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We need to talk about Rafi Peretz

The education minister's comments endanger LGBT+ children and reflect a rise in homophobic discourse in the public square
Education Minister Rafi Peretz attends a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, December 23, 2019. (Flash90)
Education Minister Rafi Peretz attends a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, December 23, 2019. (Flash90)

We need to talk about Rafi Peretz. We need to talk about how in January 2020 the Minister of Education in the State of Israel can go on record and call gay people unnatural. But most importantly we need to talk about the Israel forming right before our eyes, where this sort of statement is not only welcomed but encouraged.

The right wing in Israel is growing ever stronger, and whilst many may argue that this is due to increased security threat, it is not above reason to point out that it is also happening, in no small part, because many people in Israel support the bigoted and outdated views that politicians on the right both endorse and encourage.

Israel is supposed to be a Jewish country, neither secular nor religious, simply Jewish. It was founded by secular Jews, celebrates all religious holidays as national holidays and gives Jews the religious freedom to choose exactly how they wish to perform their Judaism.

This means that for better or for worse, the same applies when it comes to politics. Secular politicians are allowed to stand up in Knesset and advocate for public transport on Shabbat, and religious politicians are allowed to advocate for all restaurants to be closed on Shabbat, that is just the way it is. A messy democracy, full of people all across the religious spectrum who will never quite see eye to eye.

And in my opinion, that’s fine. Until it becomes an infringement on people’s rights and safety. And when the Minister of Education stands up and says that none of his children will ever be gay because they “grew up naturally and healthy” I think that things have gone too far. Far too far.

Because Rafi Peretz has a responsibility to the children of Israel. He has a responsibility to get children and youth safely through 12 years of schooling whilst giving them as many opportunities for education as possible. And right now, he is failing them. Because by failing the LGBT+ children in Israel he is failing everyone.

LGBT+ youth have higher suicide attempt rates than any other group. They are at risk for bullying both in school and at home, and now it seems, from the highest levels of government too. Besides his offensive statements from this weekend, in July 2019 Peretz endorsed gay conversion therapy, a practise which has been proven to cause both physical and mental damage and which has been outlawed in many countries across the world.

But this problem is far bigger than just Peretz himself, and it is becoming increasingly clear that it is a problem shared by many people within the various religious groups in Israel.

In July 2019 Noam was formed, a political party whose sole policy was to speak out against LGBT rights. In November 2018 the right wing coalition government voted against giving surrogacy rights to same sex couples. And in 2015 Yishai Schlissel murdered Shira Banki at Jerusalem Pride, citing his religious beliefs as his reason for doing so.

Schlissel is seen as a dangerous anomaly, a man who took his beliefs to the extreme and acted upon them in a way that no normal person ever would. But his beliefs are backed every single day by government officials, and they are seen as a little more valid every time a person like Rafi Peretz gives voice to them.

I wonder what would happen if he ever put himself in our shoes for just a day. How would he, a straight white man, enjoy his very existence being laid out and debated for all the country to see? It is dehumanising to be discussed time and time again and never for the good. It is not as if the end is in sight and the government will simply turn around and legalise same sex marriage one day soon. Instead, the endless debate will continue to go on and on, never changing for the better, and only continuing to give voice to the dangerous school of thought that Peretz subscribes to.

The solution is far from simple. I don’t know what it is, and people far more educated than me don’t have the answers either. But what I do know is that change starts from within. The people of Israel need to stand up and object loudly and vehemently.

Parents need to complain when schools send their children home with a head full of dangerous ideologies.

Children in school need to stand up for their gay and trans classmates when they are bullied by both their peers and their teachers.

But most importantly, our community needs allies. We cannot fight this alone forever. In order to drown out the poison of the voices shouting over us, we need those who are neither here nor there to start standing with us. If you disagree with Peretz, if you disagree with his dangerous and dehumanising views, it is time to start saying so.

And if you agree with him? Well then just know that the LGBT+ community won’t go away quietly. Israel is our country just as much as it is yours, and no amount of Torah based homophobia will ever change that. We are here and we are here to stay. And contrary to what Peretz believes, there is no way in the world that you will be able to change that.

About the Author
Shira Silkoff is a proud LGBT Oleh Chadasha who made Aliyah from London in 2017 in order to serve in the army and become a "real Israeli". Along the way she has found she has many opinions which she wants to share with the world, at the same time as she discovers them herself.
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