LONDON — If British Jewry had to describe its relationship with the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Labour Party head Ed Miliband on Facebook, it probably would choose the option stating, “it’s complicated.”
Miliband’s elder brother, David, served as foreign secretary in the last Labour government. The siblings’ late father, Ralph Miliband, was a well-known Marxist academic, a historian and a refugee from Nazi persecution, like their mother, Marion (who is still alive).
But the brothers — who are halachically Jewish, have a Holocaust back story to which Ed Miliband often refers, and have family in Israel — have very different approaches to Israel and the Jewish community. Given a choice, it is no secret that Jewish communal leaders would have picked David Miliband to lead the Labour Party. David was a Blairite politician and a known quantity, whereas Ed was merely a backroom policy wonk who had worked as an adviser to the Treasury before entering parliament.
But Ed Miliband was elected as his party’s leader in September 2010, making him now the eighth longest serving Labour leader. In his first speech as party leader, the only foreign reference was, inevitably, to Israel and Gaza — and it was not complimentary to Israel.
Miliband agreed to attend that year’s meeting of the Labour Friends of Israel on the fringes of the annual Labour Party conference in October, but it was not a comfortable event, not least because Miliband tried – and failed – to leave the meeting before Israel’s ambassador, Daniel Taub, had spoken.
One commentator, speaking to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity, notes that “after that there was a gradual improvement.” Thanks, partially, it is thought, to the efforts of Labour peers such as Lord Glasman and Lord Kestenbaum, Ed Miliband began opening up about his Jewish background. In 2011, he married his long-time girlfriend, barrister Justine Thornton, with whom he had two sons, and in tribute to his roots, smashed a glass underfoot at his wedding ceremony.
Miliband addressed the community’s umbrella leadership Board of Deputies in 2013 and spoke – some said wistfully – of the lack of a Jewish education when he was growing up, of the fact that he wasn’t a member of a Jewish youth group, and didn’t celebrate a bar mitzvah.
Miliband addressed the Board of Deputies in 2013 and spoke – some said wistfully – of the lack of a Jewish education when he was growing up
Miliband went to Israel in 2014 and “said all the right things.” He met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s Labor leader, Isaac Herzog. He embraced his aunt, Sarah Ben Zvi, whom he had last seen as a seven-year-old on a family visit to Israel.
In March 2014 in London, he also addressed the Community Security Trust dinner, a massive annual gathering of nearly 1,000 Jewish leaders from all over the UK, telling them that he “felt part of the Jewish community more than ever before.” And he addressed the Labour Friends of Israel lunch in June and gave “a pitch perfect speech,” according to one commentator.
From the other direction, there have been Friday night dinners and a lot of behind-the-scenes courting of the politician by the community — a slightly bizarre state of affairs when at the same time the overtly Anglican prime minister, David Cameron, was fairly love-bombing the Jewish community.
Although Cameron, during a July 2010 visit to Turkey, spoke of Gaza as “a giant open-air prison,” that comment has virtually been airbrushed out of the prime minister’s relations with Anglo-Jewry. In an interview he gave to the Jewish Chronicle on May 1, Cameron maintained: “Israel was right to defend itself over Gaza… what I’ve seen is the attacks that take place on Israel and the indiscriminate nature of them. As PM, putting yourself in the shoes of the Israeli people, who want peace but have to put up with these indiscriminate attacks – that reinforces to me the importance of standing by Israel and Israel’s right to defend itself.”
There could scarcely be a greater contrast between Cameron and Miliband in relation to Israel, because the wheels fairly flew off the Miliband bus when last summer’s Operation Protective Edge erupted. While Miliband did not criticize Israel’s airstrikes against Hamas — despite heavy lobbying from the Palestine Solidarity Movement — once the ground incursion began he described Israel’s actions as “wrong and unjustifiable.”
Matters degenerated even further when it came to last October’s House of Commons vote on recognition of a Palestinian state. Miliband did not seem to know whether to force his Labour MPs to vote in favour or to allow them a free vote. At least three leading shadow Cabinet members, Ed Balls, Tristram Hunt and Luciana Berger, rebelled and the perception grew within the Jewish community that Ed Miliband, despite his Jewish heritage, was paradoxically “bad for the Jews.”
The perception grew within the Jewish community that Ed Miliband, despite his Jewish heritage, was paradoxically ‘bad for the Jews’
In the wake of the Commons vote, Jewish actress Maureen Lipman, a long-time Labour supporter, complained bitterly at Milband’s attitude to Israel and said she would leave the country if he became prime minister.
His advisers are said to have told him that the Palestine vote was a way of triggering meaningful peace talks, rather than waiting for an outcome of such talks before granting recognition. Whichever is the case, the mood music created led to a scarcely surprising Jewish Chronicle poll on April 10, in which only 22 percent of British Jews said they were prepared to vote for the Labour Party.
