Hundreds Protest in Tel Aviv After Israeli Education Minister Praises Gay Conversion Therapy: 'I've Done It'

LGBT activists in Israel are calling for the resignation of Education Minister Rafi Peretz after he claimed gay conversion therapy could work.

"I think it's possible," Peretz, an orthodox rabbi and leading force in the ultranationalist United Right alliance, told Israel's Channel 12 on Saturday. "I can tell you that I have deep familiarity on the issue of education—and I have also done this [therapy]."

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Members of the LGBT community hold a banner reading in Hebrew "A homophobic Racist Has to Quit" during a rally against Israel's Education Minister Rafi Peretz following his remarks on gay conversion therapy, in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on July 14, 2019. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Asked how he would approach someone who came out as gay, Peretz said "I would first of all embrace him, then I said let us think, let us learn, let us consider. The goal is that first of all he gets to know himself better and then he can decide."

Peretz, who was just appointed last month, added he was considering preventing representatives from the Israel Gay Youth movement from speaking at schools, depending on their "messaging."

Efforts to change sexual orientation have been widely discredited by medical organizations around the world, including the World Health Organization, England's National Health Service and the American Medical Association. In 2014, the Israeli Health Ministry stated there was no scientific proof gay conversion worked, but growing evidence it led to psychological harm.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Peretz's remarks "unacceptable" and said he spoke privately to the minister.

"[I] made it clear to him that the Israeli educational system will continue to accept all Jewish children whoever they are and without any difference based on sexual orientation," Netanyahu said in a statement on Sunday.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana, who became the first openly gay minister in the Knesset in June, decried conversion therapy as "dangerous."

"Education minister, the youth of the entire State of Israel and yes, also of the religious sector, are looking to you," Ohana told the Jerusalem Post. "LGBTQ youth commit suicide three times as often as their percentage of the population. This is a matter of saving lives."

Mathew Shurka of Born Perfect, a global campaign to end conversion therapy, tells Newsweek the incident has become a moment for the LGBT community "to see which elected officials stand where."

"The Education Minister's support for this life-threatening practice is dangerous and irresponsible. It is shocking that any public official would disregard the medical consensus that conversion therapy is ineffective and unsafe. Research has shown that being subjected to conversion therapy puts LGBTQ youth at high risk of suicide and depression."

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Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak poses for a photo with demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Sunday at a rally against the country's education minister following his remarks supporting gay conversion therapy. Gal Uchovsky

On Sunday evening Shurka joined the more than one thousand demonstrators protesting in front of the Kiryat HaMemshala government building in Tel Aviv. In addition to activists, teachers, students and parents, they included LGBT Israelis sharing stories of having undergone conversion therapy.

Demonstrators also showed up in Peretz's hometown, near his house.

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Demonstrator in the hometown of Education Minister Rafi Peretz protesting Peretz's comments supporting conversion therapy for gay people. Or Erez

But Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich came to Peretz's defense. Smotrich, also a member of the United Right, tweeted that he felt the education minister was being "lynched" by the media.

'I'm not prepared for a reality in which all 'freedom-of-speech seekers' prove that they are in essence thought dictators,' he added. (Smotrich opposes same-sex marriage and has called the Jerusalem Pride march a "beast parade.")

On Sunday, Peretz tried to clarify his comments, insisting he didn't mean a child "must" be sent for conversion therapy.

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Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 24. The newly-appointed, far-right official's alleged comparison between the intermarriage of Jews in the U.S. and the Holocaust was met with immediate criticism. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

"I love and respect every person as he or she is. This is the essence of my educational path, this is my approach to life," he said in a statement. "During my years as an educator, I met with students who felt terrible distress about their sexual orientation and chose to use professionals to change their orientation," he said. "What I said in the interview came from my personal experiences with those cases."

Peretz also underscored that the Israeli education system "will continue to accept all children of Israel as they are," regardless of sexual orientation.

The minister made headlines earlier this week when he compared interfaith marriage among American Jews to "a second Holocaust."

"We lost six million Jews {to assimilation] since the Holocaust," he said.