Walking back comments that caused an uproar over the weekend, Education Minister Rafi Peretz on Tuesday said he had “never” recommended so-called conversion therapy to homosexuals, stressing that he “utterly” opposes the “wrong and grave” practice.
Peretz, a career educator, said during a TV interview that aired Saturday that he had referred students to the treatment and saw it was “possible” to change their sexual orientation. His remarks to Channel 12 drew widespread criticism from the public and lawmakers across the political spectrum, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. LGBTQ rights activists, educators, lawmakers and others demanded his immediate resignation.
But in a letter sent to teachers and principals on Tuesday, Peretz asserted that he had said nothing of the sort.
“When asked about the subject [in the interview] I said that during my many years as an educator I was approached on several occasions on issues of sexual orientation. I always listened attentively to the difficulties brought before me and sometimes suggested consultations with professionals,” Peretz said.
“However I never turned a cold shoulder or suggested conversion therapy, which I oppose utterly,” wrote the education minister.
“I know conversion therapy is wrong and grave,” he continued. “This is my unequivocal position. I understand that this is an invasive treatment that is unsuitable for the human psyche, causes those treated more suffering than relief, and can even put peoples lives in peril and cause suicidal tendencies.
“I never thought, and certainly did not say, that such therapy should be introduced into the education system,” wrote Peretz.
However, he added, “It is the right of those with same-sex orientation to seek and find an attentive ear and help from professionals in a respectful and loving manner, and that is what I meant in the interview.”
In his initial clarification of the comments issued Saturday night, Peretz did not deny referring students to conversion therapy, but said his remarks had been misunderstood and misrepresented. When “students contacted me and asked for guidance, I referred them to professionals at their request and saw it was possible,” Peretz said, but “I did not say I support conversion therapy.”
He explained in that initial clarification that he had “met with students who felt terribly distressed over their sexual orientation and chose to turn to professionals to change their orientation. What I said in the interview was from my personal acquaintance with similar cases.”
Netanyahu was quick to distance himself from Peretz’s comments, saying the statements were “unacceptable to me and do not reflect the position of the government under my leadership.”
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 and warned that “support for conversion therapy represents a concrete threat to students from all walks of life in Israeli society.”
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 is pseudo-scientific methods, and its treatment of homosexuality as a mental illness.
Though discouraged by the Health Ministry, 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 the Health Ministry adopted in late 2014.
In Tuesday’s letter, Peretz said he would never decide for students how they should act, and said they should take steps only after hearing “the myriad possibilities and opinions.”
Coming to Peretz’s defense Sunday, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, his No. 2 in the Union of Right-Wing Parties, said the criticism of his political partner was tantamount to a “lynching.”
Though Smotrich did not give his personal opinion on conversion therapy and said he did not agree with everything Peretz had said, he argued that “proponents of free speech and liberalism again prove they are mainly thought dictators who spray bullets at the heart of whoever dares express something that is out of line with the ruling discourse.”
Peretz, head of the national religious Jewish Home party in the URWP alliance, 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.
Earlier this month, Peretz came under fire for saying intermarriage among Diaspora Jews was “like a second Holocaust,” drawing condemnations.
On Tuesday, he said that description “probably was not proper,” adding that he did not mean to offend Diaspora Jewry with those remarks.
AP contributed to this report.