Israel's Education Minister: Gay Conversion Therapy 'Possible,' Palestinians 'Shouldn't Vote'

Netanyahu calls remarks 'unacceptable,' says Israel's schools will accept all students regardless of sexual orientation

Rafi Peretz speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

Israel's new education minister Rafi Peretz said in an interview Saturday that it is "possible" to perform conversion therapy, claiming he has done so in the past.

Speaking to Dana Weiss on Channel 12 News, Peretz, of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, was asked if he believed that people "who have such a tendency can be converted."

"I think it's possible," Peretz replied. "I can tell you I have a very deep knowledge of education and I did it."

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When asked how he advised a student who told him about their sexual inclinations Peretz said: "First of all, I hugged them and said very warm things, let's think, learn and look at it."

When asked about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Peretz said he wants to “extend Israeli sovereignty to all of Judea and Samaria,” using to biblical name of the West Bank. He vowed to secure Palestinians’ rights, but said “they won’t have a right to vote.”

Asked whether this does not constitute apartheid, Peretz didn’t rule out the option that it is.

“We live in a very complex reality in Israeli society and in the State of Israel, and we’ll have to find the solutions,” he added. “Where sovereignty will be, whether it applies on people or on land.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Peretz’s remarks “are unacceptable and do not reflect my government’s position.” He added in a statement he had spoken to Peretz after the interview was aired, and the latter “clarified his remarks and emphasized that the Israeli school system will keep accepting Israeli boys and girls … regardless of sexual orientation.”

Netanyahu did not comment on Peretz's apartheid remarks. 

Peretz’s comments were also blasted by several Israeli politicians, all members of center-left parties, such as Labor and Kahol Lavan. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who recently launched his Democratic Israel party ahead of the September 17 election, said: “Bibi, Peretz, you’re not converting anyone. We’ll convert your dark government to an enlightened one, based on equality, values and democracy.”

Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz, who was elected last month to lead the party thus becoming the first openly gay man to head an Israeli political party, called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dismiss Peretz over his remarks.

“‘Conversion therapy is a dangerous thing that leads youth to harsh conditions, as far as suicidal thoughts,” Horowitz said. The minister’s remarks “are not only irresponsible, but may practically put lives at risk. He doesn’t deserve to be responsible for the future of our children,” he added. 

The Aguda – The Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel said in a statement “Israeli children should not be exposed to the homophobic venom spouted by someone who purports to be dedicated to education and values. We recommend Peretz try a different kind of conversion therapy: against hate and for free love, against dark views and for openness and acceptance.”

Peretz later said in a statement he “didn’t claim any boy or girl shold be sent to conversion therapy, but claimed: “In my years as an education I’ve met student who felt terribly distressed by their sexual orientation and chose to be assisted by professionals to change their orientation.” 

“The Israeli school system led by me will keep accepting all Israeli children, whoever they may be, regardless of sexual orientation,” Peretz said.

On Tuesday, Peretz condemned intermarriage among diaspora Jews saying "assimilation is like a second Holocaust."

The controversial comments came just days after warning that Israel is becoming too secular. The far-right The Habayit Hayehudi chairman was responding to the claim that Israeli society is suffering from religious coercion, saying instead that " "this is almost fiction. Israeli society is not becoming more religious. If anything, it is going through the process of becoming more secular."

In January, the Israel Medical Association (IMA), which represents 90 percent of the country’s doctors, said in a position paper that any of its members who perform conversion therapy could be expelled from it.

“The treatments to change one’s sexual orientation have been found to be ineffective and could cause mental damage, such as anxiety, depression and suicidal tendencies,” the IMA said.

The Israel Gay Youth organization (IGY) said in response to Peretz's remarks Saturday: “No one can force any teenager to fight their gender and sexual identity or tendency. No one should offer young people stay in the closet, or even worse, live under false identity.”

“Violence of the type wrongly referred to as ‘conversion therapy’ should be outlawed,” IGY added in a statement.

Dr. Zvi Fischel, chairman of the Israeli Psychiatric Association, said it was “shameful and worrysome that Israel’s education minister not only supports the phenomenon of conversion therapy but even testifies that he conducted it himself.”

Fischel stressed that many medical and psychiatric organizations have said “there’s no treatment that could convert any individual’s sexual orientation. Conversion treatments … were not only proven scientifically to be worthless, but are also dangerous,” having severe ramifications on mental health. “No one in Israel should go through conversion therapy,” he concluded.

In 2014, Israel's Health Ministry issued a public warning against conversion therapies. The decision was signed by then-Health Minister Yael German and was based on a position paper drafted by the two bodies in November 2011 that was accepted by the ministry professionals.

Conversion therapy, which can include hypnosis and electric shocks, is based on the belief that being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender is a mental illness that can be cured. 

Only a handful of countries and some U.S. states have outlawed the controversial practice, generally discredited by professionals.

Ido Efrati and Shira Kadari-Ovadia contributed to this report.