Will Israel's religious right stand for conversion therapy for gays?

The statement by United Right party head Rafi Peretz on conversion therapy for gays generated harsh reactions also from within his own political camp.

al-monitor Israel's Education Minister Rafi Peretz arrives to attend the weekly Cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, June 24, 2019. Photo by Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS.

Jul 17, 2019

In political jargon, the recent comments by Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz are referred to as an “electoral terror attack” — a slip of the tongue or troubling remark during an election campaign that generates an uproar and is potentially damaging to a candidate and his party. This best describes the July 13 TV interview in which Peretz, leader of the United Right party, expressed support for gay “conversion therapies,” saying, “I think they are possible. I have to tell you that I have a very deep understanding of education and I have done this."

His comment was interpreted, rightly so, as support for the type of treatment banned in many countries and which the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has ruled unethical, lacking scientific grounding and inefficient. Israeli psychologists and psychiatrists also consider categorically “gay conversion” dangerous, inefficient and a potential source of suicidal tendencies. In 2014, the Ministry of Health warned the public against conversion therapies. Following the public outcry, Peretz retracted from his statement admitting that these conversion therapies are inappropriate.

As expected, the education minister’s pronouncement set off a political storm. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to announce that Peretz’s comments “about the gay community are unacceptable and do not reflect the views of the government I head. I spoke this evening with Rabbi Rafi Peretz who clarified his comments and stressed that the education system would continue to accept all the children of Israel regardless of their sexual tendency.”

The response of former Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who represents the more modern stream of religious, right-wing Judaism, was more interesting. In fact, one of the main reasons for his decision prior to the April elections to step down from his leadership of HaBayit HaYehudi and form the New Right party was the rigid religious-ideological stance of HaBayit HaYehudi, on homosexual issues, among others. Bennett then formed the religious-secular New Right party, while HaBayit HaYehudi merged with radical-right parties to form the United Right.

Bennett tweeted, “Israeli society consists of a variety of different hues, and no one has to convert anyone else. We accept each person as he is. The statements that were made do not represent the majority of the national-religious public, which is opposed to the obsessive war against the LGBTQ community."

Bennett was obviously taking advantage of Peretz’s faux pas to position HaBayit HaYehudi, which Peretz now leads, as religiously radical, or as a senior party source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “Peretz proved that the answer to the question of whether HaBayit HaYehudi has become more ultra-Orthodox is ‘yes.’” This stream of right-wing religious Orthodoxy is led by rabbis holding extremist views who take active positions on issues of religion and state, unlike the former rabbis of religious Zionism who were more moderate. The rabbis of this more Orthodox stream of religious Zionism often espouse views that are even more radical than those of the ultra-Orthodox parties on issues such as mixed prayer by men and women at the Western Wall, observance of the Sabbath and adherence to kosher dietary laws.

Positioning HaBayit HaYehudi as a radical religious party could help more moderate politicians on the right such as Bennett and also his former running mate, secular Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who would like to head the United Right.

Religious Zionist supporters of Bennett and Shaked argue that with all due respect to Peretz and his standing as leader of HaBayit HaYehudi, even if his comments were misunderstood in some way, moderate voters find them disturbing. Letting him retain his position would signal that the right-wing alliance is being led by the more Orthodox stream of religious Zionism. The popular Shaked, on the other hand, would represent a far more acceptable line that would draw not only moderate religious voters but also more traditionally Jewish conservative voters and even secular right-wing voters who favor Bennett and Shaked.

Polls commissioned by right-wing parties indicate that Shaked’s supporters are right. The former justice minister brings more votes to the United Right if she is named to lead it than Peretz does.

One of the polls, conducted among Jewish voters only, indicates that the United Right without Bennett and Shaked would get 6% of the vote, whereas the New Right party would draw 11% with Shaked at its head.

This same survey also asked who voters would like to see at the head of the United Right. Shaked came in first with 44% of those surveyed, Bennett followed with 22%, Bezalel Smotrich with 17% and Peretz came in last with only 7%. The survey was conducted after Peretz’s comments on conversion therapy, and even his supporters concede that his lack of political and media experience (he was previously an air force pilot and chief army rabbi) are very detrimental to his prospects and those of the alliance he heads.

The results of an additional internal poll, also commissioned by a political body on the right and obtained by Al-Monitor, are not quite as sharply defined, but are similar. According to the poll, conducted among the general public and therefore considered more credible, the United Right with Shaked at the helm would garner votes equal to 12 Knesset seats. The same list of candidates but with Peretz at its head and Shaked as his No. 2 would only pull in the equivalent of nine seats. Without Shaked and Bennett, the United Right alliance would get six Knesset seats. 

A Channel 12 poll aired July 16 gave the United Right led by Peretz only four Knesset seats and the New Right headed by Bennett and Shaked five seats. However, if the right unites — if the United Right and the New Right merge — under Shaked, it would surge to 12 seats, with the votes for all three of the additional seats garnered at the expense of the Likud.

A senior HaBayit HaYehudi official told Al-Monitor that so far, the results of all the polls presented to party leaders were identical. However, Peretz, with the support of several leading religious Zionist rabbis, insists on keeping his seat and says there is still enough time before the Sept. 17 elections to improve the United Right’s showing.

On June 21, Al-Monitor reported that unlike Peretz and the rabbis backing him, the leaders of the other parties making up the United Right — Smotrich of the National Alliance and Itamar Ben-Gvir of Jewish Power — do not rule out appointing Shaked as their leader. Ben-Gvir, a follower of the ultra-radical racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, was even reported to have met recently with Shaked several times at her home to coordinate positions vis-a-vis Peretz.

According to one compromise proposal put to Peretz, Shaked would head the United Right and he would hold the title of its “religious-ideological leader.” Peretz’s people are demanding first right of refusal of any ministerial position, but Shaked aspires to return to the Justice Ministry or even to a more senior post and is therefore not rushing to agree.

Can Peretz be persuaded to step aside? Perhaps. Netanyahu is expected to intervene in the makeup of the right-wing bloc in the run-up to these elections, just as he did prior to the April elections. If Netanyahu concludes that a split among the right-wing parties would mean a loss of support for the right-wing bloc, he is expected to bring his full weight to bear on an attempt to make the right unite under Shaked, which appears to augur the best results.

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