Analysis

Gay Conversion Controversy Reveals Seismic Shift in Israeli Politics

Education Minister Rafi Peretz’s series of gaffes have embarrassed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and shown that his alliance with the ultra-religious is crumbling

Netanyahu in the Negev, 2016
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The speed at which the fault lines of Israeli politics have moved from the classic left-right argument over the future of the West Bank and conflict with the Palestinians to matters of religion and liberalism has taken everyone by surprise.

Even Avigdor Lieberman, who prevented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from forming a new governing coalition less than two months ago, using the law for drafting yeshiva students as his wedge issue, could not have dreamed that the upcoming election campaign would be consumed by matters such as gay conversion therapy.

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But then, no one could have foreseen how much of a political liability Rafi Peretz would become once Netanyahu appointed him as education minister last month.

In trying to take down the prime minister, Lieberman chose to target Netanyahu’s alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, whom he likes to call Likud’s “natural partners.” But those parties chose to lower their profiles and not give Lieberman additional ammunition.

Into the vacuum charged the much less experienced leaders from the Union of Right-Wing Parties, that unkosher amalgam of religious Zionist and Kahanist parties merged at Netanyahu’s behest before the April election.

First it was Bezalel Smotrich with his Jerusalem Day speech on the future “halakhic” (Jewish religious law) state he envisages, eliciting a terse statement from Netanyahu that “Israel will not be a halakhic state.”

Now it’s Peretz, a political neophyte who has caused Netanyahu a headache by saying in a televised interview that he favors cruel and useless conversion therapy for minors who are unsure of their sexuality, and that as an educator he has successfully performed it.

The new education minister is proving an inexhaustible source of embarrassment for Netanyahu, who was quick to distance himself and his government from Peretz’s latest remarks.

Interestingly, the prime minister had nothing to say about something else Peretz opined in that interview: That he wants to annex all of the West Bank, without giving the millions of Palestinians living there political rights, and has absolutely no problem with the resulting apartheid situation.

Education Minister Rafi Peretz celebrating after his Union of Right-Wing Parties made it into the Knesset in April 2019.
Ilan Assayag

Neither did Netanyahu have anything to say last week after it was revealed that, in his first cabinet meeting, Peretz had called the assimilation of Jews around the world, and especially in the United States, “a second Holocaust.”

For decades, the Israeli center-left has been trying to break up the right wing-religious coalition on issues of religion and state. Without success. Despite polls repeatedly showing that a large majority of Israelis — including a big proportion of right-wingers — is against religious coercion and would like to see an end to the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox establishment over wide swaths of public life and legislation, parties like Meretz, Shinui and Yesh Atid (and progressive lobby groups like the Israel Religious Action Center) failed to make any headway outside their political base.

Now it’s the right wing itself that is doing the work.

The ultra-nationalist Lieberman — for years a political partner to the Haredim — may have sparked it as part of his strategy to get rid of his nemesis Netanyahu. But the much more profound shift is taking place courtesy of the tectonic split within the dati leumi (religious Zionist) community.

Externally, the soft-spoken and perpetually smiling Peretz seems to represent the more moderate wing. The former chief military rabbi, who can never have a conversation without reminding everyone that he was a helicopter pilot, first came to the attention of most Israelis in the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, when he forbade his students in the pre-military academy at Atzmona from obstructing their eviction. Instead, he led them dancing out of the beit midrash together with the soldiers who had arrived to remove them from their settlement. It was a scene that evoked Israeli and Jewish unity.

But Peretz is an acolyte of Rabbi Tzvi Tau, the spiritual leader of the Haredi-nationalist stream, who in recent years has espoused a more radical attitude toward contemporary Israeli society. And now, as education minister, Peretz’s true views are finally being scrutinized.

We know what he thinks about liberal Diaspora Jews (they’re dead to him); Palestinians (he doesn’t even pretend they deserve any rights); women (shouldn’t lead a political party); and, of course, gay people.

And it’s the LGBTQ issue that is proving the most toxic. Because, on this, there is a fundamental difference within the religious Zionist community at large. The bourgeois religious majority may not be marching on Pride parades, but they have belatedly made their peace with the fact that some of their sons and daughters are attracted to their own sex. This infuriates Tau, who has called on his followers to “take to the streets, protest, demonstrate and [carry out] civil disobedience … because it subverts the foundations of the state, of our very existence.”

He accuses moderate rabbis of remaining silent for fear of “shaming,” but his real fear is that he has lost most modern Orthodox Jews.

What Tau doesn’t realize is that they are no longer part of the same community. The majority not only disagree with him on LGBTQ acceptance, but see nothing wrong with women serving in the military or in senior public posts.

That deepening rift, dividing Haredi nationalists from modern Orthodox Jews, has both long-term sociological effects and immediate political implications.

Netanyahu’s coalition is crumbling precisely because he has succeeded in taking the Palestinian issue off the table. Fewer right wingers, both secular and modern Orthodox, fear for the future of the settlements and Israeli control over the West Bank. Without the fear of another Oslo agreement or disengagement to hold them together, they are freer to object to the alliance with the ultra religious that has kept the Netanyahu government in power for so long.