Ed Balls shows he is ready to learn from Israel

By Martin Bright, July 5, 2012

Ed Balls may have his problems persuading the wider public of his charms, but he has always been a popular figure in the Jewish community.

He is a consistent supporter of Israel who spent considerable time working on the economic situation in the occupied territories on behalf of the G8.

He is also a man who is unafraid to try his hand at some basic Hebrew when addressing Jewish audiences, as he did in Trafalgar Square at the celebrations for Israel’s 60th anniversary in 2008. He was at it again on Tuesday at the Labour Friends of Israel annual lunch, when he began his address, appropriately enough, with the word haverim.

Words are important — and politicians believe they know the right things to say on such occasions. They celebrate the contribution made by the Jewish community to the UK economy; they tell us much we can learn from its approach to education, to philanthropy, to entrepreneurialism. They commit themselves to ensuring that the community is safe from antisemitic attack.

And by recognising the umbilical connection between diaspora Jews and Israel, they express their support for Israel and their commitment to a two-state solution.

Ed Balls stuck to the protocol, but he went further. Addressing those within his own party and the wider labour movement who would boycott Israel, he said he saw it as his role to strengthen economic, trade union, intellectual and cultural ties.

He also recognised the UK has much to learn from Israel, whose economy grew by 4.7 per cent last year, while we slipped into a double-dip recession.

His announcement of the launch of LFI’s UK-Israel Economic Dialogue was something of a masterstroke.

By recognising that important lessons can be drawn from Israel’s high-tech success story, Mr Balls is showing that Labour intends to be taken seriously in this area, something reinforced by the fact that policy big-gun Liam Byrne is leading the work on it.

The visit to Israel by Mr Balls and Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna will provide a chance to do some real research on the ground.

Mr Balls and Mr Umunna will be talking to the Labour Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, but they should also visit Erel Margolit, the high-tech entrepreneur who is a rising star of Labour and who understands how to harness the creative industries to drive the economy.

There is another lesson to be taken from the Israeli example. As Start-Up Nation, the bestseller about Israeli high-tech, explained, much of the success can be attributed to its connections to the military. When young Israelis leave the army, their thoughts often turn to starting up a high-tech business.

There is no way we can recreate the Israeli military service model here and nor would it be desirable. But Ed Balls’s announcement of the LFI project just happened to coincide with the launch of Labour’s Veterans Interview Programme to get ex-servicemen and women back to work. Most of these opportunities will be in retail.

But if Labour really wants to learn from Israel, people leaving the army should be setting up their own high-tech start-ups, not working in Greggs.

Last updated: 10:10am, July 16 2012