Miliband's challenge to British Jews
The man who could be Britain's next prime minister may be Jewish, but he is also the ultimate assimilationist.
LONDON - Ed Miliband, the leader of Britain's Labor Party mentioned the word "Jewish" twice in his 65-minute long speech at the annual party conference in Manchester this week. Both times he was referring to his parents who had come to Britain as refugees from Nazi Europe. Regarding his own set of beliefs he was less clear. He said he was a "person of faith, not a religious faith but a faith nonetheless." There is an A-word missing there - even in the 21st century, it seems that a politician cannot get elected when he reveals he is an atheist.
There was nothing on foreign policy in his speech even though Miliband mentioned Israel five times. He wasn't referring to the country. The word was bracketed as he was talking about a historical figure, Benjamin Disraeli. The memory of the most famous prime minister of Victorian times was significant, not only since Miliband has appropriated Disraeli's One-Nation ethos, once the byword for the rival Conservative Party, but also because if the polls are anything to go by, three years from now Ed Miliband will be Britain's first Jewish prime minister since Disraeli. (And since Disraeli's father had him baptized at the age of 12 and he remained a practicing Anglican for the rest of his life, there will be those who will argue that should Miliband win the next general election, he will actually be the first Jewish premier.)
Voters like to know what makes their leaders tick. As Miliband tries to transform himself from a gawky policy wonk into PM-material, he understands that he must articulate to the British public what, if anything, his Jewishness means to him. Like it or not, (one feels that he would prefer not to have to expand on this aspect of his identity), Miliband is now the most prominent Jew in Britain. As he seeks to lead a nation, he will have to offer a clearer vision of what that means. His speech on Tuesday was his second attempt to do so.
Matzo ball identity
Earlier this year, in a special edition of the political weekly magazine New Statesman dedicated to Britain's Jews, Miliband wrote in a personal piece titled "The Patriotism of a Refugee" that "I am not religious. But I am Jewish. My relationship with my Jewishness is complex. But whose isn't?" But for all that complexity, Miliband had relatively little to offer in the way of his Jewishness aside from his parents' and grandparents' Holocaust suffering, a few phrases in Yiddish, chicken soup and matzo balls.
Since his parents' lives were defined by their Marxist ideology, not their religion, there was no bar mitzvah or membership in a synagogue for the Miliband boys growing up in London's Primrose Hill. Neither will there be for the sons of Ed and his non-Jewish spouse - though he plans some Woody Allen film nights. In the New Statesman he wrote, "sometimes I feel I missed out." I wonder if he really does. There is no lack of opportunities for catching up on his missed Jewish experiences in walking distance of his Hampstead home. He doesn't seem to have availed himself of them.
Many British Jews are exasperated with Miliband for not emphasizing his Jewishness enough. They will probably continue to be so. Unlike his two predecessors, the deeply religious Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, he is not demonstrably pro-Israel. His relatively few statements on the Middle East have been quite harsh on Israeli policies. There are no signs of him being a closet anti-Zionist but it will be surprising if he goes out of his way to court that section of the community which attaches major importance to a candidate's position on Israel.
Unlike Disraeli who was forced to contend with anti-Semitic slurs throughout his life, it seems unlikely that Miliband's origins will be one of the obstacles in his path to power. On the contrary, if his conference speech reveals anything about his personal identity, he plans to capitalize on his immigrant background.
Perhaps one of the most significant passages in his speech was this: "My conviction is rooted in my family's story, a story that starts 1,000 miles from here, because the Milibands haven't sat under the same oak tree for the last 500 years."
In a country which still has an affinity for the landed gentry, attested to by the continuing success of "Downton Abbey" now in its third season, and where the current prime minister is the fifth cousin of the Queen, Miliband's emphasis on his newcomer status is important. The success of this summer's London Olympics and the British team's medal haul has given him a unique opportunity to celebrate the success and patriotism of immigrants and refugees. He hailed Somali-born long distance runner and gold medalist Mo Farah as a "true Brit and a true hero for our country."
There are echoes here of the fabled Jewish cosmopolitanism and the innate ability to put down roots and thrive on any fertile and welcoming soil. But for Miliband this is not a unique Jewish quality and the credit must go to British society for its values of tolerance and fair play.
Miliband offered his listeners a cheerful and upbeat version of a diverse multi-ethnic society, his "One Nation," where everyone has an equal chance to shine. But in the creation of that society there doesn't seem to be much room for individual heritage and communal identity, rather a shared purpose and "a duty to leave the world a better place than we found it." Miliband may have nothing against individuals and communities performing their rituals and living according to their beliefs. But he has no use for any of that. His religion is politics and though not a Marxist, his family heritage is one of internationalism and universal brotherhood (and sisterhood).
There is an unspoken challenge here for any Jew in Britain interested in perpetuating an Anglo-Jewish identity that is at once integrated into the wider society but also retains a sense of unique culture and heritage. It is also a challenge for Zionists who expound the centrality of Israel in Jewish life, even for those who prefer living outside Zion. So far, I have not seen anyone acknowledge these challenges.
Three years from now Britain may have a Jewish prime minister who will also be the ultimate assimilationist. It will be fascinating to see if any communal leaders or educators find a way of explaining to themselves and to a younger generation why Ed Miliband's path in life is legitimate and a credit to British society and at the same time a departure from his Jewish identity.