JERUSALEM — Israel’s newly appointed education minister has ignited an angry backlash after saying in a televised interview broadcast Saturday that he believes it is possible to perform conversion therapy on gay men and lesbians to change their sexual orientation.
Rabbi Rafi Peretz, head of the far-right, ultranationalist Jewish Home Party, also told Channel 12 News that he had personally carried out such treatments in the past, counseling young religious students who spoke to him about being gay.
“I think it is possible. I can tell you I have a very deep familiarity with this kind of education, and I have also done this,” the minister said when asked whether he thought people could change their orientations.
Peretz, a former chief military rabbi, described counseling one student, saying: “I hugged him first, then uttered very warm words. I told him that we needed to think about this, learn about this, observe this. The objective is for him first of all to know himself, and then I can give him the data.”
Peretz became education minister last month as part of a coalition deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has engaged in complex political maneuvering to maintain his interim government as Israel heads toward its second general election this year, scheduled for Sept. 17.
Peretz’s comments could play a pivotal role in election campaigning, potentially hurting Netanyahu’s reelection chances. Leaders of several rival parties said Sunday that a government expressing such extreme views was dragging the country back into the Dark Ages.
Netanyahu was quick to distance himself from Peretz’s comments, saying in a statement that “the education minister’s remarks regarding the gay community are not acceptable to me and do not reflect the position of the government under my leadership.”
Peretz also said in the interview that he believes Israel should annex the entire West Bank but under no circumstances allow the more than 2 million Palestinians living there the right to vote.
“Israel should have full sovereignty in the West Bank,” he said. “We will take care of [the Palestinians’] needs and make sure it is good for them . . . but of course, they would not be able to vote.”
Members of Israel’s LGBT community said they would hold a protest Sunday evening to decry Peretz’s comments and call for his resignation.
“There is only one adequate response to such dark statements by the minister of education and that is to fire him immediately,” the National Association of LGBT in Israel said in a statement. “It is imperative to prevent Israeli girls and boys from exposure to the homophobic poison disseminated by one who is presumed to be involved with education and values.”
Israeli radio stations on Sunday interviewed people who had been subjected to such conversion attempts.
“You are told to punish yourself for thinking about boys, and it brings you to a very low point,” Shai Bramson, who said he was treated for three years as a teenager, told Israel’s Army Radio. “You are told that there is no hope for you unless you change this identity.”
Zvi Fishel, chairman of the Israel Psychiatric Association, said Peretz’s comments were “disgraceful and disturbing.”
“The Israel Medical Association, the Israel Psychiatric Association and many other medical associations in Israel and around the world have determined there is no treatment that can replace a person’s sexual orientation,” he said in a statement. “Conversion treatments that purport to change sexual orientation, not only have been scientifically proved useless, [they] pose a danger, and cause serious harm to the patient’s psyche, a sense of failure that may even lead to suicide.”
Nitzan Horowitz, head of the left-wing Meretz Party, himself openly gay, called Peretz irresponsible and said his statements were very dangerous.
“You are not a minister of education, but a minister of darkness, Horowitz said. “You are not worthy of being responsible for the future of our children. You must be removed from being minister of education to a position where you will cause less damage.”
In an attempt to clarify his remarks, Peretz released a statement saying he didn’t mean it was necessary to send children to conversion therapy.
“In my years as an educator, I have met with students who were in terrible distress with regard to their sexual orientation and decided to request professional help to change,” he said. “The school system under my leadership will continue to accept all of the boys and girls in Israel, regardless of their sexual orientation.”
Last week, Peretz also caused a stir when it was reported that during a cabinet meeting he had likened the rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the United States to “a second Holocaust.”