LGBTQ rights activists, educators, lawmakers and others demanded the resignation of Education Minister Rafi Peretz Saturday night, after he came out as a proponent of gay conversion therapy in an interview.
The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, or Aguda, said it would hold a rally in Tel Aviv Sunday calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire Peretz from his cabinet, and professional associations warned that subjecting youths to conversion therapy could lead to depression and even suicide, as anger built Saturday over Peretz’s comments.
“It cannot be that Israeli children will be exposed the homophobic poison spread by someone who pretends to be interested in education and values,” the Aguda said in a statement Saturday.
In an interview with Channel 12 news, Peretz said he favors and thinks “it is possible” to convert people who who have a homosexual “tendency.”
“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.
His statements were roundly condemned by lawmakers, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who is Israel’s first openly gay minister, and a chorus of opposition lawmakers.
“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.”
In an open letter to Peretz Saturday, a group of gay and lesbian educators and school support staff said they were “angered and shocked” by his comments.
“Support for conversion therapy represents a concrete threat to students from all walks of life in Israeli society. We call on the education minister to retract his comments, apologize and prove, through budgeting and pedagogy, that he is indeed suitable to receive a central and trusted role in the education of our children,” read the letter, which was published by the Ynet news website.
If he does not walk back the comments, the group said, it would use “all legal measures at its disposal to protest the dangerous and harmful statements.”
Gay conversion therapies, also called reparative therapies, have been strongly discouraged in Israel, the US and elsewhere with major health organizations pointing to what they term its pseudo-scientific methods, and its treatment of homosexuality as a mental illness.
But it remains legal in Israel, and is still accepted in some conservative and Orthodox circles. An estimated 20 to 30 licensed psychologists and social workers and 50 non-licensed therapists practice some form of conversion therapy in Israel, Rabbi Ron Yosef of the Orthodox gay organization Hod told the Associated Press in 2016.
Leading medical organizations in the US say there is no proof sexual orientation change efforts are effective, and that therapy can reinforce self-hatred, depression and self-harm.
The Israel Psychological Association reached similar conclusions in a 2011 position paper, which Israel’s Health Ministry adopted in late 2014. But the Association also endorsed a claim practitioners make, that “political correctness” likely prevents the funding and publication of studies examining the therapy’s potential effectiveness.
Though outlawed in some parts of the world, the practice remains legal in Israel.
Responding to his remarks, the Israel Psychological Association sent a letter to Peretz Saturday night saying his words showed “a total deviation from the mental and social reality related to the integration and acceptance of sexual orientation during adolescence,” according to the Haaretz newspaper.
Dr. Zvi Fishel, the head of the Israel Psychiatric Association, said that it was “shameful and worrisome” that Israel would have an education minister with such views.
“The therapies … constitute a danger and cause serious damage to the mental health of the patient, giving them feelings of failure that can lead to suicide,” he said, according to Walla news. “The education minister, through his unfortunate statements, is endangering the lives of many.”
In the interview, Peretz said he himself had conducted the therapy on gay youths and had recommended it to others, though he later indicated in a clarification thay he would not necessarily do so in schools as part of his role as education minister.
“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 some two hours after his original remarks sparked a harsh backlash.
The Aguda rejected his clarification in a statement and called for the ministry to be “converted from darkness to light.”
It said it would hold a rally outside the Kiryat Memshala government compound in central Tel Aviv on Sunday at 7 p.m.
The Association of Israeli Gay Fathers also urged the government to appoint someone else as education minister, “who will represent Israeli society and respect the whole population.”
Blue and White MK Yael German, who served as health minister when the ministry came out against conversion therapy in 2014, quipped that Peretz “‘should undergo conversion to the 21st century.”
Peretz, head of the national religious Jewish Home party, was appointed education minister last month by Netanyahu’s caretaker government. In 1992, Peretz founded the Atzmona pre-military academy, in a settlement in the Gaza Strip, which became known for developing future leaders in the socially conservative national religious camp.
A well known figure among nationalist ultra-Orthodox Israelis, he served as the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces from 2010 to 2016.
Last week, he came under fire for saying intermarriage was a “second Holocaust.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.