Ten years ago in relatively tolerant, open-minded America, when former Senator Joe Lieberman’s abortive campaign for the presidency was still picking up what he called “Joementum,” punditry abounded as to whether the US was ready for a Jewish president, how the presence of a Jew in the White House might impact US-Israel relations, whether a Jewish president would be capable of taking objective positions on the Jewish homeland.
If the latest polls hold true, Britain appears to be two years from electing a Jewish prime minister. Labor holds its biggest lead in a decade over David Cameron’s governing Conservatives, and Labor is led by a Jew, the child of Polish Jewish immigrants. Yet for all the anti-Semitic undertones — sometimes overtones — in British society, Ed Miliband’s halachically indisputable Jewishness is just not an issue.
So says Vivian Wineman, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella representative group of the United Kingdom’s Jewish community.
Miliband wouldn’t be the first British Jewish-born prime minister, Wineman notes. But if he maintains his poll-topping form — and the two years to the scheduled 2015 elections are a long, long time in politics — he would be the first to hold the post while retaining fealty to his religion.
His Jewish prime ministerial predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli (PM from 1874-80), was emphatically born into the faith… and equally emphatically baptized, reportedly after a dispute between his father and their synagogue. (Disraeli reportedly told Queen Victoria, when she enquired as to his religion, “I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New.”)
“Disraeli’s father Isaac was a prominent member of the British Jewish community,” says Wineman, in an easy-going interview in The Times of Israel’s offices on a visit to Jerusalem on Wednesday. ”And the Board’s offices in [London's] Bloomsbury Square happen to be in Isaac D’Israeli’s home. Benjamin might well have been circumcized somewhere in our offices.”
Wineman’s assertion that Miliband’s Jewishness is simply not an electoral factor is supported by recent precedent, he says. In the 2005 elections, the Conservatives were led by Michael Howard, whose Jewishness was well-known. “His father was actually a cantor.” Howard lost heavily to Labor’s incumbent Tony Blair that year, but his religion had nothing to do with that defeat.
“The analysts looked into the issues that affected the vote,” says Wineman. “And Howard’s Jewishness wasn’t anywhere. I would think the same applies to Miliband.”
So Britain is ready for (another) Jewish prime minister? “I suppose so,” says Wineman genially, with the air of a man who hasn’t actually given the matter much thought.
Wineman says Miliband, who defeated his older brother, former foreign secretary David, to win the Labor leadership in 2010, contentedly identifies as Jewish, broke a glass after his civil wedding ceremony in 2011, “and says he feels he’s lost out” by not involving himself more in his religion. Miliband has visited Israel, and Wineman believes Miliband’s grandmother may have lived here. Still, Miliband is certainly not an observant Jew like Joe Lieberman; perhaps if he was, his religion might be more of an issue.
Has Miliband’s Jewishness affected his thinking on Israel? In the past, says Wineman, “he was very critical of Israel, and said he thought its policy on the territories was wrong,” recalls Wineman, himself a past leader of Peace Now and the New Israel Fund in the UK. “When he was first elected leader, he singled out Israel and the territories as a foreign policy issue he wanted to talk about. Now he’s toned that down.”
The Labor leader, says Wineman, “is very happy to engage in dialogue with the Jewish community,” as are all mainstream British political leaders.
The Board president notes that Cameron also has Jewish heritage — a great-great-grandfather and -mother — ”and he’s quite happy to discuss it.” London mayor and potential future prime minister Boris Johnson, also a Conservative, has a Jewish great-grandparent.
One notable exception to the norm of prominent British politicians with good relations to the Jewish community is the man Johnson defeated last year for the London mayoralty, Ken Livingstone, a radical left-winger who has been viciously critical of Israel, and who, says Wineman, “blames the Jews, even the Board, for the fact that he lost.” At one point shortly before the vote, Livingstone reportedly remarked upon the “rich” Jews who “won’t vote for me anyway.” “He did apologize,” notes Wineman.
Wineman clarifies that the Board “didn’t campaign against him,” and that Livingstone spoke, as did the other mayoral candidates, at community events. Is Livingstone, who was mayor of London from 2000-2008 before Johnson ousted him, an anti-Semite? “He says some pretty unfortunate things.”
A minority of other politicians are deeply hostile. “There are certainly a few maverick anti-Semitic politicians,” Wineman says. Liberal-Democrat MP David Ward said recently he was “saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could, within a few years of liberation, be inflicting atrocities on the Palestinians in the new State of Israel — and continue to do so.” He subsequently offered what Wineman described as “a half-hearted apology” but left his original remarks posted on his website. And when his party leadership — “who were as horrified as we were” — tackled him on the issue, he essentially ‘stuck two fingers up at them.”
Such episodes, says Wineman, are relatively unusual. Overall, he says, “Anti-Semitism isn’t respectable in the UK. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist” and that there aren’t disturbing cases where criticism of Israel “spills over” into anti-Semitism.
He cites, for instance, an annual Al-Quds day sponsored by Iran on the third Friday of Ramadan, where demonstrators produce “some frightful rhetoric. They say terrible things about the Jews.”
Assessing the British Jewish community as a whole, Wineman says its numbers are stable, possibly even growing — as is the ultra-Orthodox proportion within it. Nationwide, 30% of school-age children are Haredi, he says, “and in Manchester [the nation's second-largest Jewish community after London] they may even be the majority.”
Anglo Jewry is increasingly gravitating to London and Manchester — “young people have social expectations; they want to mix with lots of people their own age” — and the regions, communities in cities like Leeds and Liverpool, are gradually dying.
Wineman is in Israel for one of the Board leadership’s regular visits, and he and his colleagues were meeting Thursday with President Shimon Peres and outgoing Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer. They were also following up on a long-term project relating to the welfare of Israeli Arabs.
Anglo-Jewry, he says, is “one of the most Zionist communities in the world,” with 85 to 90% of Anglo-Jews defining themselves as very close to Israel, and more than 90% having visited. “Over half of British 16-year-old [Jews] go to Israel on an organized ‘Heritage’ tour — that’s 1,600 a year,” he notes. Incidentally, much of Wineman’s own family lives in Israel, he says.
The official community total is 267,000, based on a 2011 national census. But most people consider that an under-evaluation. “The question asking for your religion was not mandatory,” and plenty of community members doubtless preferred not to answer.
Would Miliband have ticked the Jewish box? “I’m sure he wouldn’t. And nor would his mother, who’s very left-wing.”
“I don’t think Michael Howard would have put down that he’s Jewish either,” Wineman chuckles. “His son certainly wouldn’t. He’s a vicar.”