On a windy May evening, in the central West Bank outpost of Sde Boaz, LGBTQ activists, parents and community leaders gathered to talk about what religious communities can do to accept non-heteronormative youth.
They were joined at the parlor event by Rafi Ostroff, an Orthodox rabbi and youth educator who heads the Gush Etzion Religious Council.
Ostroff told the living room audience of several dozen that one’s sexual identity is not a matter of choice, but added that “since the lives of gays are very difficult, if there is a chance that someone is also attracted to the opposite sex, he should be encouraged to pursue such relationships.”
While such events — coined “Pesach Sheini” — have been taking place for the past several years, the messaging is still viewed as groundbreaking in nature after decades of stonewalling or outright antagonism toward the issue from leaders in the national religious community.
But in contrasting Ostroff’s relatively trailblazing remarks with comments on conversion therapy that Education Minister Rafi Peretz made recently in a Channel 12 interview, sparking a firestorm of criticism, the differences don’t immediately appear obvious.
Asked about his relationship with the LGBTQ community, the first thing Peretz said was that he “respect[s] every human being, regardless of who they are. 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, who leads the Union of Right-Wing Parties, then shared how he had responded when a student 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 continued. “I put the information before him and said, ‘Listen, at this point, I am leaving you. Now you decide.’”
Speaking to The Times of Israel on Monday, Ostroff acknowledged that both he and Peretz implied in their respective comments that a heterosexual identity is preferable to a homosexual one. However, he highlighted two mistakes he said the education minister made that explained the widespread furor over his remarks.
First, Ostroff said, Peretz failed to include a critical caveat to his story.
“He didn’t say the following sentence: ‘If after the young man does such an evaluation and discovers that he is in fact gay and will live as a gay man, I’ll love him to the same degree,'” Ostroff said. “This is a crucial addition, because without it, Peretz has not given legitimacy to that possible outcome.”
The Times of Israel reached out to Peretz via text message to ask how he would respond if a student returned to him after consulting with a mental health professional and concluding nevertheless that he was gay.
“I would respect his decision,” said the education minister, suggesting that sexual identity was a matter of choice, “and I certainly would not send him to conversion therapy as I definitely oppose invasive intervention.”
Peretz’s response touched on the second, more glaring mistake that, according to Ostroff, he had made in the original interview when asked if he believed in conversion therapy and answered in the affirmative.
While the education minister has since claimed his words were misconstrued and that he does not support the widely discredited practice, the interview transcript suggests a different story.
Asked, “Do you believe in conversion therapy? Do you believe that it’s possible to convert people who have such a tendency?” Peretz twice responded, “I think it is possible.” He then went on to say he had “a very deep understanding of education“ and had been involved in conversion therapy, though he did not say in what capacity.
In a clarification post on Sunday, a day after the interview aired, Peretz said he had been referring to students who contacted him for guidance, and whom he had “referred to professionals at their request and saw it was possible.”
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 their treatment of homosexuality as a mental illness.
Ostroff surmised that Peretz, at the time of the interview, was not fully aware of the loaded connotations of the term “conversion therapy,” and said that, as education minister, he should “learn how to formulate [his] message in a manner that can be accepted by the entire public, not just [his] own community.”
Notably, he maintained that the mistakes Peretz made were “not in the essence of his remarks, but in his formulation of them,” and said he did not feel that there was much of a gap between his approach and that of the minister.
“What Rafi Peretz said was entirely mainstream for religious Zionism,” said Ostroff, who maintained that he had only evolved his own “relatively more liberal” take by studying the issue and listening to the experiences of religious LGBTQ individuals.
Hadas Benayahu, the CEO of the Shoval organization for LGBTQ religious tolerance, was more cautious than Ostroff as to what constituted the mainstream view among the national religious. However, she was comfortable saying that “there are many voices that speak similarly to [Peretz] within the religious Zionist community today.”
Benayahu also acknowledged a growing group within the Orthodox community that repudiates conversion therapy entirely and is comfortable telling those who come out that they will accept them.
“This is what Rabbi Rafi didn’t say,” she noted.
LGBT politics and the religious right
But even if Peretz’s views on same-sex attraction are not beyond the pale for much of the religious Zionist community, they still have potentially significant political ramifications, especially in light of the looming national elections in September.
One former MK in Jewish Home (which Peretz leads and which is part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties amalgam) said that while most of its voters in the previous election in April agree with Peretz, it is still trying to attract supporters who may not identify with the stance the education minister expressed in his Channel 12 interview.
“We’re still trying to reach out to [Ayelet] Shaked supporters, and comments like that make it more difficult,” said the former lawmaker, who asked to remain anonymous because he is still active in the party, referring to the popular (and secular) former justice minister who is in talks with URWP about a possible merger.
Further complicating the picture, the only party that explicitly came out in support of Peretz’s remarks, the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, has so far held out on rejoining the URWP along with Jewish Home and National Union. “This means that those who would most likely support such comments may not even be running with us anyway,” said the former MK.
Even Peretz’s No. 2 in the URWP, Bezalel Smotrich (who leads the National Union), in speaking out in defense of the party chairman on Sunday at the height of the backlash against him avoided taking a position on the content of his remarks.
“I do not have to agree with every word of his [in order to stand by his side],” said Smotrich, who called himself a “proud homophobe” as recently as 2015 but would not be drawn out on whether he supported conversion therapy.
The former MK who spoke to The Times of Israel suggested that “being like [Naftali] Bennett was on this issue would not be a horrible idea for now.”
Bennett, Peretz’s predecessor, broke away from the Jewish Home late last year and formed the New Right party ahead of the previous election, in an attempt to cater to the more moderate religious Zionist public, and was among the first to criticize Peretz’s Channel 12 interview this week.
But back in 2015, in video footage that resurfaced on social media on Sunday, Bennett, who at the time was trying to reach out to a more conservative pool of voters, was still doing his best to avoid wading into the minefield issue.
Asked by a student what his opinion was on conversion therapy, Bennett replied vaguely, “Whatever you want to do, you should do. If you don’t want to, don’t do it.”
Unsatisfied, another student cut the then-Jewish Home leader off. “Are you in support of conversion therapy or not? It’s a simple question.”
“I have no idea. I don’t have a position! I don’t have a position! I didn’t sit the entire night and think [about this issue],” Bennett replied, throwing his hands up in the air in apparent exasperation.
Asked on Monday by The Times of Israel whether, had he been given the chance to redo the Channel 12 interview, he would have taken a page out of Bennett’s playbook and danced around the topic, Peretz did not respond.