Update, September 9, 2019: Since its original publication this story has been shown to have been false, with Channel 13’s reporter apologizing for citing the quotes below outside their original context. A newer, more accurate version can be found here.
In a report Wednesday night, Channel 13 news aired controversial excerpts from lessons at a premilitary academy that Education Minister Rafi Peretz founded and led until he became the head of the Jewish Home party earlier this year.
The report said hundreds of videos from lessons at the Otzem Pre-Military Torah Academy were taken offline shortly after Peretz entered politics. The lessons, it said, encouraged a fear of secularism and called for converting the secular to a religious lifestyle.
During one lesson, Peretz himself said: “I’m telling you we are in the middle of gigantic steps, gigantic steps toward the return of prophecy to Israel…. Instead of universities, in that period [in the past] there were schools of prophecy. We will slowly return to that.”
Peretz, head of the national religious Jewish Home party, was appointed education minister in June by Netanyahu’s caretaker government. In 1992, Peretz founded the academy, originally located 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.
While’s Peretz’s lessons were more moderate, other rabbis took a militant tone.
One academy educator recorded making numerous derogatory statements against secular Israelis was Rabbi Asaf Namburg, described as a senior figure at the academy and also head of the Nave high school yeshiva.
Namburg referred to secular Jews as “wicked” and told students to stay away from them.
“‘Let each live by his own faith. What, you’re not pluralistic?’ Since when?! Where does that insane sentence come from? There is no such sentence anywhere, except in the books of [the progressive political party] Meretz, ‘Let each live by his own faith!'”
He rejected association with secular Israelis, saying: “Where did you hear you can bring the wicked closer [to the Torah]? To give them legitimacy? Their places of entertainment are wicked places where women and men mix.”
At one point Namburg even urged students at the school, which officially aims to prepare students for army service, to stay away from the military so as not to be tainted by the secularism they may encounter there.
“I won’t go to the army if I know that [by going there] I oppose the fear of God. Is it better to come out secular? To blaspheme against God and rebel against him? To be wimps? To lose a tradition of 2000 years? To be nothing, so long as we have an army?”
Namburg also spoke out against the military’s purported feebleness.
“We are feeble, we are weak. In Iraq, Saudi Arabia do they fight like this? They bomb villages and mosques one after the other. Only here, before you walk in you knock on the door to ask if its convenient for me to fire a bullet behind their knee.”
Namburg also compared Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion to Hellenistic king Antiochus IV, of Hanukkah infamy, and expressed outrage that his pictures were hung up at schools.
Responding to the report, Otzem said it teaches its students a unifying and conciliatory approach, as well as “loyalty to the country in every area of life.”
It added: “The statements were made as part of a legitimate discourse at the school and we regret that the content of the lessons was presented without context. Sifting for one comment or another is part of an ongoing campaign by the radical left against the world of premilitary academies and the world of the Torah.”
Peretz himself declined to comment, Channel 13 reported on Wednesday. On Thursday, he said the clips had been taken out of context and were being used in a campaign against Judaism and its values. “Our academy teaches the love of Israel,” he said, and the same approach would be instituted in Israel’s schools.
The notion that the academy sought to deter students from IDF service was false and foul, he said, noting that 100% of graduates serve in the IDF, 85% of them in combat units, and that 13 graduates had lost their lives in the IDF. “Would you say of them that they were educated not to serve in the IDF?”
It’s not the first time that Peretz’s views have caused controversy since he was appointed education minister.
In comments that aired in July, Peretz said he supports conversion therapy for gay youth and claimed to have personal experience carrying out the practice.
After a widespread outcry, he walked back his support for the practice, saying that he knows conversion therapy “is wrong and grave.”
He also came under fire for saying intermarriage was “like a second Holocaust.”
His political partner Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich has also recently caused controversy, drawing the ire of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by suggesting Israel should be governed by religious law.