Amid calls for his ouster, Education Minister Rafi Peretz responded Sunday to widespread outrage prompted by his comments, aired a day earlier, suggesting that gay conversion therapy works and that he in the past sent pupils to undergo the procedure.
He claimed his remarks had been misunderstood and misrepresented, and specified that when “students contacted me and asked for guidance I referred them to professionals at their request and saw it was possible,” but “I did not say I support conversion therapy.”
In an interview broadcast by Channel 12 news on Saturday, Peretz had said he favors and thinks “it is possible” to convert people who have a same-sex “tendency.”
“I respect every person, whoever they are,” he said in the TV interview. “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 and Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who is Israel’s first openly gay minister.
“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 Saturday night. “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.”
Responding to the uproar in a lengthy Facebook post, Peretz claimed Sunday that his words had been distorted and taken out of context, accusing his critics of making “cynical use” of the upcoming Knesset elections and seeking to “make political gains at the expense of the LGBT community.”
“Since I entered politics I learned that there is freedom of speech for one sort of remarks, and freedom of incitement against those who describe a different view,” he wrote.
Peretz said that during the lengthy interview with Channel 12, he had sought to express a nuanced point of view regarding the LGBTQ community, and that the headline “did not match reality.”
He said he had expressed his educational vision of loving and respecting everyone, including LGBTQ people.
“When I was specifically asked about conversion therapy, I said from my own experience only that when students contacted me and asked for guidance I referred them to professionals at their request and saw it was possible. I did not say I support conversion therapy,” Peretz said.
“I believe that most of those who heard about the interview didn’t watch it. The responses distorted my words, using cheap populism that further deepens the rift in Israeli society, and I regret that,” he said.
“It isn’t my statement that they attack, but who and what I represent,” he charged. “There is a struggle over the right to think differently.”
Earlier in the day, Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz held a press briefing and attacked Peretz in front of a large pride flag, but unlike many other politicians avoided calling for his dismissal or resignation.
He called the remark a “severe perversion” and said Peretz “shouldn’t” have made it, but added, “I’m not dealing with the matter of his dismissal” when pressed whether he would join others, including members of his own party, who have called on Peretz to step down.
Gantz’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, did call on the prime minister to fire Peretz.
“Netanyahu, this is your government, these are your natural allies,” Lapid tweeted. “If they don’t represent your opinion then how did you appoint him as education minister in charge of educating our children?”
Condemnation for Peretz also came from right-wing politicians, including religious-Zionist leader Naftali Bennett, Peretz’s predecessor as education minister who is more liberal on religious matters.
“Israeli society is diverse and no one should be converting anyone else,” Bennett said in a statement. “We accept any person as they are. The remarks that were voiced do not represent the majority of the religious community, which disagrees with the obsessive war on LGBTs.”
As anger simmered Saturday over Peretz’s comments, the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, or Aguda, said it would hold a rally in Tel Aviv on Sunday calling for Netanyahu to fire Peretz from his cabinet, while professional associations warned that subjecting youths to conversion therapy could lead to depression and even suicide.
“It is unacceptable for Israeli children to be exposed to the homophobic poison spread by someone who pretends to be interested in education and values,” the Aguda said in a statement.
On Sunday, religious LGBTQ organizations launched a new series of videos introducing gay religious families. The series will consist of eight clips, each about a family that will tell its story. The first has been released, with English subtitles.
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 pseudo-scientific methods and the 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.
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.
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.