Something is changing in the Jewish identity of British opposition leader Ed Miliband, and his visit to Israel this week is another chance to watch this develop.
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When Ed Miliband made his first major address in 2010 as leader of the Labour party, he gave the UK Jewish community and other supporters of Israel some cause for concern. In a speech which was light on foreign policy, he made a point of condemning Israel’s policies in the Gaza Strip, and declared that we must “strain every sinew” to end the blockage on Gaza. There was no mention of Hamas or its rockets.
This approach played to views common among the British Labour party grassroots, and the British left more generally, which is strongly supportive of the Palestinian cause.
Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign succeeded by outflanking his rival, and older brother – former Foreign Secretary David Miliband – by shifting to the left, earning the support of the trade unions and the nickname “Red Ed.” Though the Miliband brothers are the sons of a well-known Marxist intellectual, Ralph Miliband, they had both been closely associated with the modernising, centrist, "New Labour" project led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Ed deliberately distanced himself from that branding, tarnished in part by Tony Blair’s decision to send British troops to participate in the Iraq War.
The fact that both Ed’s father and mother, Marion Kozak, were Jewish refugees who escaped the Holocaust was not – until recently - well known or seen as relevant to the politics of either brother. The Milibands senior were fully assimilated and the family had no active involvement in the Jewish community. Leftist politics and social activism were their passion, not Judaism. Indeed Marion Kozak is known for her pro-Palestinian activism, among other causes.
In a sense, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were more "Jewish" than the Milibands. Both Blair and Brown had close relationships with the Jewish community, and were overtly warm towards Israel. They both joined the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) parliamentary group when they became MPs in the early 1980s.
By contrast, as MPs neither Ed nor David Miliband developed much connection with the Jewish community, and neither engaged with LFI, despite it being a popular affiliation for many other MPs associated with New Labour. David Miliband, though not seen as generally hostile to Israel, steered British policy in a more noticeably confrontational direction with Israel over the issue of settlements during his time as Foreign Secretary.
So when Ed Miliband was elected as party leader, it was perhaps not surprising that he took a much cooler position on Israel than that associated with Blair and New Labour, which was more in tune with the mood of the party base. The Labour grassroots, especially on its left flank, see the Palestinian issue as a pre-eminent human rights concern and Israel’s occupation and settlements as the root of the conflict.
Over the past two years however, something has changed. Ed Miliband has made an effort to reassure the British Jewish community, and Jewish voters, that he is has a moderate and balanced position on Israel. But more than that, he has started to increasingly talk and write about his own Jewish identity.
In 2011, Miliband made a speech to the annual LFI lunch in which he spoke about his family connection to Israel, where his grandmother moved after surviving the Holocaust. He told the audience, “The thing I feel overwhelmingly about the State of Israel is that out of the darkness of the war and the Holocaust it gave light to my family.”
Then in an article in the leftist weekly political magazine the New Statesman in 2012, Miliband wrote explicitly about his Jewish identity: “For me, my Jewishness and my Britishness are intertwined. My parents defined themselves not by their Jewishness but by their politics. They assimilated into British life outside the Jewish community. There was no bar mitzvah, no Jewish youth group; sometimes I feel I missed out.” But he added, “I did not miss out on many other aspects of Jewishness: my mum got me into Woody Allen; my dad taught me Yiddish phrases (there is no better language for idiomatic expressions, some of them unrepeatable). And my grandmother cooked me chicken soup and matzo balls.”
So what did this mean for his attitude to Israel? He rejected the suggestion that this might complicate his view of Israel stating, “I support a two-state solution because I long for the peace that both Palestinians and Israelis need so badly.”
Then in a major political speech in 2012, he spoke at length about his family history and background as the son of Holocaust survivors. Miliband was trying to tell the British public more about his personal background, and to shake off the image of a political geek, whose entire career between graduating from Oxford and becoming an MP was spent as a political advisor. This speech was a conscious attempt to reshape public perceptions of himself: A child of refugees who went to the local school and whose parents thanked Britain for their salvation from the Nazis.
But that was not the end of it. Remarkably, he dedicated the rest of the speech to praising the "One Nation" principles of none other than Benjamin Disraeli, a nineteenth century British Prime Minister famous for retaining pride in his Jewish roots, despite having converted to Christianity at the age of 12. Maybe it was just a coincidence, but even so it was perhaps one of the most Jewish speeches ever made by a British political leader.
Once he had identified himself so publicly as Jewish, the question of his relationship with Israel inevitably arose again. In a large meeting with British Jews in early 2013 he was asked directly if he considered himself a Zionist. He reportedly answered, “Yes, I am a supporter of Israel.” His office subsequently stressed that he was not using the word Zionist to describe himself, but it was nonetheless seen as another positive shift regarding his attitudes to Israel.
In a more recent speech to a leading Jewish community organisation in early March this year Miliband noted again that Israel “provided sanctuary” to his grandmother after the Holocaust, and added that he felt, “more part of the Jewish community than at any other time in my life.”
And now Miliband is making a major public visit to Israel. This is not an obvious thing for him to do. Foreign policy is not usually high on his list of priorities for a British opposition leader, and the Israeli-Palestinian arena is a risky issue for any foreign politician to get involved with.
His trip is intended to serve several purposes. He will be hoping to show his credentials as a leader ready to play a role on the world stage. It is also about demonstrating commitment both to Britain’s relations with Israel and to the Palestinian national cause. But most intriguingly, Ed Miliband’s visit looks set to be the continuation of a process showing the British public the Jewish roots and identity of the man who may well be their next Prime Minister.
Dr. Toby Greene is the Director of Research for BICOM and author of Blair, Labour and Palestine: Conflicting Views on Middle East Peace After 9/11(Bloomsbury, 2013). Follow him on Twitter: @toby_greene_