Miliband’s natural constituents?

Most of the debate about last week's appearance by Ed Miliband at a meeting of the Board of Deputies has dwelled on the Labour leader's remarks about Zionism. Which is a pity. Because much else happened that day that says a good deal about him - and something rather unexpected about us.

But let's deal with the Zionism business first. Miliband was reported to have described himself as a Zionist, which prompted a ripple of condemnation on the anti-Zionist left. The Labour leader's office soon backtracked, telling a Telegraph blogger Miliband had been "misinterpreted" and had not used the Z-word to describe himself. Cue much condemnation in the Telegraph and Spectator, faulting Miliband for lacking courage. A single unscripted remark had succeeded in annoying both left and right.

I was there and have since been provided with a complete transcript. Here's what actually happened. A member of the audience asked a very simple, direct question: "Would you describe yourself as a Zionist?"

Miliband replied: "The answer to that is yes, because I consider myself a supporter of Israel and I think it's very, very important…that as somebody who supports not only Israel's right to exist but has huge respect for what Israel does, that I count myself in that category. But it doesn't mean that I'm not critical of the government of Israel and I think there's a distinction..."

Each question came with a clear, left-of-centre tilt

One hesitates to submit those words to excessively Talmudic analysis, but it's worth having them in full and on the record. They make it plain that Miliband was referring to himself and placing himself in "that category" marked Zionist, defined by him as referring to support for Israel's right to exist.

Everything else he said that night reinforced the point. He spoke of the "huge respect, admiration and indeed a debt" he felt towards Israel for the sanctuary it gave his grandmother, after his grandfather had been killed in the Holocaust. It was clear that many of those who once harboured doubts about Ed Miliband's attitudes to Jews and Israel left that meeting reassured, by both his words and his warmth.

But I left thinking less about what we thought of him - and more about what he thought of us. For something surprising happened that night. Question after question came not about the Middle East, but about British domestic policy - each one with a clear, left-of-centre tilt. Miliband was asked about the NHS, housing, bankers' pay and about immigration, criticised on the last topic for being insufficiently compassionate towards refugees. Eventually the Board's president had to issue a plea for questions with "Jewish content".

Meanwhile, still rumbling on is the row over the Zionist Federation's exclusion of the admirable Yachad group, which calls itself "pro-Israel and pro-peace." I suspect the ZF has been surprised by the reaction: near-universal condemnation of its decision, including from both the editorial and letters page of the JC. They doubtless assumed what many assumed: that mainstream British Jewry is dogmatically hawkish.

Exactly a year has passed since Ken Livingstone told a group of Jewish Labour activists that Jews had inevitably shifted rightward because they had became more affluent. I thought he was wrong then and I think it even more now. Last week's encounter with Ed Miliband, like the Yachad affair, suggests a Jewish community that may not yet belong on the card-carrying left - but is not nearly as right-wing as many have long assumed. Consider it one more prejudice about Jews that turns out to be wrong.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Last updated: 11:37am, March 15 2013