Hundreds of protesters in Tel Aviv called for the ouster of Education Minister Rafi Peretz on Sunday following his comments that it is "possible" to perform gay conversion therapy.
Speaking on Saturday 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."
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."
Gathered outside the government offices compound in Tel Aviv, demonstrators were holding signs reading "Conversion therapy - not in our school." Earlier, some demonstrators staged a protest against Peretz at the entrance to the moshav of Naveh in Israel's south, where he resides.
A number of politicians joined the protest, including Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz, former Prime Minister and Democratic Israel Chairman Ehud Barak and his fellow party member Yair Golan, Labor lawmaker Stav Shaffir, Hadash lawmakers Ofer Kasif and Kahol Lavan lawmakers Yael German and Karin Elharar.
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LGBTQ organizations called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give the education portfolio to someone that is worthy of it."
In a joint letter to Netanyahu, they wrote that the prime minister had promised them the Education Ministry would remain in the hands of a Likud minister and not be given to a LGBT-phobic party.
"Your explicit promise not to give the Education Ministry to a benighted politician blew in our faces when an education minister you have recently appointed expressed public support in gay youth 'conversion therapy,'" the letter read.
"We ask that you not to leave Israel's children to face ignorance and benighted values," the letter added.
In his speech at the protest, Ohad Hizki, director of the Aguda – The LGBT Association in Israel, extended his criticism to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "Abroad, there are a lot of flags to wave, but at home he's satisfied with excuses or clarifications or weak condemnations," he said.
"We can't keep going with our daily routine and make peace with a distorted reality in which the education minister expresses himself this way. An education minister who believes in conversion therapy is nothing to be proud of." He appealed directly to Netanyahu: "We're asking you to fire the education minister, and to bring equality reforms for the LGBT community now, with full support."
Chen Amram, a Bible teacher from Lod, also spoke at the demonstration, appealing to students in the name of LGBTQ teachers. "A lot of the time, we need to represent the system to you," she said. "Even if we didn't always agree, we did our best to mediate its decisions with all the creativity we could muster. This time, we can't."
When she heard Peretz's words, Amram said, "We hid our offense, anger, pain and fury." But above all, she said, what teachers felt was fear for their students, who just heard someone at the helm of the education system support conversion therapy. She told her students, "No one, no matter what position they hold or how high up they are," could ever change their identities.
Amram stressed that teachers are there for their students, even during summer break. "We'll assemble at the doors of the education ministry in masses, with bare fists and open hearts…. This time we're going out to fight for the lives of our students" against discriminatory people who incite and oppress them.
Meanwhile, elementary school principals in Tel Aviv expressed their disgust with Peretz's remarks in a letter they sent the education minister.
"We are disgusted and revolted by your remarks as education minister regarding LGBTQ conversion therapy in Israel," the letter read.
"We have awakened to new dawn that is filled with terrifying statements and comments that have no place in a civilized education system and a democratic country."
Peretz's remarks immediately sparked criticism, prompting him to say that free speech was reserved only for those outside of the right wing.
Those who attacked the interview didn't even watch it, Peretz claimed on Facebook: "The responses came from the gut, while distorting what I said, cheap populism that serves mainly to deepen the schism in Israeli society."
Peretz said that he respects every human being and has no intention of forcing beliefs on anyone. "When I was asked in the studio specifically about conversion therapy, I said from my experience only that when religious Zionist students came to me and asked for guidance I referred them to professionals and I saw that it worked," he said. "I didn't say I supported conversion therapy."
Earlier, medical professionals as well as politicians condemned Peretz's comments, with the chairman of the Israel Psychiatric Association saying conversion therapy it is scientifically proven to have no benefit and can lead to suicide.
"It is shameful and worrisome that the education minister in Israel not only expresses support for conversion therapy, but attests to having performed it himself," said Dr. Zvi Fishel. "As the Israel Medical Association has ruled, as well as the Israel Psychiatric Association and many other doctors' associations in Israel and abroad, there is no treatment that can change the sexual orientation of any person."