Tel Aviv — When he became the leader of the Jewish Home party earlier this year, Rabbi Rafi Peretz was considered the moderate face of religious Zionism.
Israelis remember how, at the time of the army’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, he convinced his pupils to leave the Jewish settlements without resisting the army. When he became the chief rabbi of the military, Peretz was seen a mellowing figure who took over from a predecessor who had kicked up controversy by opposing women serving in combat units and promoted nationalistic religious education for soldiers.
However, Peretz turned himself into a political lightning rod in the Israeli election campaign after declaring in a television interview his support of “conversion therapy,” the much-maligned practice of trying to change a gay person’s sexual orientation. Leading health organizations have condemned the practice as pseudoscientific and harmful, saying such therapies can lead to increased self-hatred, self-harm, and depression.
Though Peretz was criticized by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said that the views of his education minister didn’t represent the government, and Amir Ohana, Likud’s openly gay justice minister, rival politicians from across the political spectrum pounced.
Nitzan Horovitz, the newly elected gay leader of the left-wing Meretz party, parried efforts by Peretz and allies to walk back the comments by claiming they had been misunderstood. “There’s no mistake, this is policy,” read the headline of a social media graphic with a photograph of Peretz. “What Rafi Peretz said wasn’t a slip of the tongue. This is the work plan of the religious right for the [S]tate of Israel. … This is dangerous and severe.”
Horovitz’s remark was echoed by an unexpected colleague. From the opposite side of the political spectrum, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, seemingly agreed that Peretz’s remarks were no accident. “They don’t leave any doubt —Netanyahu wants and is moving to establish a halacha government,” Lieberman wrote on his Facebook page, referring to an administration governed by Jewish law.
And from the center-left, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak used Peretz’s remarks to direct fire toward Netanyahu. Barak argued that Netanyahu’s condemnation of Peretz didn’t go far enough, and challenged Netanyahu to fire Peretz. The prime minister did not oblige, but he did use the uproar to introduce his new foreign press spokesman, Evan Cohen, a South African academic active among Likud’s gay activists.
The conversion therapy comments came just a few days after Peretz roiled Israel-diaspora relations by likening assimilation among diaspora Jews to a “second Holocaust.”
In the U.S., the comment spurred condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League and from Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt, who tweeted that American Jews should be “outraged” by Peretz’s use of the Holocaust.
In Israel, a former official from the Foreign Ministry and Jewish Agency slammed Peretz in an op-ed in the Yediot Achronot newspaper. “Go and learn what a Holocaust is before you use the term about a community that is so warm and connected to Israel,” wrote Revital Poleg. “Go and learn how important the Jewish community is to the resilience of Israel. You are undermining the community with your own two hands.”
On Tuesday, Peretz apologized for likening assimilation to a Holocaust, saying in a letter to Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog that it was meant to express the depth of his feeling.
Apology or not, the remarks show that the leadership of the Jewish Home party, the leading party for Orthodox religious Zionists, “is out of touch with mainstream opinion in Israel and in the diaspora. I don’t think he realized that it would be so sensitive to say such a thing about American Jews” and conversion therapy for gays, said Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
Peretz is not the first from the Jewish Home party to stir controversy in recent weeks. In June, Betzalel Smotrich, who already had a reputation for being a firebrand and is seeking to become Israel’s justice minister, said that he supports a state based on Torah law and the teachings of the biblical judges. Now, Peretz will join Smotrich as boogeyman for Israeli opposition parties.
“It might be used by centrist anti-clerical parties [to criticize] what they see as the excess power of religion in Israeli society,” said Avraham Diskin, a professor at Hebrew University.
Usually, an issue like LGBTQ rights doesn’t hold the attention of the Israeli political system very long. But with the Israeli campaign agenda already set by Lieberman’s criticism of Netanyahu’s deference to the ultra-Orthodox, Peretz’s controversial remarks are likely to have more of a shelf life.
Israel’s Globes newspaper pointed out that remarks by Europe’s foreign affairs chief that Iran hasn’t substantially violated the 2015 nuclear deal — and Netanyahu’s condemnation — barely made a wave. Instead, the evening news cycle was dominated by a report that Netanyahu had allegedly given ultra-Orthodox parties assurances of new restrictions on government activity on the Sabbath — such as construction of infrastructure projects.
“It’s issues of religion and state that are stirring up the political system,” wrote Globes diplomatic correspondent Tal Schneider.
In addition to serving as a line of attack for the opposition, Peretz’s comments could complicate efforts among smaller right-wing parties to forge alliances with one another in the election campaign. Though many expected the New Right party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked to join forces with Jewish Home, such a move becomes more awkward because of the party’s efforts to focus on right-wing nationalists who aren’t necessarily religious hardliners.
“It creates a problem within the right,” Rynhold said. “A large number of people on the Israeli right would not like either of those statements. Israel has quite a tolerant approach on sexuality on the whole.
“It make the unification of the right more difficult. Bennett’s whole thing was to get away from that religious extremism. Nationalists don’t want to sow divisions with the diaspora.”
Peretz’s comments reflect a long-term trend of growing rigidity among a group of religious Zionist leaders. Israelis refer to this group as “Charedi-Leumi,” or “chardal” — a mixture of the territorial maximalism of the Orthodox and religious maximalism of the ultra-Orthodox.
Indeed, Bennett, the former education minister, argued that Peretz’s remarks don’t reflect most of the religious Zionist public, which takes exception to the “obsessive war on LGBT.”
The open tensions between the mainstream and the minority “chardal” stream are unprecedented among religious Zionists. The remarks of Peretz and Smotrich run counter to the more moderate roots of the religious Zionist movement, which sought to embrace different streams of Judaism in the U.S., backed Israeli government institutions, and embraced secular Israel.
“We are seeing an interesting phenomenon — the underlying schisms among religious Zionists were always present, but the differences were kept under wraps,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, a former Knesset member from the National Religious Party and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. “Now, it has broken out into the open. People are definitely talking about it.”
If Bennett’s New Right doesn’t join forces with Jewish Home, more moderate religious voters may abandon Jewish Home and shift to the New Right in protest. Such a shift would probably push Bennett’s party over the electoral threshold and into the Knesset (after he missed by a few thousand votes) and put Peretz in danger of not making it into the parliament.
“People will have to choose where they stand,” said Ben Meir
Joshua Mitnick is contributing editor for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.