Opinion

Rabbi Peretz, Give Us Back Our Fig Leaf

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

Education Minister Rafi Peretz managed to divide the nation. With his recent enlightened comments about gay conversion, he foisted a terrible dilemma on the public: Which is worse, his advocacy of gay conversion therapy or his call for annexing all of the West Bank to Israel?

One school of thought says that the conversion therapy comments are a trivial matter, just a result of the former IDF chief rabbi’s ignorance. This group says the really dangerous thing is desire for full annexation, which would include denying Palestinians all political rights – because that would really make Israel an apartheid state. The second school of thought says that it is the disgust he shows for LGBT people, citing the principles of halakha, that is the most dangerous thing – because it paints Israel in the dark, illiberal hues of a place like Iran or China, and eviscerates its image as the LGBT capital of the Middle East.

This is a false dilemma, of course. In the pre-Peretz era, the Israeli government was already speaking aloud about the need to annex territory from the West Bank. It publicly marketed Area C as an integral part of the State of Israel and received support and encouragement on this from the Trump administration. Peretz only expanded upon what Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked before him had demanded.

Yet the hypocrisy of the reassurances by religious Zionist leaders that the annexed Palestinians would receive full civil rights was revealed a bit more. Peretz candidly expressed aloud what disciples of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook think and say amongst themselves. Supposedly Peretz erected a separation fence between himself – the “eccentric” minister, the outlier, the political hilltop youth – and “sane” religious Zionism, which harbors no messianic ideology. But there is no such fence and there never was one. Peretz is the embodiment of religious Zionism and when it comes to the concept of Greater Israel, there is no difference between him and Netanyahu. The annexation idea has many fathers and Peretz is not the most important one, certainly not in a society in which even the centrist parties are drawing up annexation maps.

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So perhaps the biggest threat really lies in the distorted values that he represents? Perhaps conversion therapy is just a tiny sliver of what the interim education minister has in store for us? Here, too, Peretz is treading a path that was paved before he came along. At a rabbinical conference two years ago devoted to conversion therapy, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed, explained that “same sex relations is a tendency that cannot be accepted, just like the tendency to become overweight.”

For those who may have forgotten, Eliyahu is the rabbi who issued a halakhic ruling in 2010 prohibiting the sale or rental of apartments to non-Jews. About 300 rabbis endorsed the ruling then, including 50 rabbis of cities. The same year, Peretz began serving as the IDF chief rabbi, long after he formed his views about conversion therapy, and after hatred of Arabs had become an inseparable part of Israeli identity.

Those mourning the loss of Israel’s liberal image needn’t pin the blame solely on Rabbi Peretz. Among secular people, too, coming out of the closet is still a momentous event, the terms “gay” and “lesbian” are often used derogatorily, and according to a survey reported by Channel 13 on Sunday, 46 percent of religious Zionists support conversion therapy. One can presume that all these people formed their views about it prior to Peretz’s comments.

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Peretz is not a threat to Israeli liberalism, because such a thing does not truly exist. A truly liberal society wouldn’t get worked up about a rabbi’s comments, and in a liberal society, a rabbi would not be appointed as education minister. All Peretz really did was shatter the bluff of Israeli liberalism, and deprived believers in this bluff of the sense of superiority it gave them. For that, he should be thanked.