(JTA) — Ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to London, the United Kingdom’s chief rabbi is calling for “Jewish unity” in Israel and around the world in response to dramatic protests against proposed changes to the Israeli judicial system.
“I never thought that we would witness a time when citizens of Israel, including respected leaders, are openly speaking about the possibility, God forbid, of civil war,” Ephraim Mirvis wrote in a short op-ed in the Jewish Chronicle, the U.K.’s oldest Jewish newspaper. “At this moment of national crisis, Jewish unity must be our foremost priority. Jewish unity is not only a noble aspiration. It is a sacred responsibility — for politicians, leaders, activists, and for us all, both in Israel and around the world.”
It was his first statement on the ongoing protests, which have brought out hundreds of thousands onto the streets of Israel for months. Mirvis avoided taking a side in the charged debate over whether the proposals put forward by Israel’s right-wing government will help reform their judicial system by reining in the power of the Supreme Court or erode the country’s democracy.
The government drew fresh rebuke from protesters on Thursday as it passed a law that limits the ways a sitting prime minister can be removed from office. Netanyahu has been embroiled in multiple corruption cases for years.
Netanyahu delayed his London flight to early in the morning on Friday after making a nationally televised speech in which he said he will intervene in the judicial reform process, which has included bills on how judges are chosen and on the Supreme Court’s ability to halt legislation.
He was met with a chilly reception by local Jews during diplomatic visits to both Italy and Germany this month.
According to Haaretz, Netanyahu is expected to use the visit to reassure his British counterparts that his reforms will not change Israel’s identity as a democratic state. His public schedule included only a meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a Conservative, and no meetings with local Jewish figures.
Some liberal Jewish groups have joined in protesting Netanyahu’s upcoming appearance in London.
“You can’t enjoy a weekend in London while you are bringing down a democracy” reads a poster by Yachad UK, a British-Jewish group which advocates for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu is coming to London. He leads the far-right government which is working to destroy Israel’s judicial system, entrench occupation and trample on the rights of women & minorities,” the group added in a tweet, inviting others to join them in an all-day protest during Netanyahu’s visit.
In an op-ed, Marie Van Der Zyl, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, argued that those protesting should not be dismissed as haters of Israel.
“The protests in London are being led by Israelis. Israeli flags are proudly being flown. These are not people who seek to destroy Israel, but wish to save it from something they fear might lead to its destruction,” she wrote in the Jewish Chronicle.