Analysis

Drawing Fire for Gay Conversion Comments, 'Rabbi Rafi' Doesn’t Look Moderate Anymore

Rabbi Rafi Peretz’s cheerful, friendly manner and the fact he was seen as a relatively moderate figure in his religious community seemingly mislead many, who have since learned that the Israeli education minister's views veer far from the mainstream

Rabbi Rafi Peretz during the Israeli election campaign, February 2019.
Tomer Appelbaum

When Rabbi Rafi Peretz was named as interim education minister last month, there was little public criticism of the move (and the little that did exist was muted). After all, his religious Zionist camp has long held the education portfolio, with his predecessor as chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennett, heading it since 2015.

How much worse could Peretz be? That’s what many Israelis shrugged, even those who had been unhappy with Bennett’s efforts to inject more “Jewish identity” programming and religious content into the secular school system — an effort that it soon became clear Peretz intended not only to continue but to intensify, with proposals like presenting every schoolchild with a Bible at a Western Wall ceremony.

It seems like that question has been fully answered over the past week.

Peretz is being sharply criticized for multiple extremist statements less than six months after entering politics and less than a month after his appointment as education minister, with street protests being held against him and calls for his resignation — and even a rap on the knuckles from the leader who appointed him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Peretz initially raised hackles and generated headlines worldwide when, in a cabinet meeting, he compared intermarriage among U.S. Jews to “a second Holocaust.” In the wake of that storm, he gave a television interview Saturday night in which he sanctioned a vision of apartheid in the West Bank by explicitly declaring that the territory should be annexed but the Palestinians living there should not be given the right to vote. He went on to endorse gay conversion therapy, saying he had “a very deep familiarity with this kind of education” and had supervised it himself.

Peretz’s cheerful, friendly manner and the fact he was seen as a relatively moderate leader of the “Hardal” community — the conservative wing of religious Zionists whose religious outlook hews closer to the ultra-Orthodox outlook — seems to have been misleading. His views still veer far from the Israeli mainstream, and are distinctly more extreme than those of figures like Bennett.

Peretz’s life and career has interwoven commitments to religion, the military and the settlement enterprise. Raised in a traditional Israeli-Moroccan family in Jerusalem, he adopted a more stringent Orthodox lifestyle after spending time at the city’s Mercaz Harav yeshiva. He spent his army service in the air force as a helicopter pilot.

Rabbi Rafi Peretz voting on Election Day in Israel, April 9, 2019, with some of his 12 children.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In the early 1990s, Peretz and his family moved to the Gaza Strip settlement of Atzmona, where he founded and built the pre-military Otzem academy, and was viewed as a community leader. He hit the headlines during the 2005 Gaza disengagement after advocating unity, not confrontation, with the Israel Defense Forces during the stormy days in which his home and academy were evacuated. He oversaw the peaceful removal of his students and staff, avoiding angry clashes with the soldiers — even dancing with them.

He then relocated the academy and his family — he has 12 children — to Naveh, southern Israel.

In 2010, Peretz rose to national prominence when he was named as the IDF’s chief military rabbi, where he served for the next six years. The events in Gaza had established his image as a moderate — so much so that there were right-wing rabbis who opposed his appointment.

But those years were not without controversy, including several with clear indications as to where he stood on political issues.

In 2013, a book authorized by Peretz and published by the Military Rabbinate denied the existence of equal rights for non-Jews in the state. The book dealt with questions of keeping Jewish religious law (halakha) in the army and discussed regulations for affixing mezuzahs to IDF bases. The book stated that “the concept that non-Jews and Jews have equal rights in the state goes against the opinion of the Torah.”

Following the ensuing controversy over the book’s content, the army was forced to apologize.

The following year, Peretz said in a lecture that the Temple Mount had no religious significance to Muslims, pointing out that when they pray, they face Mecca with their “backside” to Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem isn’t mentioned in the Koran even once. Not even in a hint. The Arabs are imagining it,” Peretz said “What is the Al-Aqsa Mosque?” he asked. “It says in the Koran, ‘Make me a mosque on the edge.’ Al-Aqsa is on the edge. The edge of what? Mecca? The edge of the Arabian Peninsula. When they bow, they bow to Mecca, but their backside is turned to the Temple Mount — because the edge for them is the edge of the Arabian Peninsula. So what are they doing on the Temple Mount?

“Ninety percent of Arabs don’t know a thing about the Koran,” he continued. “I tell you with full authority, we know it better than many of them.”

Subsequently, he apologized “if his words offended the Arab population.”

Finally, in 2016, Peretz came under fire for dancing in his IDF uniform at a wedding with an extremist rabbi who had penned a book that said there were circumstances in which Jewish law permits the killing of non-Jews.

Peretz and Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira playfully exchanged hats while they were dancing, with Peretz placing his army beret on the other rabbi’s head.

Until now, as a newcomer to the political arena, Peretz had been pegged as a moderating force in the Union of Right-Wing Parties, often being affectionately referred to as “Rabbi Rafi.”

He was depicted as a contrast to the more fire-and-brimstone Bezalel Smotrich, who leads the National Union, and praised for being cold to the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, whom they were strong-armed into running with by Netanyahu — so much so that Otzma Yehudit has announced it will desert the far-right alliance over its failure to put one of its members into the Knesset.

After the past tumultuous week, it is doubtful Peretz will be described as moderate anymore.