Israel’s education minister, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, has only been in his job a month, and already he has made headlines for disparaging LGBTQ people, Diaspora Jews and the Holocaust.
Peretz is the leader of the Union of Right Wing Parties that includes Jewish Home, Jewish Power and the National Union. An Orthodox rabbi, he is a former chief military rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces. In a TV interview on Saturday night, Peretz weighed in on the largely discredited “conversion therapy” that supposedly “cures” gay people of their sexual orientation. “I think that it is possible to convert” someone’s sexual orientation, Peretz said in response to an interviewer’s question. “I can tell you that I have deep familiarity on the issue of education, and I have also done it [practiced conversion therapy].”
Criticism was immediate, most notably from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Peretz said he had been misunderstood and that his remarks were taken out of context. “I did not say I support conversion therapy,” he said. And turning to his critics, he charged, “It isn’t my statement that they attack, but who and what I represent. There is a struggle over the right to think differently.”
This wasn’t the first time Peretz, who has a knack for a memorable quip, exercised his right to think differently. In March, before becoming education minister, he compared Israel’s gay pride march to a parade of dog lovers. “Let them live how they want to live. I don’t think we have to make a parade out of it,” he said. “I don’t like dogs in my house. Not to compare, yes? I’m just giving an example. So should I make a parade for them [dog lovers]?” He apologized quickly then, but he missed the larger point that Jews are a heterogeneous people — and that Israel is the laboratory where citizens are making that diversity work.
Then there are the Jews of the Diaspora. At a cabinet meeting on July 1, Peretz said the rate of intermarriage among U.S. Jews is “like a second Holocaust” because 6 million people have been lost to assimilation.
As others have commented, some Diaspora Jews in recent decades have made a similar point, noting that assimilation is a violation the so-called 614th commandment: Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory. Of course, there was only one Holocaust, and Peretz, like others who reach for this easy analogy, is guilty of a lack of imagination and a remarkable lack of sensitivity.
Peretz certainly has a right to think differently, but as a minister in the Israeli government, he has a responsibility to comport himself and speak more carefully. With elections coming up, we wouldn’t be surprised if his tenure as minister of education will be as short as his mind is narrow. JN