Does the Jewish Leader of Britain's Opposition Have a 'Jewish Problem'?

Though Miliband's pro-Palestinian stance reportedly made the party's Jewish supporters take a step back, it's still too early to tell if the party will permanently lose its Jewish base.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Ed Miliband, leader of the U.K. opposition Labour Party, in 2011.
Ed Miliband, leader of the U.K. opposition Labour Party, in 2011.Credit: Bloomberg
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The woes of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband dominated the front pages of Britain's newspapers this morning (Sunday). Six months to the general elections, Labour is still slightly ahead of the ruling Conservative party in most polls, but Miliband, as its candidate for prime minister is in free-fall. Polls indicate he is the least respected leader of any of the United Kingdom's political parties and even most Labour-voters do not see him as worth of inhabiting 10 Downing Street. The fear in the party is that once the election campaign begins in earnest and the rival attack machines are revved up, Miliband will be blown away and cost Labour an election which was theirs to win.

Reports of senior party members casing around for a last-minute replacement to save the campaign fill the media. Mostly anonymous Labour parliamentarians are quoted complaining of Miliband's lack of charisma, leadership and personality, his awkwardness in public and detachment from "normal" voters. A disastrous speech at the party conference this summer and unending series of gaffes in full view have fatally tainted his image, while his inability to control the party may have cost them crucial strongholds up in Scotland.

Despite all these threats to Miliband's leadership and electoral prospects, one newspaper chose to focus this morning on a different aspect of his troubles. The main headline in The Independent was "Labour funding crisis: Jewish donors drop 'toxic' Ed Miliband." Apparently many of Labour's Jewish supporters and more important, those of them who in the past donated money to the party are planning to sit on the fence these elections. The reason is what is seen as a new pro-Palestinian policy of the party as seen in Miliband's criticism of Israel during the Gaza conflict and in last month's motion in parliament calling upon the government to recognize a Palestinian state. None of the sources quoted in the report are named but they all maintain that Jewish supporters are worried that this signals a change of the party's foreign policy and will not contribute money to help Miliband implement it as prime minister.

Besides the fact that the report includes not one Jewish figure speaking on record, the story has caused discomfort to Jewish leaders in the way that it creates the impression of a collective Jewish communal decision to "punish" one of the two main parties, rather than a result of individual decisions of private donors. The Electoral Commission publishes quarterly reports of political donations to all parties, so there is no way yet of knowing now for certain whether there have been less donations from Jewish supporters since Gaza and the Palestine vote. There could also be other reasons for the shortfall in donations from Jewish party members. With Miliband's general unpopularity, there has been a drop in donations in general, not only from Jews. His predecessors as party leaders, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, had close relations with the community for many years and their main fundraisers were also Jewish, which would have naturally lead to a large proportion of Jewish donors. Miliband lacks those contacts.

As it is, Labour relies less on contributions from private individuals, and receives much of its funding from trade unions. The prominence of the report, on the front-page of The Independent, in recent years the mainstream daily newspaper most hostile to Israel in Britain, seems hardly coincidental. Follow-up comments to the story made on a BBC television news program about a wealthy "Jewish lobby" pressuring Labour to support Israel, have already created a mini-protest on social media.

Despite Miliband being the first Jewish leader of the Labour Party, there has been lingering suspicion towards him from much of the community since his election four years ago. The son of Marxist parents, Miliband Junior while not sharing many of his parents politics, though halachically Jewish has never been part of the community and has often found it difficult to articulate his personal feelings towards his Jewishness, asides from an affection for Woody Allen movies. Since becoming leader, he has done more to emphasize his roots, particularly in order to project his own personal story as the son of refugees who succeeded in Britain, as part of his social vision. He has also made more attempts to engage with the community though many have observed that the non-Jewish Prime Minister David Cameron always seems much more at ease attending communal affairs than Miliband.

There have also been occasions in which the community leadership has felt Miliband was slow to respond to their concerns, most notably two years ago when Labour's candidate for London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, said that Jews tend not to vote Labour because they are wealthier than other voters.

Still the community rallied around Miliband last year when he was the target of a smear campaign in the Daily Mail, which ran a series of articles describing his late father, Professor Ralph Miliband, as "the man who hated Britain" for his Marxist beliefs. Many felt then that the way Miliband Senior was being described as a foreigner was at the very least, borderline anti-Semitic. This year, Miliband made his first official overseas visit as party leader to Israel and won over some of the skeptics with his enthusiastic manner to engage with Israelis and acknowledge his own family ties with Israel (though he ducked when asked about his relatives living on settlements). But while the visit dispelled some of the doubts regarding his attitude to Israel, many felt let down by the criticism he directed at its policies only a few months later during the Gaza conflict and that he hadn't taken into account Israel's needs to protect itself from Hamas.

The parliamentary motion to recognize a Palestinian state wasn't Miliband's initiative, some in the party even claimed that he had would have prepared the backbenchers had not tabled it. But ultimately Miliband not only voted in favor but also imposed a party whip on Labour members present in parliament. While Israel's official policy was not to make a big fuss out of the vote, which senior Labour members stressed would not obligate them to immediately recognize Palestine should they win the elections, the major Jewish organizations in Britain did lobby against it and following its passage 274-12 (nearly all the Conservative party simply failed to turn up for the vote) has engendered a certain feeling of betrayal in some parts of British Jewry.

It is premature to judge whether the party that always had a large pro-Israel component and maintained close relations with the Jewish community has changed irrevocably. If Miliband does lose the May 2015 elections, as many are now predicting, it will be due to many political shortcomings, not to a dip in the electorally negligible Jewish vote or a lack of donations from Jewish supporters. His "Jewish problem," if he has one, is the least of his troubles right now, and of the Jewish community. The fact that part of the British media has an urge to play it up is much more troubling.

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