Thousands of Israeli teachers have signed a petition demanding that education minister Rafi Peretz be sacked for supporting therapy aimed at "converting" gay men and lesbians to heterosexuality.
Mr Peretz, a rabbi who heads the far-right Union of Right-Wing Parties, made his comments in a weekend television interview, saying he has personal experience with the procedure.
Gay conversion therapy attempts to change an individual’s sexual orientation through psychological, spiritual and sometimes physical means. It has been widely condemned around the world and is banned in a number of countries.
“I think that it is possible to convert [someone’s sexual orientation],” Mr Peretz said. “I can tell you that I have deep familiarity on the issue of education, and I have also done this.”
Following the comments, Israeli radio stations interviewed people, mostly religiously-observant Jews who had struggled with homosexuality as teenagers, who had undergone the discredited process. Some said it had driven them to depression while others said they had considered taking their own lives.
“There is only one adequate response to such dark statements by the minister of education and that is to fire him immediately,” the National Association of LGBT in Israel said in a statement. “It is imperative to prevent Israeli girls and boys from exposure to the homophobic poison disseminated by one who is presumed to be involved with education and values.”
Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who appointed Mr Peretz education minister last month in a reshuffle within his transitional government, was quick to distance himself from the comments.
“The education minister’s remarks regarding the gay community are not acceptable to me and do not reflect the position of the government under my leadership,” he said.
The comments were condemned by politicians from the left, centre and more moderate right-wing parties who termed them “inhumane” and contradictory of Jewish values.
Following the outcry, Mr Peretz issued a clarification, stressing he did not claim that boys or girls should be sent to conversion therapy.
“During my years as an educator, I met with students who were in terrible distress over their sexual orientation and chose to receive help from professionals in changing their orientation. What I said in the interview was said out of my own personal familiarity with similar cases,” he said.
The other minister from the Union of Right-Wing Parties, Bezalel Smotrich, came to Mr Peretz's defence, condemning what he termed a media lynching. "I'm simply unready to accept a reality in which 'proponents of free speech' and liberalism again prove they are mainly thought dictators," he said.
Mr Peretz, a political novice, also caused controversy earlier this month when he said the intermarriage of Jews and gentiles in the diaspora amounted to a “second Holocaust”.