Peretz previously ignited controversy by claiming he had successfully carried out “gay conversion therapy” as an Orthodox rabbi. In an interview with Israel’s largest newspaper Friday, he was asked how he would have reacted to having a gay child.
“God bless, my kids grew up in a natural and healthy way,” Peretz, head of a right-wing party that is part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition caretaker government, told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. “They are building their households based on Jewish values.”
Peretz also described the “normal” Israeli family as one with “a man and a woman,” called for the annexation of the West Bank without granting voting rights to the Palestinians who live there and said he favored keeping out African asylum seekers because they “have their own certain mentality and their place is in their own country. We are the state of the Jews.”
Reaction was swift. Mayors and opposition leaders condemned Peretz; several called for his resignation. Gay members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, taunted Peretz with pictures of their own children.
“Look, Rabbi Rafi, this is what a ‘natural and healthy’ family looks like in a country in disarray that has let you be its education minister,” tweeted Labor-Gesher Knesset member Itzik Shmuli, according to the Haaretz newspaper.
Netanyahu has yet to comment.
The backlash was particularly fierce from teachers and families within the national educational system under the minister’s control. Parents of LGBTQ students called for a strike Sunday, the first morning back to school after the Israeli weekend. Some fashioned black arm bands for students.
Schools in more than a dozen cities and regional councils opted to devote the day’s first class period to discussions of equality and tolerance, according to media reports.
In the Tel Aviv-Jaffa system, teachers turned to a lesson plan about gay families written by a local city council member, Itai Pinkas, who accused Peretz of pandering to conservative voters in the run-up to the general election in March.
“The education minister crossed every line and he needs to be fired,” Pinkas told Yedioth Ahronoth on Sunday. “LGBTQs won’t be a punching bag for extremists in an election period or in any other period.”
Peretz’s comments come as Israeli political parties are jockeying for position in the weeks before the election, Israel’s third in less than a year. Last-minute alliances are forming and falling apart as factions seek advantage before they register their final lists with the Central Elections Committee on Wednesday.
This third round of campaigning, after the previous two votes ended in stalemates, is unfolding under the shadow of corruption indictments against Netanyahu. The prime minister has dismissed the investigation as a political “witch hunt” and requested parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
On Sunday, the official legal adviser to the Knesset ruled that Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, may not block the formation of a committee to consider the immunity request. Many predict that if it were held now, Netanyahu would lose a committee vote, which would allow the prosecution to begin. He has sought to stall the procedure.
It was during the run-up to the country’s second inconclusive election in September that Peretz endorsed the concept of changing a person’s sexual orientation through counseling and therapy. Gay conversion therapy is widely discredited by psychologists as ineffective and potentially harmful, but Peretz recalled working with a rabbinical student who told him he was gay.
“I think it is possible,” Peretz said in a televised interview a month after Netanyahu appointed him education minister. “I can tell you I have a very deep familiarity with this kind of education, and I have also done this.”
The backlash then, too, was immediate; one critic called Peretz the “minister of darkness.”
Netanyahu distanced himself at the time: “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.”