s comments.
“Serious psychiatric researchers have united around the stance that not only is there no need to ‘convert’ someone’s sexual orientation, [the process] is harmful and could cause youths pain and suffering to the point of suicide,” he said in a statement. “Education minister, the youth of the State of Israel including, yes, those from the national-religious community, are looking to you. LGBTQ youths take their own lives at a rate of three times the population as a whole.”
The comments also ignited angry denunciations from LGBTQ activists and politicians, some of whom called for his resignation.
“You’re not minister of education, you’re minister of darkness,” tweeted Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz, who is gay. “These are people’s lives,” added the left-wing politician, who pointed out that conversion therapy can lead LGBTQ youth to suicide. Horowitz called for Peretz to quit.
Labor leader Amir Peretz said in a statement that the education minister’s comments had been “neither humane nor Jewish.”
Also, Labor’s Itzik Shmuli, himself openly homosexual, said “No conversion therapy can cure such backwards opinions” and advised parents to “keep a close eye on what is being done at preschools and schools.”
Israel Democratic Party head Ehud Barak wondered on Twitter whether the country had returned to the “medieval age.”
Blue and White chief Benny Gantz said Peretz’s comments were “illegitimate” and said the right of every person to live as they see fit was “a cornerstone of Israeli democracy.”
Blue and White No.2 Yair Lapid tweeted that “until Rafi Peretz undergoes conversion treatment from his dark and insane opinions, he cannot continue serving as education minister.”
From the right-wing side of the political spectrum, but still outside the government, Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer, who was the first member of his party to attend a Pride parade earlier this year, tweeted that “The government long ago went off the rails.”
Ohad Hizki, the director of the Aguda – Israel’s LGBTQ Task Force, called on Peretz to resign. “It is forbidden for Israeli children to be exposed to the poison that is being disseminated by those who pretend to engage in education and values,” he said in a statement.
Also in the interview Peretz said that under his watch the Education Ministry would place a greater emphasis on ensuring Israeli youth know their heritage. “When they learn the Bible and identify with this people, its figures and its moral path, they’ll want to be more loyal and better serve the nation,” he said.
And he declared his support for annexing the entire West Bank, without giving Palestinians the right to vote. Peretz assured that the government would “care for all of the needs” of those non-citizens, but that they simply would not be allowed to make “political decisions.”
Asked if this was not “apartheid,” Peretz cited the “very complex reality” and said “We will need to find the solutions: Where the sovereignty is, what it is enacted upon — the people, the land.”
Reacting to those comments, Hadash-Ta’al MK Aida Touma-Sliman said, “The withdrawal of democratic values necessarily results in a withdrawal of civil rights.”