Isaac, Jacob, Moses — and Ed

Journalism is a competitive business but sometimes the competition comes from a wholly unexpected source. I'd planned a while ago to write in this slot about the Jewishness of Ed Miliband. Little did I know that the latest edition of the New Statesman, a special on British Jewish life published on Thursday, would carry a column on the same topic - written by Ed Miliband.

It is a fascinating text, one that repays close study. The Labour leader declares: "I am not religious. But I am Jewish. My relationship with my Jewishness is complex. But whose isn't?" On the one hand, he counts himself among those "from Holocaust families" and reveals that, even though his wife is not Jewish, he made sure to smash a glass at their wedding.

On the other, Miliband recalls his parents' determination to assimilate "into British life outside the Jewish community," leaving him with that holy trinity of the assimilated Jew: a penchant for Woody Allen, a smattering of Yiddish phrases and a fond memory of his grandmother's "chicken soup and matzo balls". All this is told with a hint of regret: "There was no barmitzvah, no Jewish youth group; sometimes I feel I missed out."

Many will read the article as an attempted olive branch to the Jewish community, which has exhibited a marked ambivalence towards the first Jewish leader of the Labour party.

In his own way, Miliband is coming to terms with being Jewish

The trouble started with his debut speech in 2010, in which Miliband did not discuss international affairs at all - save to single out for condemnation Israel's handling of that year's Gaza flotilla.

Some suspect the problem lies deeper, wondering if Jews not only preferred Ed's more Blairite brother, David, but also felt aggrieved by Ed's challenging his older brother at all - as if this offended Jewish sensibilities in particular. Witness Norman Lebrecht's piece in the JC, which thundered: "Doing your brother out of his birthright is about as low as you can sink on the moral barometer. Doing him out of his life's dream is unconscionable."

As it happens, Ed has a ready answer to that charge, if he wants to use it. As Lord Glasman, sometime guru to the Labour leader, puts it: "Judaism is the religion of the younger brother." Glasman rattles off the examples - Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Moses and Aaron, to say nothing of Joseph or King David - where younger prevailed over older, suggesting Jewish tradition has little patience with fixed notions of precedence. If he wants to, Ed Miliband could argue that he has not violated a Jewish tradition as old as the Bible, but is rather the latest example of it.

Somehow, I doubt Ed will want to go there: the battle of the brothers is not one he wants to revisit (though an inadvertently unfortunate line in the New Statesman article says: "I would not be leader of the Labour Party without the trauma of my family history"). Still, the sentiment behind the piece is a welcome one. For it suggests that, in his own, slightly hesitant way, Miliband is coming to terms - perhaps even making peace - with his Jewishness, a process which friends say has gathered pace, as it often does, with the arrival of children.

That is welcome in itself, but will also do his electoral prospects no harm. For voters have an immediate and pitiless sense of when a politician is comfortable or not in his own skin.

The poshness of David Cameron and Boris Johnson has proved little barrier to their success, chiefly because those two men are so clearly at ease with who they are. I've long thought the public will be happy with Miliband as a nerdy, Jewish north Londoner - so long as he seems completely happy with that, too.

Last updated: 2:10pm, May 24 2012