Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Sunday came to the defense of his fellow Union of Right-Wing Parties lawmaker Rafi Peretz, who sparked an uproar after voicing support for gay conversion therapy.
Peretz, who heads URWP and is education minister, said Saturday in a television interview that he believes it is possible to convert homosexuals through therapy and that he has personal experience with the practice.
The comments drew calls for his resignation from opposition lawmakers and gay rights groups, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appointed Peretz as education minister last month, rebuked him.
Smotrich, who did not publicly comment on the Peretz interview for nearly 24 hours, and would not answer questions as to his own opinion of conversion therapy, said the criticism of his political partner was tantamount to a “lynching.”
“Since not expressing my personal opinion is being interpreted as abandoning Rabbi Rafi to the violent media lynching that he has endured since yesterday, from this moment on I am standing by his side,” Smotrich tweeted.
He said that while he did not agree with every word Peretz said — without elaborating — he accused critics of the education minister of hypocrisy.
“I’m simply unready to accept a reality in which ‘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,” Smotrich said.
“You waited for this and now you can aim the barrels of your rifles at me. Come on, start firing,” he added.
Smotrich has his own history of controversial remarks, including saying last month that Israel should be ruled by Jewish law.
He has has also boasted of being a “proud homophobe,” and in 2006, before entering politics, organized a counter-protest to the Jerusalem gay pride, with activists marching through the city with goats and donkeys to spotlight what they called the “deviant acts” of same-sex relationships.
Smotrich’s comments came after Peretz pushed back against the criticism elicited by his remarks, saying they had been misunderstood and misrepresented.
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 that saw him make the comments on conversion therapy, he had sought to express a nuanced point of view regarding the LGBTQ community, and that the headline “did not match reality.”
“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.
The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, or Aguda, held 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.
Gay conversion therapies, also called reparative therapies, have been strongly discouraged in Israel, the US, where many jurisdictions have banned the practice, 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.
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 “like a second Holocaust.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.