Ed Miliband, head of the British opposition and the Labour Party’s first Jewish leader, said he believed Israel to be the homeland of the Jewish people, but stopped short of calling himself a Zionist, as he met with Hebrew University students today in Jerusalem. This marks his first public appearance on a visit that is taking his efforts to rebuild the United Kingdom’s “New Jerusalem” to the Jerusalem of Old. Just one month after Miliband’s chief rival, Prime Minister David Cameron, was heckled during his speech to the Knesset (unfazed, Cameron said his ambassador had taught him the word balagan prior to his address), Miliband faced a decidedly more favorable audience at the Mount Scopus campus.
Miliband, the son of Polish Holocaust survivors, opened by telling students that this trip takes him back to his first visit to Israel, at the age of seven, when a chance encounter with an old photograph at his grandmother’s Tel Aviv home led his family to tell him his grandfather had been killed by the Nazis. He came to Israel today, he said, with deep gratitude for how his grandmother had been treated by this country.
Miliband’s three-day visit to Israel is his first as Labour leader—he defeated his brother, David, in the 2010 race—and its significance owes much to his status as the party’s first Jewish leader. His own relationship with Judaism and the Jewish community has often been strained. Miliband, who grew up as an atheist and was married in a civil ceremony (though he did break a glass at the end), has described his Jewishness as more the stuff of leftist politics, Woody Allen, Yiddish slang, and matzoh ball soup than anything resembling organized religion.
When I asked him today about his feelings as the Jewish leader of a Labour Party with outspoken anti-Israel members, he expressed deep concern about anti-Semitism. “You don’t have the family history that I’ve had without feeling that when prejudice and anti-Semitism come to the fore, it raises a whole set of deep anxieties about where it might lead,” he said. “As for my party, the basis of the Labour Party and why I am in politics is equality and that’s about rooting all forms of prejudice, anti-Semitism as much as any other. And so if that ever occurs in my party, we are very vigilant about it–that is totally unacceptable.”
Though Miliband has previously said he “would not be leader of the Labour Party without the trauma of my family history,” his Jewish roots have been regularly overshadowed by a Labour Party with marked anti-Israel tendencies. Those, in turn, have further complicated his standing within the British Jewish community (in stark contrast with the warm relationship that Jewish communities have with the Prime Minister Cameron and Mayor of London Boris Johnson—both non-Jewish members of the Conservative party).
The trade union movement, which constitutes the party’s financial backbone, has voiced support for BDS. A cadre of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist MPs within the Parliamentary Labour Party (including Richard Burden, Jeremy Corbyn, Martin Linton, and Sir Gerald Kaufman) use parliamentary debates to raise criticism of Israel in a disproportionate manner and have in the past made statements that have been viewed as anti-Semitic. Controversial statements regarding Israel and Jews by former mayor of London (and former Labour MP) Ken Livingstone–who Miliband has publicly supported in the face of criticism–have added to the distrust.
Even Miliband’s own efforts to publicly support Israel and the two-state solution, while opposing boycotts, have backfired because of his party’s politics. After he pointedly went on the record as a Zionist at a public event last year, his comments were met with harsh criticism, and his office quickly denied them.
He again dodged the Zionist question today, stating that “the way I think about this is that for me Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people, and the reason I put it in those terms, that’s the way I think about it, is because not just a theoretical idea for me, it’s my family’s experience. That’s the way I like to talk about it.” When pressed later, he repeated the answer.
Speaking in the center of a room surrounded by students, Miliband expressed his support for the faltering peace process, for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear threat (“No one has any illusions regarding Iran … but I don’t see any other good outcome”) and didn’t want to talk about visiting his relatives that live across the Green Line (“I have relatives all over the country, I’m not in touch with everyone”). Constantly treading on egg shells, it was a masterful–though decidedly un-candid–performance by a leader grappling with issues both global and deeply personal.
Thanks to Liam Hoare for his indispensable assistance with all matters Jewish and British.