LONDON — When Ed Miliband came to Israel in April, he spoke during a question-and-answer session at Hebrew University in Jerusalem about how he understood Zionism.
“For me, Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people,” Britain’s Labour Party leader told students. “I come here very conscious of my family’s history and also with a deep sense of gratitude to Israel for what they did for my grandmother. Israel was a sanctuary for her from the most indescribable grief. So it’s a personal journey for me as well.”
It was a full and personal answer, but at the same time a dodge and obfuscation. Miliband managed to say he believed in the necessity of Israel and its right to exist without having to use the Z-word. He had landed himself in hot water for calling himself a Zionist once before in March 2013 – a declaration he had to walk back within twenty-four hours, his office clarifying he had “not used the word Zionist to describe himself” – and wasn’t about to do it again.
His measured declaration of support for Israel was intended to pacify all parties, including the organized Jewish community back home, for whom those remarks were in fact intended. Since he became the first Jewish leader of the British Labour Party in September 2010, Miliband has made a conscious attempt to court Jewish community leaders and institutions. In contrast to the obviously strong relationship between the community and David Cameron and Boris Johnson, Miliband was unknown and is still, to an extent, distrusted.
Yet in spite of the work he has done and still has to do, Miliband in the midst of hostilities elected to come out in strong opposition to Operation Protective Edge.
“I defend Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks,” he told Labour’s National Policy Forum on July 19. “But I cannot explain, justify, or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, including children and innocent civilians. And as a party we oppose the further escalation of violence we have seen with Israel’s invasion of Gaza.”
“We have been here before and we know what happens next. More loss of life, more Palestinian suffering, more hatred and more recruits to the ranks of terrorist groups like Hamas. This escalation will serve no lasting purpose and will do nothing to win Israel friends,” he added.
While it might at first seem incongruous to have come out against Operation Protective Edge at a time when relations with the Jewish community were just beginning to warm up, it should be understood that the considerations of the Jewish community were very much separate and secondary to internal Labour Party politics. Within the Parliamentary Labour Party, it is fair to say, a majority of MPs subscribe to the view articulated by Miliband.
“It’s political positioning. As with all of Ed Miliband’s stances since he became leader of the Labour Party, he is primarily driven by where he feels the balance of opinions rests within the Labour Party,” Dan Hodges, writer for The Daily Telegraph and a former Labour Party and trade union official, told The Times of Israel.
“Initially he tried to adopt a neutral stance on events in Gaza but when he saw the growing anger within the party and on the wider left about what was happening, he moved to align himself with that strand of opinion,” said Hodges.
However, there is a concern among some Labour MPs that Miliband is not sufficiently taking into account Israel’s right to self-defense and that his stance on Operation Protective Edge represents more an attempt to distance himself from previous Labour leaders.
“Just look at his record. He likes to pretend he’s driven by some moral compass but the truth is he’s the most cynical leader Labour has ever had,” one former Labour minister told The Jewish Chronicle. “Syria, now Israel. He’ll sell anyone out for a vote.”
Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside and a Labour Friends of Israel officer, did not wish to comment to The Times of Israel on Miliband’s position on Operative Protective Edge.
“Israel was wholly justified in taking action to protect its civilians from rocket attacks directed at Israel citizens and from the terror tunnels that would have been used to launch mass attacks,” Ellman told The Times of Israel, adding that efforts should now be undertaken to foster a stable situation in the region.
“Previous Labour leaders have been much clearer” in their support for Israel, she added. Ellman acknowledged, however, that in terms of views that have been expressed in public, her position on Operation Protective Edge is a “minority position” within the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Miliband’s stance is not only an expression of the majority opinion within the Labour Party – it also reflects wider public opinion, particularly as it relates to civilian casualties on the Palestinian side and the feeling of disproportionality and asymmetry in the conflict.
62 percent of Britons – including 72% of Labour supporters and 57% of Conservative voters – believe that the current Israeli government is guilty of war crimes
A survey conducted by YouGov at the end of July found that 62 percent of Britons – including 72% of Labour supporters and 57% of Conservative voters – believe that the current Israeli government is guilty of war crimes.
Within the Jewish community itself, Miliband’s unequivocal position on the conflict in Gaza earned him a rebuke from The Jewish Chronicle.
A stinging leader, noting Miliband’s “concerted effort to embrace the Jewish community,” said on July 24 that “with Israel now in need of support from its friends, he has shown that words are cheap. Miliband is, of course, entitled to take whatever view he wishes of Operation Protective Edge. But he cannot indulge in knee-jerk criticism of a nation defending itself from terrorism and then expect anyone to take seriously his claim to be a true friend of Israel.”
In the same paper, Kate Bearman – former director of Labour Friends of Israel and adviser to ex-FM Jack Straw – announced she was quitting the Labour Party after being a supporter for twenty years.
“I feel Ed Miliband’s rush to a condemnation of Israel’s ground incursion into Gaza gave me no choice but to say goodbye to the party I have always voted and campaigned for,” Bearman wrote. “They have chosen to play political games with a highly complex situation in the Middle East. They have chosen to disregard the culpability of Hamas who, undeniably, use the people they purport to represent as human shields.”
The Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), too, made a bold statement.
“It is not credible to suggest that the situation can be resolved simply by calling for a cease fire, when over recent weeks Hamas has brazenly breached six ceasefires, each accepted and observed by Israel, and abused them to perpetrate further attacks,” JLC said on August 4.
“Political leaders in the United Kingdom have an important role to play in bringing about a sustained end to the current violence and a demilitarization of the Gaza Strip. This is a critical issue and we hope that such an important matter will not be used to create domestic political points of difference,” said JLC.
From this, it would be easy to conclude that Miliband has reopened the rift between himself and the community that took him so long to bridge. But not all community institutions have been so strong in their condemnation as the JLC. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, for example, has not taken a stance on Miliband’s opposition.
The Board stated it was “alarmed by a number of statements from politicians of different parties which show a lack of understanding about the challenges that Israel faces” and called for fewer “political gestures,” a statement that might as well as have been directed at the JLC as much as Ed Miliband himself.
Since he became leader of the Labour Party, Miliband’s engagement with Judaism and the Jewish community has been, as he indicated to students in Jerusalem, a personal journey. Miliband had a political Jewish upbringing, growing up in an atheist, Marxist household and marrying in a civil ceremony.
It is true that Miliband’s language has changed and he has made a concerted effort to ingratiate himself with the community. But as his opposition to the conflict in Gaza demonstrates, his politics very much remain his politics.