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Israeli minister's homophobic comments spark huge protest

Rafi Peretz stirs up nationwide anger for 'natural family' statement, with 3,000 people taking to Tel Aviv's Rabin Square
Protesters in Tel Aviv hold a banner reading "Minister of Darkness", in response to education minister Rafi Peretz's remarks on gay conversion therapy, on July 14, 2019 (AFP)
By Noa Borstein in Tel Aviv, Israel

More than 3,000 students gathered in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, waving signs reading: “I don’t want to be normal”, in response to last week’s homophobic comments by the Israeli education minister.

Last Friday, Rafi Peretz was asked in an interview: "What would you do if one of your children had a different sexual orientation?”

Dismissing the hypothesis, Peretz replied: “Blessed are my children, growing up naturally and healthy.”

The statement quickly landed Peretz in hot water, drawing harsh responses from Israel’s LGBTQ community and calls on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire the minister from his post. 

Peretz’s words also rippled through the wider society, prompting several local authorities to open the next school day by talking about the importance of accepting others and loving the different.

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Wednesday morning’s youth rally was held in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv and joined by high school students and teachers from all over the country. 

One of the protesters, a 12th-grade student from Ein Horesh in central Israel, said the conversation they started in class raised a lot of anger and pain, so it was decided by the school to organise a bus and bring the pupils to the demonstration. 

"These are basic human values, every person has the right to live in his own way - and the person who stands at the top of our education system should reflect these values,” said the student.

The rally originally started as an initiative by several schools in the city, and eventually grew into an assembly organised by the National Student Council, with the message: "Sometimes the youth should be the responsible adult.” 

Youth rally in Tel Aviv Elinor Arazi MEE
Students protest in Tel Aviv following anti-gay comments by Israel's education minister Rafi Peretz, on 15 January (Elinor Arazi/MEE)

Nationwide outcry, again

This is not the first time Peretz has come under fire for making comments that are perceived as anti-gay. 

Last summer, in a televised interview, the former army chief rabbi was asked if he believed in the so-called “conversion therapy” for gay people. 

Answering in the affirmative, Peretz said: “I think you can … I can tell you that I have a deep knowledge of education, and I have done it too.”

The minister's latest comments might not have come as a complete surprise, but they still stoked anger across the country.

"Only four years have passed since the murder of Shira Banki, and Israel's education minister continues the campaign of hatred against the proud community,” said Ohad Hashki, head of the LGBT Association in Israel, referring to the 16-year-old girl killed in a stabbing spree at a Jerusalem Gay Pride parade in 2015. 

“We don't know who will be the next killer to hurt community members, but now we now know who sent him.”

Havruta, a religious LGBT organisation, challenged Peretz’s definition of “natural” and said everything was god’s creation.

“In our community, there are families of father and father, mother and mother, and everything is very natural. What reason does a religious person have to hate the creatures god created himself, natural, healthy and gay?” it said in a statement.

Peretz’s “dark statements” about the LGBT community and racist comments “had no place in our society”, said Carmel Shama HaCohen, the mayor of Ramat Gan, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

“By next month, I myself will go to all the schools in the city and speak with children about human rights and love, regardless of race, gender, religion, age, level of belief, and sexual orientation,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Love Trumps Hate

Wednesday’s rally showed the true face of Israel’s younger generation, said Ofer Neumann, the CEO of Iggy, a proud youth organisation.

"They believe in equality, they want openness and love. They demand rights and they will in no way accept the hatred and racism,” he told Middle East Eye.

A group of 9th graders from Tel Aviv said they believed civil marriage was a fundamental right that should be given to all.

"We are here because it is time for equality, it is time for the words LGBT to not be a curse, and it is time for the education minister to understand that,” they told MEE.

Same-sex marriage is illegal in Israel, although weddings performed abroad are recognised. Only religious authorities are allowed to officiate marriages in Israel. Civil, non-religious marriages are not permitted. 

So far, Peretz has not responded to the protest and has refused to apologise for his remarks, only saying: "I respect every person.”

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