Thousands of teachers in Israel have signed a petition demanding that Education Minister Rafi Peretz be sacked for openly backing therapy aimed at converting gays to heterosexuality.
Peretz, a rabbi who leads the Union of Right-Wing Parties, sparked an uproar after telling Channel 12 in interview over the weekend that he supports conversion therapy and has been involved in it. His statement drew widespread criticism from across the political spectrum, protests and calls for him to be fired.
On Sunday, hundreds of people demonstrated against Peretz in downtown Tel Aviv, calling on him to resign.
“We won’t continue teaching as usual when the education minister expresses such positions,” read a petition by a group called Gay and Lesbian Teachers. “If the minister isn’t removed, we will call on teachers and schools to strike at the start of the school year.
“We will use all the legal means at our disposal to protest against his dangerous and offensive statements,” the teachers said.
As of Monday, the petition had reportedly garnered over 3,000 signatures. A second petition was signed by Tel Aviv’s 72 school principals.
In his Channel 12 interview, which aired on Saturday, Peretz said he thinks “it is possible” to convert people who have a same-sex “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.” Peretz added, “I have a very deep understanding of education” and had been involved in conversion therapy.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on Twitter Sunday that Peretz’s remarks on conversion therapy were unacceptable and “do not represent my government’s position.”
But the prime minster signaled no intention of firing Peretz as some members of the opposition demanded.
Another member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who is openly gay, said “sexual orientation does not require therapy nor conversion. Preconceived notions and ignorance require therapy and conversion.”
Peretz has since attempted to mitigate some of the public outrage at his comments. In a lengthy Facebook post Sunday night, he claimed his remarks were misunderstood and misrepresented by Channel 12.
He 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.”
Peretz went on to accuse his critics of making “cynical use” of the upcoming Knesset elections, and said the uproar over his remarks was indicative of the “struggle over the right to think differently.”
Hebrew-language media outlets reported that Peretz was set to meet with teachers from the LGBTQ community later on Monday.
Health officials say that conversion therapy is scientifically dubious and possibly even dangerous. 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 the practice 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 the 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.”