The upcoming British elections are perhaps the hardest to predict since World War II. The real chance that Ed Miliband could become the first British prime minister of Jewish origin since Benjamin Disraeli in the late 19th century throws a spotlight on the complexities of the “Jewish question” in Britain today and perhaps in Europe as a whole.
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The fact that Miliband is Jewish is apparently irrelevant to most British voters. A survey commissioned by Prof. Tim Bale at Queen Mary University in December found that 83 percent of the public said it would make no difference to their vote that Miliband was Jewish. Surprisingly, however, Miliband is losing support among British Jews. Despite making proud claims to feeling part of the Jewish community, his attempts to be counted by Jews as one of their own have been foiled by his positions on Israel.
The possibility of a Jew becoming British prime minister also brings an immediate paradox. After we have heard so many calls of alarm about escalating anti-Semitism in Europe, including in Britain, how could a British Jew soon be moving into 10 Downing Street? The immediate answer is that the warnings have not been about that kind of anti-Semitism. Jews in Britain rarely experience overt discrimination or exclusion because they are Jews. Indeed, they can be found succeeding in every area of British society.
It is hostility to Israel and its supporters that many Jews feel has become the acceptable mask for anti-Jewish prejudice — this is the “Israelization” of anti-Semitism. In other words, anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions from both Islamist and left-liberal circles are at times overlooked or justified because they are presented as a response to Israeli injustice toward Palestinians. This was starkly illustrated when a BBC journalist interviewing a French Jewish woman following the killings of Jews in a Paris supermarket suggested the parallel that “Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well.”
The deadly attacks on Jews in France, Belgium and Denmark have not reached the U.K. yet, but the question is nonetheless also being asked by British Jews. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, perhaps the most famous British Jew, recently warned: “For Jews, ‘never again’ has become ‘ever again.’” And Danny Cohen, a director of television for the BBC, who seems to symbolize the success of Jews in British national life, said: “I’ve never felt so uncomfortable being a Jew in the U.K. as I’ve felt in the last 12 months. And it’s made me think about, you know, is it our long-term home, actually.”
A coded form of anti-Semitism?
Certainly the heightened anti-Semitism that Jews have been talking about has come mainly in relation to Israel and its conflicts. There is not much discussion in the mainstream British media about a “Jewish factor” when it comes to Miliband’s and Labour’s electoral prospects. It would risk breaching major taboos in Britain to suggest that Miliband’s ethnicity might keep him out of office. However, the old style of anti-Semitism has not been entirely absent.
Some commentators have asked whether frequent references to Miliband’s “awkwardness” are implicit anti-Semitic tropes. A writer in The Independent argued that the frequent criticisms of Miliband — “He’s not one of us. He doesn’t quite belong. He’s nerdy, geeky; he tries to act like a regular guy but fails miserably” — are anti-Semitic innuendos.
Even if Miliband himself suspects this form of anti-Semitism, he has never said so in public. After The Daily Mail published a profile of his late father, Marxist Prof. Ralph Miliband, under the headline “The man who hated Britain,” Miliband’s fury was focused on the idea that his dad was disloyal to Britain. He did not say a word about anti-Semitism.
In fact, Miliband never tried to hide his Jewish roots and spoke publicly about it on many occasions; for example: “I am not religious. But I am Jewish. My relationship with my Jewishness is complex. But whose isn’t?”
His parents were Jewish refugees from Belgium and Poland. Although their home was staunchly atheist, Miliband and his famous brother David, the former British foreign secretary, grew up with deep awareness of their Jewish roots, including childhood memories of visiting their grandmother in Tel Aviv, Yiddish phrases at home, and the taste of chicken soup.
Yet Ed’s wife is not Jewish and he is willingly photographed at home in front of a Christmas tree. A picture of him eating a bacon sandwich played a prominent role in the attempts of the Labour party to brand Miliband “kosher” for the voters.
In the run-up to the election campaign, Miliband has also presented his personal story as being the child of refugees who fled the Nazis penniless but succeeded in their new homeland. Miliband’s story does not project Jewish particularity. His Jewishness is woven into a more universal story representing humble origins, a connection to real people, and the possibility that immigrants can become patriotic British citizens. Miliband himself wrote an article about his identity under the headline “The Patriotism of the Refugee.”
Miliband’s ‘Jewish’ problem
When in April 2014 Miliband visited Israel, he spoke of the Jewish state being the “homeland for the Jewish people.” During this visit he had political meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and a public visit to Yad Vashem, where he learned about his many relatives who perished in the Shoah. But even the high-profile visit to Yad Vashem spotlighted the universal themes of persecution. There was no photo opportunity at the Western Wall.
For British Jews therefore, there is a troubling question. Is Miliband Jewish enough? Does he have loyalty to the tribe? A recent survey commissioned by London’s Jewish Chronicle found that just 13 percent of Jewish voters consider Miliband a future prime minister who would be good for the Jews. The fact that British Jews have such little confidence in him is mainly due to his lack of passion for Israel.
The damage was done predominantly during Operation Protective Edge. While Prime Minister David Cameron stuck firm to Israel’s right to defend itself, Miliband attacked him for his “silence on the killing of hundreds of innocent Palestinian civilians.” He also backed a vote in the House of Commons on recognizing Palestinian statehood, and even addressed a meeting of the pro-boycott Palestine Solidarity Campaign. These actions painted him as disloyal for many Jews.
The Jewish community would surely view with suspicion any Labour candidate seen as unreliable on Israel, but to have a British Jew expressing such an attitude toward the Jewish homeland is for some too much to swallow.
Lifelong Labour supporter Maureen Lipman, a famous British Jewish actress, wrote a furious attack on Miliband’s criticisms of Israel. She vowed she would not vote Labour again until the “party is once more led by mensches,” alluding to the idea that Miliband is not a nice Jewish boy.
It seems that the majority of British Jews have established positioning on Israel as a key demarcating line defining whether one is truly inside or outside the tribe. On this measure, Miliband failed the test, at precisely the moment when Jews around Europe feel under heightened pressure due to the Israelization of anti-Semitism.
If in the end Miliband becomes the next British prime minister, he will exemplify the complexity of Jewish identity. At this point, his candidacy illustrates the dilemmas of Jewish politicians in the Diaspora. How Jewish can they be, and how much affinity or criticism of Israel can they show?
Prof. Yossi Shain, the head of Tel Aviv University’s political science department, is writing the book “The Israelization of Judaism.”
Dr. Toby Greene is a visiting scholar at Tel Aviv University and the author of “Blair, Labour and Palestine: Conflicting Views on Middle East Peace After 9/11.” @toby_greene_