Who is Ed Miliband, and What Does He Want?

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

With the Conservatives now in power in Britain, the Labor party has been sorting out not only its personnel but its policies, including toward Israel and the Middle East. In his campaign for the party's leadership, in which he narrowly edged out his brother David, Ed Miliband pledged to visit the area to see first-hand "what is happening on the ground." Now ensconced as the head of the opposition, Miliband is expected to turn his attention mostly to Britain's budget and debt burden, not to foreign affairs. Simultaneously, he is moving to jettison his well-earned moniker of "Red Ed" (red as in "Red Ken" Livingstone, the former far-Left mayor of London).

What to make of the Jewishness of Labor's first Jewish leader? Although Miliband makes no effort to deny his origins, neither does he display any special attachment to Jewish culture or civilization. His parents, who fled Europe, raised their children to embrace exclusively "progressive" values. His Polish-born mother is an ardent pro-Palestinian activist. His late father, Belgian-born, is said to have evinced early Zionist sympathies before becoming permanently enamored with Marxism.

Plainly, Miliband will be of no particular help to Britain's 262,000-plus Jewish community. Nor is his frosty attitude toward the Jewish state—he has described himself as a "critical friend"—likely to undergo metamorphosis. As a Euro-liberal, Miliband acknowledges Israel's right to exist and right to self-defense purely in the abstract, and even these are implicitly conditioned on Israel's ability to deliver "justice for the Palestinians." No wonder that his campaign attracted party hard-liners fixated by the Palestinian Arab cause.  

As for Labor itself, founded in 1900 as an amalgamation of the Fabian Society, trade unions, and a precursor socialist party, it has always been of two minds about Zionism and the Jews. Despite early association with the urban Jewish working classes, the unions supported passage of the 1905 Aliens Act aimed at restricting Jewish immigration from Tsarist Russia. In 1911, trade unionists carried out a pogrom in Wales to force out local Jewish merchants. On the other hand, in 1917, at the time of the Balfour Declaration, Labor warmly endorsed Jewish settlement in Palestine and in 1922 sent its first Jewish member to parliament.

In the dark days before World War II, Labor accepted, grudgingly, the necessity of rearmament against Nazi Germany. In 1944, its platform was friendly toward Zionist aspirations, and by 1945 it was calling for an end to Britain's heartless barring of Jewish immigration to Palestine. But all that changed within months of the party's sweeping post-war election victory as the new government's foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, a former labor organizer with strong anti-Jewish prejudices, wholly embraced the Arab line. Paradoxically, this same electoral victory sent an astounding 26 Jews to parliament, but only six could be cajoled into venturing the slightest public opposition to Bevin's catastrophic policies. The Labor government petulantly withheld diplomatic recognition of Israel until February 1949.

By the 1960s, Labor's hard-Left factions were on the ascendant. Even Prime Minister Harold Wilson, a moderate, was cold to Israel's entreaties in the lead-up to the 1967 war. After Labor's 1979 defeat by Margaret Thatcher, the party only slightly adjusted its leftward drift; not until 1997 did the moderates regain control when Tony Blair led "New Labor" to power. In the course of Blair's long reign, hostility toward Israel—and often obliquely toward Jews—became viral among Labor's supporters in the media, unions, and academia. Blair himself, during the second intifada, tried to split the difference by incessantly lobbying Washington to extract strategically costly diplomatic concessions from Israel; even so, his refusal to side openly with the campaign to de-legitimize the Jewish state tarred him as a philo-Zionist among leftists.

Now, with the defeat of Blair's successor Gordon Brown by the Conservatives under David Cameron, and with Miliband's victory in the party elections, New Labor is itself finished. Still not entirely clear, though, is what all this portends for Israel and the Jewish community.

Nowadays, the political loyalties of British Jews are mostly split between Labor and the Tories. What with demographic and class shifts—fewer Jewish cabbies, more Jewish lawyers—the community is also without its former influence in the unions. As for Miliband, although he is undoubtedly a radical, the good news is that he has a pragmatic streak. By happenstance, moreover, in David Cameron he is up against an incumbent premier whose lack of empathy for the Zionist enterprise parallels his own. In the circumstances, the hardheaded assessment of Labor's new leader may be that Israel-bashing provides few political benefits; and in the meantime, domestic issues beckon.

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