JERUSALEM — Israel’s new education minister endorsed so-called conversion therapy for gay youths, which has been widely debunked by the medical establishment — prompting immediate outrage and calls for his dismissal.
The minister’s remarks added to the fraught political atmosphere in Israel as it prepares for another election on Sept. 17, just five months after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative Likud party failed to muster the required majority for a coalition government in April’s ballot.
Rafael Peretz, an Orthodox rabbi and leader of a right-wing political alliance including the religious Jewish Home party, was appointed minister of education in Israel’s caretaker government barely three weeks ago. He made the comments in a television interview on Channel 12’s evening news program.
He also claimed that he had performed this kind of “therapy.”
Asked whether he believed it was possible to change people’s sexual orientation, he said in the interview: “I think it is possible. I can tell you I have a very deep familiarity with this type of education and I have also done this.”
He went on to describe how he counseled a student who came to him.
“First I hugged him and uttered very warm words — let’s think, let’s learn, let’s contemplate,” he said.
He added that the objective was for the student “first of all to know himself well.” Then it was up to the student to decide, he said.
Conversion therapy has been widely rejected by medical professionals as potentially dangerous to minors. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have warned against it. The psychological group criticized it because it is based on the idea that homosexuality is a mental disorder.
Yair Lapid, a politician from the centrist Blue and White Party, mocked Mr. Peretz’s comments and said he should be removed from his post.
“Until Rafi Peretz undergoes conversion therapy for his regressive and wild opinions, he cannot continue to serve as education minister,” Mr. Lapid said.
Nitzan Horowitz, the openly gay leader of the left-wing political party Meretz, said Mr. Peretz was “not a minister of education, but a minister of darkness” and said he should be “converted” to a position where he would cause less damage.
Ohad Hizki, director of the Israeli National LGBT Task Force, described conversion therapy as a “hate crime.”
And Dr. Ruth Gofen, an Israeli expert in LGBTQ health, told Israel’s public radio, Kan, that research showed that conversion therapy only aggravates depression and suicidal intentions.
As the criticism over his statements grew, Mr. Peretz, a former chief military rabbi and an educator, sought to clarify his position.
He wrote on Twitter later Saturday that he was not suggesting children should be sent for conversion therapy, but that he had met over the years with students in distress over their sexual identity and “who chose to use professionals to change their orientation.”
In a long Facebook post on Sunday, Mr. Peretz, who is new to politics, added that his words had been taken out of context, and that he had sat for a three-hour on-camera interview for the first time in his life, out of which 10 minutes were aired.
He accused his critics of cynically exploiting the election period to “earn political capital on the back of the LGBT community.”
Just a week ago, Mr. Peretz caused another firestorm when he was cited as comparing the rate of intermarriage among American Jews to “a second Holocaust.”
Secular rivals of the government, which is dominated by religious and right-wing parties, have long accused Mr. Netanyahu of an unholy alliance with what they describe as ultra-Orthodox and Messianic extremists. “Is this a medieval government??” Ehud Barak, a former prime minister who recently re-entered the political fray, asked on Twitter.
Mr. Netanyahu, though, rejected his minister’s remarks as “unacceptable” and not reflective of his government.
His justice minister, Amir Ohana, who is also openly gay, said on Sunday, “There is a Judaism that is inclusive and accepting.” He added: “Sexual orientation does not require correction or conversion. Ignorance and prejudice require conversion.”
The dispute over Mr. Peretz’s remarks could add to Mr. Netanyahu’s political troubles. The parties to the right of Likud, on whom the prime minister has relied as steady coalition partners, are fragmented and bickering among themselves, decreasing their collective electoral power. The dispute may make it even harder for them to unite.
Mr. Netanyahu fired the previous education minister, Naftali Bennett, after his New Right party failed to win enough seats in April to enter Parliament.
Mr. Bennett said Mr. Peretz’s remarks about conversion therapy “do not represent the majority of the national-religious public, which disapproves of the obsessive war against the LTGB community.”