The mutterings grew louder when Jewish MPs in marginal constituencies began to complain that official Labour Party policy towards Israel was making it more difficult for them in the general election. Among the most forthright was Jewish MP Fabian Hamilton who sits for a north England constituency in Leeds where there are large numbers of Jewish voters.
Last month, describing Miliband’s attitude to Israel as “damaging,” Hamilton told the Jewish Chronicle: “I have some very strong personal relationships. But people have said to me that if it was not me [standing], they might consider not voting Labour.” There were voters, he said, “who will be fed up with Miliband for betraying Israel and the community.”
It was not just Miliband’s criticism of Israel and the Labour Party’s performance in the Palestine vote which enraged the Jewish community, but the Labour Party’s slowness to condemn the wave of anti-Semitism which followed the Gaza violence. Miliband himself deplored in the strongest terms the anti-Semitic abuse leveled on social media at his front-bench colleague, Luciana Berger, but some commentators have suggested that it is precisely because he is Jewish that there appears to be constraint at the top of the Labour Party in its dealings with the Jewish community.
One political activist, who knows Miliband well, told the Times of Israel: “His abiding quality is that when he says something, it is because he believes it. He is very consistent.
“I think, though, that if he gets the chance to be prime minister, first of all foreign affairs are unlikely to be at the top of his agenda, and second, what you do and say in government is not the same as what you do and say in opposition. Besides, on all the other issues which matter to the Jewish community, such as boycott, shechita, security, brit mila, Ed Miliband has shown himself to be in the right place,” he said.
Changing of the guard for the UK Board of Deputies
Only 10 days after the UK general election, the Jewish community will hold its own, internal elections, as three people bid to become president of the Board of Deputies – and thus, arguably, the person who would have to deal directly with the next prime minister.
One of the three candidates, journalist Alex Brummer, city editor of the Daily Mail, said a Jewish prime minister would make “no difference at all. I believe Jewishness is a part of Miliband, part of his soul, and to some extent it is a missing part of his life. But it is the case that he became Labour’s leader with massive support from the left wing and trade union movements, both of which have absorbed the Palestinian and BDS case quite strongly.”
Nevertheless, Brummer said, the Foreign Office was well aware of the strength of UK-Israel trade.
“The dialogue between Britain and Israel – and its economic strength – is becoming more powerful than the traditional view of the Middle East,” said Brummer.
Brummer added that much will depend on who might become foreign secretary in a Miliband-led administration. At the moment the smart money is on Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, a long-standing member of the Labour Friends of Israel.
Brummer’s opponent Laura Marks said: “As Jews, we tend to get fixated with the fact that Miliband is Jewish. But I think it is very dangerous for us to think that people’s Jewishness must affect everything in the way they operate. We need to take note of the fact that he is a politician, a leader of the Opposition, and a white middle-class male. Those things are just as important.”
Jonathan Arkush, the third candidate, is a London barrister. “The fear of the Jewish community would be that a Jewish prime minister might feel that he has to demonstrate to the British public their independence, by taking steps which would fly in the face of the Jewish community. It would go from being constructive, to being negative,” said Arkush.
“There is no doubt that Ed Miliband does not carry too much popularity with the Jewish community. That’s a fact. But I don’t doubt for one moment that the Jewish community will be able to have a warm and above all constructive dialogue with Prime Minister Miliband and his government. You have to find a way of talking; and it wouldn’t be the first time we have had problems with the government. So I’m not saying that we couldn’t do business with Ed Miliband, and I’m hopeful that we will,” he said.
Speaking to UK Jewish media this week just ahead of the May 7 election, Miliband said he valued his relationship with the Jewish community and described himself to the Jewish News as “a friend of Israel, a Jew, and a proud member of this community” who would always have Israel’s interests at heart.
Jews comprise only 0.5 per cent of the UK’s population, so the constant courting of the community by leading politicians makes little sense unless it is understood that Jews, unlike other minority communities, do actually vote. According to a recent analysis by Dr. Jonathan Boyd, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), there are 20 constituencies nationwide in which the Jewish vote can make a difference.
“The question of how Jews vote has long been debated. The common wisdom, based on longstanding survey evidence, is that the political preferences of British Jews fall somewhat to the right of the British population as a whole – i.e. whatever the current national polls reveal, collectively, Jews tend to be more right-wing,” wrote Boyd.
‘Jewish doctors and health professionals are noticeably less likely to vote Conservative than non-Jewish colleagues in the same professions’
Nevertheless, Boyd wrote that British Jews fall consistently to the left of those in equivalent occupations.
“For example, Jewish doctors and health professionals are noticeably less likely to vote Conservative than non-Jewish colleagues in the same professions. The same is true for business people and managers,” according to his report.
And even more intriguingly, “the more observant tend to be more likely to vote Conservative, the more secular tend to be more likely to vote Labour. Education also plays a part – better educated people (measured by highest level of qualifications attained) tend to vote Labour.”
So if Ed Miliband is to realize his dream of becoming prime minister, he truly may be relying on his last-minute wooing of the Jews – and hoping that the ones paying attention are the secular, educated ones.