British opposition leader Ed Miliband is due in Israel this week for a three-day visit during which he is expected to meet with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials and address Israeli students in Jerusalem. Miliband’s visit is hailed as the future prime ministerial hopeful’s first major foreign trip since becoming the leader of the opposition in 2010.
Miliband, who is Jewish, has a reasonable chance of succeeding current Prime Minister David Cameron after the next general election, scheduled for May 2015, as his Labour Party has consistently been leading in recent polls.
The 44-year-old politician is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Thursday and, besides meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, plans to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum and deliver a lecture at the Hebrew University, at which he will take questions from the students.
A self-described atheist and Zionist, Miliband said his connection with his Jewish roots has deepened since he became Labour leader. “I feel more part of the Jewish community than at any other time in my life,” he said at a fundraising event for the Community Security Trust in March.
After an initial reluctance to publicly discuss his Jewish background, Miliband, who was elected party leader in 2010 after defeating his older brother, David, has recently begun speaking more openly about his family’s history. At an event organized by the British Jewish community last year in London, he opened with the story of how his Belgian father escaped the Nazis in 1940 on one of the last boats out of the country, seeking refuge in London, leaving behind a mother, sister and more than 20 other members of the family, all of whom were sheltered by a farmer for the duration of the war. His Polish mother was hidden in a convent by Catholic nuns.
He also recounted how he visited his maternal grandmother in Israel as a 7-year-old and noticed a picture of his grandfather, who had been killed in the camps, on the mantelpiece.
“From that moment onward, I realized Israel was giving my grandmother an incredible sanctuary,” he said to applause at the event. “I have respect, admiration and indeed a debt to Israel for the sanctuary it gave my grandmother.”
Having grown up with a Marxist academic father in north London, he admitted that the family was “not very involved” in the Jewish community, but that politics was in his blood. Influenced by their own background as refugees, his parents taught him that injustice must be challenged.
“It was tikkun olam [the Jewish concept of repairing the world]. I didn’t know it when I was growing up, but my upbringing was about caring about the world,” said Miliband, confessing that he had learned the Hebrew term only recently.
Answering questions from the 300-strong crowd at the event last year, Miliband declared that he would protect kosher animal slaughter and Jewish circumcisions, practices that have come under fire elsewhere in Europe. Asked whether he was a Zionist, Miliband responded, “Yes. I consider myself a supporter of Israel… It doesn’t mean I support everything Israel’s government does.”
Not only would he oppose boycotts of Israel, he was prepared to say so to trade union members who have been at the forefront of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign in the UK, but who were also largely responsible for his election as Labour leader. Boycotts “are totally wrong,” Miliband said. “I have no tolerance for boycotts. I will say it to any trade union member who asks me. You don’t create a two-state solution with boycotts.”