Please Don’t Embarrass Our Apartheid State

When Netanyahu’s education minister defended “gay conversion therapy” and called for the entire West Bank's annexation, critics condemned only the homophobia. Apartheid's defenders don’t give a damn about the oppressed — they're just embarrassed when the far right undermines their pinkwashing of a brutal, illegal occupation.

Israel's education minister Rafi Peretz in 2011. (Flickr)

This month, Israel’s new education minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz came out as a fan of “gay conversion therapy,” a technique that “tries to change someone’s sexual orientation through psychological and spiritual means and even electroshocks.”

In an Israeli television interview, Peretz stressed his faith in the abominable practice, and even suggested that he had personally done his part to push potential converts in that direction.

Peretz, a former helicopter pilot in the Israeli air force and head of a yeshiva in the Gaza Strip prior to the so-called Israeli disengagement of 2005, served as the army’s chief rabbi from 2010 to 2016 and has twelve children. This year, he became leader of the Jewish Home party as well as the Union of Right-Wing Parties (if ever there was a more endearing union!). In the run-up to Israel’s general election this April, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu enthusiastically nurtured the bond between Jewish Home and other even more whack-job circles, seeking to boost his own chances of forming a majority government.

In the aftermath of the gay conversion therapy spectacle, however, Netanyahu has felt the need to reprimand Peretz for “unacceptable” comments that don’t reflect the government’s position. Of course, it is still entirely acceptable for Israel to shoot Palestinian children in the head and bomb hospitals. Indeed, while the torrent of criticism presently directed at Peretz is certainly well-deserved, the credentials of many of his critics are — as with Netanyahu — less than impeccable.

The Times of Israel catalogues some key soundbites from the uproar, such as Labor leader Amir Peretz’s contention that the education minister’s remarks were “neither humane nor Jewish” — a sentiment that is, on its own terms, entirely accurate, yet tragically silly within the context of Israeli brutality and Amir Peretz’s own history.

This particular Peretz served as Israeli defense minister during the 2006 war on Lebanon that killed some 1,200 people, the vast majority of them civilians, in thirty-four days. Following Israel’s attack on the south Lebanese village of Qana — which even the New York Times described as an event “the survivors will remember . . .  as the day their children died” — Amir Peretz appeared before the Knesset to express his “regret [at] the outcome”: “We will not hesitate to investigate this incident [that] claimed so many lives, in order to learn how to prevent loss of life in the future. We are not doing this to make a good impression on anyone. We are doing it for ourselves, for our own moral conscience.”

Clearly, the Israeli moral conscience hadn’t evolved much since Israel’s military attack on the very same village in 1996, which obliterated 106 refugees sheltering at a United Nations compound — half of them children.

Mainstream Extremist

But back to the first Peretz, whose promotion of gay conversion therapy has also come under fire from Ehud Barak, a longtime fixture on the Israeli political scene. Taking to Twitter to vent his disgust, Barak lambasted Israel’s apparent return to “medieval” times. Perhaps showing Israel’s liberal stance on the right to cross-dressing, Barak’s own CV includes such stunts as disguising himself as a woman to go slay Palestinians in Beirut.

The list of objections goes on. But much of the fuss no doubt has to do with the fact that statements like Peretz’s complicate Israel’s widely marketed image as an oasis of gay freedom and equality, in the middle of a bunch of barbaric and anti-democratic Arabs. In other words, it is difficult for a country to pinkwash occupation and apartheid when its education minister is babbling about the forcible conversion of homosexuals.

In fact, that’s not all he’s been babbling about. In the very same television interview, Peretz decreed that Israel should annex the entire West Bank without granting voting rights to the Palestinian inhabitants — an unambiguously criminal pronouncement, to be sure, but one that has generated far less controversy than the gay conversion one.

Over at Mondoweiss, Jonathan Ofir points out that the “centrist ‘liberal’” Israeli politician Yair Lapid, “who now condemns Peretz for his ‘insane’ opinions about gays,” is the same Lapid who recently “tweeted from the shower in favor of a ‘state for all its citizens’” and then had to frantically backpedal by “assert[ing] that he only meant rights for LGBT, not Palestinians.”

In a July 15 op-ed at Ynet news titled “Is Israeli Apartheid Fine as Long as It’s Not Homophobic?” Nahum Barnea poses the additional question: “[H]ow can such an ignorant man with views so far removed from [mainstream] Israeli society be the minister of education?” But isn’t a society that has already embraced apartheid and expressed near total support for the mass slaughter of Palestinians extreme by definition? Approximations of progressiveness on gay rights and other issues aside, the Israeli “mainstream” is often on board with the militant Zionism that the army’s former chief rabbi represents. And the more extremism that can be mainstreamed, the better in the end for Netanyahu and the whole Zionist enterprise.

Parallel Universe

Peretz isn’t so much of an exception — after all, it’s not like the last education minister was overly educated. Naftali Bennett, ex-leader of the Jewish Home party, designed an ethics code banning Israeli university professors from articulating political opinions or endorsing the BDS movement. He also proposed “sending Lebanon back to the Middle Ages” in any future war. Talk about medieval.

A Jerusalem Post editorial headlined “Rafi Peretz Should Go” meanwhile calls out Peretz on his gay conversion comments as well as his comparison of Jewish intermarriage in the United States to a “second Holocaust,” but conspicuously leaves out the whole West Bank annexation bit. The Post insists that Israel is a “beacon of human rights in the Middle East and the world,” and concludes that the “Peretz affair” shows why the Israeli public must take the upcoming September elections “seriously, and not allow Israel to decline further with comments by ministers that seem more appropriate to a country of ignorance than the hi-tech Start-Up Nation that is a beacon to countries around the world for its success and promise.”

Again, one wonders why other ministerial affairs in the gleaming beacon haven’t elicited demands that so-and-so “Should Go” — like that time former justice minister Ayelet Shaked called for the genocide of Palestinians.

And while much of Israel is up in arms over Peretz, a Times of Israel analysis argues that the outrage is in fact rallying Peretz’s base to his defense — his comments look set to embolden support for the Union of Right-Wing Parties. The article quotes a pro-Peretz activist on recent demonstrations against the minister: “This is a parallel universe . . . The education minister can look like a joke among the demonstrators, but in our world he came out looking like a man.”

It’s never about one man, though. Regardless of the verdict on Peretz, Israel is already living in a parallel universe.