Miliband and the Loneliness of a Jewish Diaspora Politician

In interview with Haaretz, visiting U.K. Labor Party chief speaks of 'deep affection’ for Jewish state

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Labor Party leader Ed Miliband lays a wreath at Yad Vashem with his wife Justine beside him.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In a little over a year from now, Ed Miliband could well be the first Jewish prime minister of the United Kingdom. Despite this, in the three and a half years since he became leader of the Labor Party, there has remained a lingering feeling of unease with him in the British Jewish establishment, especially the more pro-Israel element of the community.

“David Cameron isn’t Jewish, neither were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but there’s always a feeling that Miliband feels a lot less comfortable than they ever did at Jewish events” says one veteran official at a major Jewish organization.

In an interview with Haaretz yesterday, Miliband tries to dismiss the suspicion with which he is regarded by some British Jews and Israelis.

“I think there are different people with different views. I have a very good relationship with the Jewish community in Britain and I’m very proud of my link with the Jewish community.” Perhaps unconsciously this is the reason for some of the unease; Miliband regards himself as having a relationship with the Jewish community, not as being part of it.

Miliband is visiting Israel and the West Bank this weekend, only four weeks after his opponent, Prime Minister David Cameron was here, delivering a rousingly pro-Israel speech to the Knesset. For Israeli diplomacy, this has been a rare coup, having Britain’s current and quite possibly its next leader here in the space of a month. At times, they both seem to be outdoing each other to praise Israel and paper over any differences between the two countries. Unlike on domestic policy, where the Labor Party and its leader constantly clash with Cameron’s Tories, here in Israel, Miliband does not seem at pains to emphasize their differences on foreign policy.

“We have a bipartisan approach on these issues, so I think it’s important we have a unified position. There are certain points of difference but in general we have a similar position.” he says, reiterating the regular formulations of the two-state solution with security for Israel and independence for the Palestinians. The main division on the Palestinian issue was in November 2012 when Miliband supported the Palestinian bid to update its status at the United Nations because in his opinion it strengthened the “moderate” Palestinian elements, while the Conservative government abstained. Now, however, he refuses to take a position on the latest decision by the Palestinian Authority to unilaterally join more than a dozen international conventions, saying that the most important thing now is to get back to negotiations as soon as possible.

Miliband in his visit seems to be going out of his way to seem as pro-Israel as possible. In an hour-long session during which he took questions from Hebrew University students at the Mount Scopus campus in Jerusalem, he started out by saying that “Israel gets into lots of headlines but its great achievements get ignored.” In the interview he says “I’m here to learn, not to lecture.”

But supporting Israel is never simple. A year ago, he was asked at an open meeting with a Jewish audience whether he is a Zionist, he answered in the affirmative but the next day his office tried to claim he hadn’t actually admitted to being a Zionist. In the interview he denies that there is anything wrong with being both leader of the British Labor Party and a Zionist but somehow manages to avoid actually saying the Z-word. “I see Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people and that’s really important to me.”

He feels much more comfortable couching his connection with Israel to his family history, rather than in ideological terms. His father, Marxist theoretician Ralph Miliband, arrived in Britain during the World War II as a refugee from his native Belgium. His mother survived the Holocaust in hiding in Poland. In a similar way, in his speeches in Britain, he is describes his connection to his homeland as the “son of refugees,” rather than as a British Jew.

He is however very sincere and warm when he talks about his “deep affection” for Israel.

“For me it’s not just theoretical, it’s actually practical. It’s about what this incredible sanctuary means to my family. Landing last night at the airport took me back to being seven years old, coming to visit my grandmother. To me it’s a practical sense of what Israel has done for my family and the importance of it.”

But beyond his family experiences and a general commitment to the two-state solution, Miliband isn’t into offering detailed policies for Israel and the region, certainly not being critical of Israel in any way. In his public appearances, he prefers not to talk about the settlements in length, saying they are “an issue that needs to be addressed” and reminding his listeners briefly that “they’re illegal by international law” – but does not offer his own view. He actually has some relatives living in Israel across the Green Line, or as he says in response to another question “I’ve got a lot of relatives all across Israel.”

When asked about Iran, Miliband, who successfully opposed in parliament the government’s plan a retaliatory strike on Syria following the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons says “We never rule out any options” and that we “have no illusions about the (Iranian) regime, we shouldn’t take on trust what they say.”

Even when asked about Labor support for policies that the Israeli government is less happy about, such as the recent European Union guidelines against financing any Israeli organization connected to the settlements and labeling settlement products exported to the EU, he instead prefers to emphatically say “I’m not in favor of boycotting. Not in favor of the BDS movement. The labeling issue is about giving more information to the consumers. And that’s important, but there’s a different issue and that’s do you go down the road to boycotts and I don’t think boycotts are the answer, I think dialogue is the answer.”

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