Labor Pains

By Ben Cohen
Wednesday, May 16, 2012

If Ed Miliband, leader of Britain's Labor Party, emerges victorious from the country's next general election, he will become the first Jewish Prime Minister to inhabit Number 10 Downing Street since Benjamin Disraeli renovated the innards of that venerable residence in 1877.  But the comparison with Disraeli doesn't reach far.  Though Disraeli was baptized into the Anglican Church as a child, his Jewish origins were an enduring presence throughout his literary and political career. Miliband, by contrast, has treated his Jewish heritage with seeming indifference.  He was raised by Jewish Marxist parents in the vibrant, multicultural surroundings of Camden Town in north London.  Indeed, his late father, Ralph Miliband, was one of Britain's foremost Marxist professors—a "non-Jewish Jew," Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher's term for Jews who had transcended their Jewish parochialism to attain universalist revolutionary consciousness.

And Ed Miliband's political career hasn't exactly been that of a friend of Israel.  Labor's internal battles over Israel, says Luke Akehurst, a member of the party's National Executive Committee, go "back to the conflicts in student politics during the 1970s and 1980s, when Labor supporters increasingly embraced the Palestinian cause." Tony Blair's support for Israel during the 2006 Lebanon war was received with enormous anger by party activists; indeed, says Akehurst, "Lebanon was the final straw that brought about Blair's resignation in 2007."

In those battles, Ed Miliband has been allied with Labor's Left and with labor unions that have initiated some of the ugliest aspects of anti-Zionist campaigning, including boycotts of Israel.  In his first leadership speech to Labor's annual conference, he spoke of the need to "strain every sinew" to lift the blockade of Gaza and affirmed his support for a two-state solution.  His mother Marion is a longstanding supporter of Jews for Justice for Palestinians and a fervent backer of the boatload of Jewish anti-Zionists who attempted to breach the naval blockade of Gaza in September, 2010.  Miliband's support for Ken Livingstone's failed bid to become mayor of London again also fueled doubts among British Jews, given Livingstone's strident anti-Zionism and his courting of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who has justified suicide bombings against Israelis.

In short, there was reason for concern that Miliband might take sharply anti-Israel positions.  But those close to Miliband say that his Jewish soul has, in the last few months, hesitantly begun to stir.

Miliband's paternal grandfather and his father, then 16, walked more than 60 miles from Brussels to the Belgian coast to escape the invading Nazis; his grandmother hid throughout the war with her daughter, who was too young to make the trip.  His maternal grandfather was murdered by the Nazis in Poland; his mother survived in hiding.  "I wonder if it's like this for other Holocaust families," Miliband said recently, but the family's story "was only told in a limited way in our household, because it was such a painful thing.  It was hard for me to compute, trying to understand it."

Recently, however, Miliband attended a dinner at the home of Britain's chief rabbi, where the grace after meals was recited. Afterwards, he told friends that the songs and prayers made him think of his grandparents and great-grandparents offering up the same thanks. The episode left Miliband visibly touched; those who heard his recollections were similarly moved.  But why is his awakening occurring now, and taking place so publicly?

In the last few weeks, a decent showing by the Labor Party in local elections, the country's economic woes, and splits in David Cameron's Conservative-led coalition have boosted Miliband's ratings. Still, most of Britain's political commentators remain wary of betting on a Miliband triumph by the time the next election rolls around in 2015.  

The commentators' skepticism is understandable: In the 20 months since his election as Labor leader, Miliband has struggled with credibility and policy woes, not least because that election bid came at the expense of the leadership aspirations of his elder brother, David, in an episode some likened to the story of Cain and Abel. Following recent speculation that David may be planning a comeback, Ed Miliband was participating in a BBC radio phone-in program when a string of callers urged him to step down as Labor leader; one labeled him a "laughing stock." The following day, the conservative Daily Mail ran a photo of a grinning Miliband alongside a picture of the bug-eyed, toothy "Gromit" character from the cartoon show Wallace and Gromit.

This wasn't the first time that Miliband had been lampooned as a "Gromit" lookalike, but it evidently lit a fire under his communications team. Two weeks later, the Times of London published a flattering profile of Ed—in which he spoke movingly and at length of his family's experiences during the Holocaust.

There is another fact: Some of the Labor party figures who have been pushing Miliband to open up, Jewish-wise, are active supporters of the Labor Friends of Israel.  "They've been advising him to make it known that he's comfortable with his Jewish identity," says Martin Bright of London's Jewish Chronicle. "I don't think Ed is happy talking about himself in this way, but he's been persuaded by people who care about him that he needs to tell his story more."  Miliband's Jewish supporters point out that at a Labor Friends of Israel luncheon in November, 2011 he declared, "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for the state of Israel."

This was a bold move, but what does it mean?  Isaiah Berlin, in his magisterial essay on Benjamin Disraeli and Karl Marx, noted that Disraeli, the consummate outsider, reconciled his Jewish origins with his advocacy of traditional aristocratic privilege by depicting the Jews as the most aristocratic of all nations. But Miliband is an insider; his family background reflects modern Britain in all its ethno-cultural complexity. The vision is one of a gloriously polyglot land of non-Jewish Jews and non-British Britons, proud of its past, yet open to all manner of influences.

For the Labor Party to appeal to British voters, it will naturally focus on boilerplate issues such as jobs and the National Health Service. But with his position perennially in question, Ed Miliband's priority is to persuade the party that he is the man to make Labor's case. Whether his appeal to his Jewish origins will endear him, however, remains to be seen.

Ben Cohen, a former BBC producer, is a writer based in New York.


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