Israeli Education Minister Rafi Peretz, an Orthodox rabbi and head of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party, indicated this week – for the second time since being appointed last June to the interim post – how poorly suited he is for his job.
Peretz caused an uproar in July, a mere few weeks into his temporary tenure, when he said in a televised interview that he had experience in conducting successful gay conversion therapy. Peretz put his foot in his mouth again over the past weekend, telling the Hebrew daily Yediot Achronot that marriage between a man and a woman is the definition of a “normative family.”
When asked what he would do if one of his own kids came out of the closet, he basically replied that he’s lucky not to have to worry about such a scenario. “Thank God,” he said, “my children were raised in a natural and healthy way … and are building their homes on Jewish values.
The countrywide response was predictably overwhelming. Mayors and school principals promptly announced that students would be spending the next several days debating Peretz’s comments and discussing respect for others in a democracy.
Gay politicians across the spectrum, such as Justice Minister Amir Ohana from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and far-left Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz, denounced Peretz for his statement, with the former calling his remarks “miserable, dark and wrong – based not on knowledge and facts, but on prejudice,” and the latter calling his words “contemptible.”
Ditto for straight Knesset members, activists and artists – all of whom had thrown a similar fit a few months ago over Peretz’s ridiculous conversion-therapy claims.
In the wake of his “normal, natural, healthy” family assertions, the media explosion on Twitter and television was not only swift; it was personal. Indeed, video editorials reminiscent of public-service announcements began to be aired during commercial breaks on every main Israeli channel. These consist mainly of lesbian, gay and transgender celebrities praising their “normal, natural and healthy” upbringing by loving and wonderful heterosexual parents whose Jewish values included respect for and kindness towards others.
It has been a crash course for the minister in charge of all of Israel’s pupils – not just those in religious schools – in a country filled with children born to and raised by same-sex couples, single or divorced parents, and women who produced them through in-vitro fertilization, either with their husbands’ sperm or that of donors selected from a catalog.
What Peretz has revealed in his ramblings is that he dwells in a bubble that bears little resemblance to the society around him. This is especially odd, considering that he served from 2010 to 2016 as chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, where he must have come in contact with a serious cross-section of the populace. But then, there’s no accounting for willful blindness or wishful ignorance.
Critics can take comfort in the fact that Peretz’s term as education minister is temporary. Even his chances of remaining a Knesset member are growing slimmer by the day, with polls suggesting that his party might not pass the threshold in the third round of elections, scheduled for March 2.
This is one piece of good news. Another is that Peretz’s obliviousness does not reflect the sensibility of the majority, even among much of the Orthodox population whose stance on homosexuality stems from biblical texts and who would prefer that their own kids were not gay.
Indeed, in spite of Israelis’ inability to marry without the approval of the Orthodox rabbinate, the secular institutions that determine family status and citizenship are pluralistic and liberal, as is the Jewish state at large.
Attitudes towards the LGBT community are in line with the overall colorful fabric of Israeli society. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Ironically, it is actually the socialist left, not the religious right, which has prevented this tendency from fully flowering, due to a belief in government control over and intervention in all walks of life, key among these the economy.
Which brings us to the bad news about the education system, regardless of Peretz’s ideas about family values.
According to the 2018 findings of the Program for International Student Assessment, Israelis scored lower than the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science, even though the education ministry’s budget has doubled over the past 10 years, from $8.9 billion in 2009 to approximately $17.8 billion in 2019. Any Israeli parent worth his or her salt could explain that no amount of money can solve the problem of kids not being taught to memorize the multiplication table, for example, or to parse a sentence – basic requirements that many elementary-school teachers are either too progressive or too lacking in their own scholastic skills to impart.
It is this shocking situation that should be concerning Peretz in his current role and the first order of business for his successor.
By Ruthie Blum, an Israel-based journalist