Last week turned out to be very apologetic for Israel’s current Minister of Education, Rafi Peretz. Following a series of problematic statements, to say the least, Peretz was pressured into releasing formal letters of apology, expressing regret for what he had said.
First, in a meeting discussing the current situation of Jewish communities around the world, he compared the increasing rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the United States as “a second Holocaust.” This led to a wave of heavy criticism in Israel and especially among several Jewish communities in the United States. He then sent a formal letter of apology to Isaac Herzog, the Jewish Agency’s Chairman of the Executive, clarifying his inappropriate use of the Holocaust.
Later, while being interviewed on Israel’s channel 12, the newly appointed education minister expressed his support for conversion therapy for homosexuals, while adding that this is something that he has done in the past. Interestingly, despite the fact that during the same interview he also announced his support for a complete annexation of Judea and Samaria without giving its Palestinian residents political rights, the burst of outcry was directed exclusively toward his words regarding conversion therapy. Again, under a heavy amount of pressure, he capitulated and expressed his remorse of word choice in a letter of apology emphatically stating that he opposes any such therapy and promises to accept all Israeli children as they are.
While this brief episode has nearly blown over, being that we’re in the midst of a second round of national elections in Israel and therefore both the supply and demand of breaking political news is abundant, there are still a few important insights to be gained here.
First, the wide range of voices from all walks of Israeli political life that denounced Rafi Peretz’s statements show that the tolerance and acceptance of the LGBTQ community in Israel is coming closer to a consensus among both politically left and right expressions. While it was expected that the rookie minister would be bombarded by the left with fierce opposition claiming that his ideas are outdated and hateful, much more of a surprise was the response of religious right-winged Jewish politicians such as the now former head of the ‘New Right’ party, Naftali Bennet. Following Peretz’s interview, Bennet stated that he disagrees with “the obsessive war” against the LGBTQ community. He further expressed that the minister’s words “don’t represent the majority of the Zionist religious community.” Therefore, the subsequent days-long attacks on Rafi Peretz following his television interview can’t be simply blamed on conspiracies of the ‘leftist media’ nor can he be labeled as yet another victim of liberals trying to silence those that disagree with them while imposing their values on all of society.
The second insight relates to an important question that needs to be raised regarding how we want Israeli society to look. Do we really want an education minister that can only accept some of our children and not all of them because of his religious beliefs?
We are talking about the Minister of Education of the State of Israel and not discussing what he allows to take place in his synagogue or private home. He is in office to serve Israelis of all backgrounds—Jews of various religious expressions, Christians, Muslims, Druze and so on—many of which have opposing sets of beliefs than his. This is not an issue of biblical morals but rather one of granting people the freedom to live how they want and accepting that others in society live according to a set of different values. His most prominent critics, including over 3,000 teachers from all over Israel that had signed a petition calling for his resignation, are not aiming to change his values or abandon his religious lifestyle, but rather are calling on him not to support conversion therapy as Israel’s Minister of Education.
Disagreeing on moral grounds is an individual right, but any attempt by the government to introduce or advocate for a process such as conversion therapy is wrong and has the potential to produce grave damaging effects on people.
It doesn’t matter how many apologies Rafi Peretz writes or how many clarifications Prime Minister Netanyahu releases to the press in an attempt to sweep his statements under the rug and convince the Israeli public that these views don’t represent those of his government, because in the end, these are certainly his views. I have no doubt that they don’t represent Bibi and his Likud party. However, Rafi Peretz and his joint list of religious right-winged parties, which includes extremist activists such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bentzy Gopstein who actively protest and demonize various groups including Messianic Jews, Israeli Arabs and intermarried couples, are his partners to build a coalition. Despite the fact that their stances are out of touch with the majority of Israeli society—as well as with the Likud party—they are the golden ticket for Bibi’s political survival.
When it comes to holding steadfast to worldview and values versus political survival, recent years have only shown that for Netanyahu, the latter carries far more value. Unfortunately, Israel’s citizens—especially those who are delegitimized by far right-winged politicians by the likes of Rafi Peretz, Betzalel Smotrich and Bentzy Gopstein— are the ones who will be left coping with the consequences.
Jason Silverman holds a BA in Middle East Studies and Hebrew from the Ohio State University. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Jason decided to make Aliyah in August, 2014 and served in the IDF’s Armored Corps. He currently resides in Jerusalem and is a graduate student in International Relations at Hebrew University.