Proud Jew Ed strong on Israel

The new Labour leader’s roots mean a lot to him but so does his desire to please

By Geoffrey Alderman, October 14, 2010

Now that Ed Miliband has been elected as the first Jewish leader of the Labour Party, what does this tell us about Labour and its Jewish constituency?

What does Ed's acceptance speech at the party conference last month tell us about his approach to his Jewishness and how - if at all - it will shape his leadership of the party? I raise these questions because Ed himself went out of his way to raise them in that conference speech, which is one of the few party-conference addresses that I've bookmarked for future reference.

In spite of his much-trumpeted atheism, Ed's Jewishness is obviously important to him. He seeks neither to hide nor to belittle it. In a conference speech of around 6,000 words, he devoted no less than 300 to a retelling of the story of how his Jewish parents had to flee Nazism, and to the "encouragement and the aspiration to succeed" that he had derived from the obviously caring Jewish home in which he had grown up.

He might, in that speech, have built upon this fragment of autobiography. True, he referred to the "faith" (his word) in "freedom and opportunity" into which he had been born. But he might have dwelt just a little longer on "the aspiration to succeed."

He might have told us why (in his view) so many of today's dysfunctional, broken families palpably fail to nurture this aspiration, and why he believes (as he clearly does, for his own son attends an Anglican school) that faith schools are so good at fostering and enlarging this aspiration. True, in a radio interview the morning after his acceptance speech, he praised the work of "many faith schools" which, he said, were "fantastic". So why not say this straight to the party faithful, gathered in Manchester to celebrate his leadership victory and eager to applaud him at every opportunity?

There is no room for Zionist sympathies in the party Ed now leads

Towards the end of his speech, Ed turned his attention, and that of his audience, to issues of foreign policy. That he should have referred, in some detail and with some passion, to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Anglo-American alliance was entirely appropriate, whether or not we agree with his particular take on these matters. But there was one other - and only one other - international issue to which he gave conference the benefit of his wisdom. Al-Qaeda? No. Multiple genocides in the African continent? No. Iran and its nuclear ambitions (to say nothing of its appalling human-rights record)? No - not so much as a passing reference.

Apart from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Anglo-American alliance, the only other international issue on which Ed deemed it necessary to address conference was "the conflicts of the Middle East" – by which he meant the conflict between Israel and its Palestinian Arab neighbours. Defending the right of Israel to live "in peace and security", Ed demanded nonetheless that Israel "accept and recognise… the Palestinian right to statehood"; condemned - without qualification - the interdiction of the Gaza flotilla; and called for the blockade of Gaza to be lifted.

But not one word did he say about continuing rocket attacks upon Israel. From Ed's lips there fell not one word of condemnation of the recent murders of Jewish civilians on the West Bank. Nor was there any mention of the crimes of Hamas - I mean here primarily its crimes against the population over which it rules in Gaza and which it terrorises, tortures and slaughters in complete disregard of the basic norms of civilised behaviour.

So why did Ed Miliband, who now leads Her Majesty's Opposition, choose to dwell on Israel, and to present the Jewish state in such a negative light?

I suggest that it was because he wanted to tell the comrades of the Labour party what they wanted to hear. Let's cut to the chase. There is simply no room for Zionism or for any even vague expression of sympathy for Zionism in the party Ed Miliband now leads. Elected leader through the block votes of the party-affiliated trade unions, the last thing Ed was going to do was to challenge the deep hostility to Israel of which the union bosses are now so proud.

In many respects Ed's was a fine acceptance speech. But telling conference what it wants to hear and not telling it what it may find unpalatable is a foolhardy strategy. It is not the stuff of which national leaders are made.

Last updated: 11:34am, October 14 2010