Chief Rabbi 'horrified' over possibility of civil war in Israel

Sir Ephraim Mirvis echoes warning that clash over judicial reform could lead to civil war


Sir Ephraim Yitzchak Mirvis KBE, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Byline John Nguyen/JNVisuals 02/01/2022

The Chief Rabbi has revealed his “personal pain” over the political crisis in Israel and issued an urgent plea for unity over what he described as a huge source of “anguish and anxiety” across the Jewish world.

In an exclusive interview to mark the tenth anniversary of his tenure, Sir Ephraim Mirvis echoed a warning issued by President Isaac Herzog earlier this year that the judicial reform crisis could lead to civil war — a possibility that “horrifies” him.

He said: “To see Israel in the current state that it is brings deep sadness, and I believe there is an obligation on all sides right now to find common ground.” Failure to do this, he said, could lead to consequences “too bitter to contemplate”.

Having lived and studied in Israel, Sir Ephraim enjoys close contacts with the country’s political leaders and revealed he had discussed the crisis with them to “identify what our priorities must be”.

He told the JC that he drew comfort from the fact that demonstrators on both sides were “passionate about Israel”, pointing out that both marched behind Israeli flags, which showed they were “coming from the same place”.

But Sir Ephraim went on to warn that the consequences of failing to reach an agreement — which Herzog has been trying to broker for several months — could be catastrophic.

He told the JC: “It was President Herzog who mentioned, very early on, God forbid, the possibility of civil war. One is horrified by that possibility, and I hate to think that would ever happen.

"But the very fact that the president of Israel has mentioned such a possibility should highlight for Jewish people right around the world how grave the current situation is, and that is why my call for unity is all the more urgent and the more important.

“We need to take our love of Israel, our passion for Israel, and use it constructively,” the Chief Rabbi said, “and I applaud President Herzog for his efforts.”

He insisted that a deal was still “achievable”, saying: “We’ve just entered a new Jewish year, when Jewish people around the world focus on the opportunities that a new year provides.

“Therefore we need to renew our efforts and I urge all concerned not to say, ‘Oh well, we tried, it didn’t work.’ No! I urge us to focus on the common ground, to find an accommodation.”

Asked by the JC to reflect on his decade in office, he became more positive. He mentioned his involvement in the fight against climate change, pointing out that he had spoken at the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow two years ago and would be giving the opening address at the “faith pavilion” at COP28 in Dubai later this year.

He also recalled giving evidence to the Commons home affairs select committee in 2017, whose MPs asked him about antisemitism. By way of reply, “I took out a sheet of white paper and scribbled a black dot on it.

“I asked them, ‘What do you see?’ and they thought I was absolutely crazy. They said, ‘We see a black dot.’

"So I said no, there’s something much bigger than the black dot, the white background. And the white background represents the state of the Jews in the UK today.

“Things are very good for us. We are thriving in our communities; the state of our education is good, kosher facilities are good; it’s good and healthy to live a Jewish life in the UK today. But in that context, we have the black dot.

"Antisemitism is a growing problem, and we are exceptionally worried about it. It reflects what’s happening globally, and the anti-Zionist element is part of it.”

Those who denied Israel’s right to exist were, Sir Ephraim said, “pure antisemites”.

But, he went on, “thankfully, having gone through those very traumatic Corbyn years, we have emerged into a better place. However, there is still a lot of antisemitism, instances are rising, and there is a lot to be concerned about.”

Turning to interfaith dialogue, Sir Ephraim said that while such discussions had begun in the 1940s with discussions between Christians and Jews, the more important conversations now were between Jews and Muslims — a field in which “I have seen a significant development in the ten years I have been Chief Rabbi”.

In 2013, he said, “we had very few Muslim partners”, and he used to encounter “many moderates who didn’t want to put their heads above the parapet. But today we are encountering many more courageous Muslim faith leaders, together with fresh opportunities.”

The Abraham Accords between Israel and other Middle Eastern states had “opened a window of opportunity for engagement with Muslims”, the Chief Rabbi went on.

He said they had led to his own historic visits to Abu Dhabi and the opening of the Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith centre on the shore of the Persian Gulf. There would, he promised, be “further exciting developments” in the coming year.

Asked about whether it was appropriate to engage with Muslims who had expressed extremist views in the past, Sir Ephraim said it was important to realise that people were often “on a journey”, and even if their social media feeds contained past expressions of hatred towards Jews and Israel, it was sometimes possible to change their minds through dialogue.

“That’s why it’s so complex and so challenging,” Sir Ephraim said, “because we need to speak to these people, and at the same time, we cannot legitimise those who represent something which is dangerous to us and to others.

"We are all walking this tightrope and I have to work in a very careful way in this regard.”

He also cited the example of the Church of Scotland, which in 2013 published a document, The Inheritance of Abraham, that was “patently antisemitic, on religious grounds”.

Following a long series of meetings with its elders, the Chief Rabbi said “our relationship now is in a totally different place — this shows what dialogue can do. It’s easy to cancel people out. I would always like to give it a try — to turn enemies into friends.”

Last week, the Chief Rabbi’s office published a guide for rabbis, rebbetzin and lay leaders on baby loss, childlessness and infertility.

This, Sir Ephraim said, should be seen as reflecting another hallmark of his decade in office — his attempt to promote inclusiveness and opportunity for all Jews, including members of the LGBT community, deaf people, those with special educational needs and the neurodiverse.

At Yom Kippur, Sir Ephraim gave 11 sermons at three separate synagogues, reaching 5,000 people.

“It’s such a privilege for me to see the vitality of our communities, such wonderful people who are so passionately engaged with their Judaism,” he said.

“I draw my inspiration from the people I am privileged to lead.”

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