LONDON — As he posed for the cameras at the end of an evening Q&A with Britain’s Jewish community, a beaming Ed Miliband was heckled by a member the audience. Glancing down, the Jewish leader of the UK’s Labour Party realized that the Haggadah he was holding, a gift from the organizers, was upside down. He quickly corrected course, grinning sheepishly.
The audience didn’t seem to mind. By then, Miliband, who according to polls is the UK’s first realistic prospect for a Jewish prime minister in the modern era, had charmed the room with his easy manner, and his frankest yet declarations of admiration for Israel and for his Jewish heritage. The fact that he did not seem to know too much about either was politely ignored.
Miliband, who was elected party leader in 2010 after defeating his older brother, David, has taken to discussing his family background with increasing frequency. Thursday night, he opened with the now-familiar 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. “I have respect, admiration and indeed a debt to Israel for the sanctuary it gave my grandmother.”
Growing 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 tackled.
‘I have respect, admiration and indeed a debt to Israel for the sanctuary it gave my grandmother’
“It was tikkun olam. 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 for “repairing the world” only recently.
Answering questions from the 300-strong crowd, 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.”
Miliband declined to say what he would do if sanctions against Iran failed completely, saying only that it was “essential” to pursue a twin track of sanctions and negotiations regarding the country’s nuclear program. He also ducked a question on the Conservative-Liberal Democratic government’s proposals to make primary schools teach one of seven foreign languages, which has raised concern in the Jewish community because the list does not include Hebrew. Miliband later said that he was not aware of the plans, and would look into them.
He seemed on surer ground when responding to questions on general policy, including immigration, housing and bankers, which initially seemed to preoccupy the audience. Successive audience members preceded their questions by declaring that they were members of the Labour party; there was also a high representation from the Board of Deputies, Anglo Jewry’s representative organization, which sponsored the event together with the Jewish News freesheet.
Miliband was most animated, however, when asked by an American in the crowd whether he admired any American sports. Miliband, who briefly lived in Boston as a child and later studied at Harvard, excitedly declared his love for the Boston Red Sox, giving the bemused English audience a potted history of the baseball team and confessing that he had just ordered a poster featuring Dave Roberts’ stolen base in the 2004 American League Championship Series. He could talk about baseball all night, he mused, and wished for more baseball questions.