If Miliband wills it, is it a dream?

By Rebecca Abrams, October 11, 2012
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There are plenty of Jews in the upper echelons of the Conservative party but none of them were tempted this week to follow Ed Miliband's example and share their family histories with the nation. I was hoping we might get into a "my roots are better than your roots" contest, but it was not to be.

Grant Shapps was at least willing to admit the Coalition has problems. But whatever other risks a blue Jew is prepared to take, talking in a public arena about his Jewish ancestry is still, it seems, a step too far.

For chutzpah alone, Miliband takes this year's party conference cap. When before has a British Jew (other than Howard Jacobson) stood up in front of thousands and talked openly, repeatedly and explicitly about being Jewish? No, Ed! I thought. Don't go there! The Brits won't like it. But they didn't seem to mind. Was it merely the multicultural afterglow of the Olympics? Or have we entered a new chapter in the Anglo-Jewish story?

As if introducing the world to your Jewish family weren't enough for one speech, Miliband then pinched one of the Tories' most treasured slogans and claimed it for Labour. And he pinched it from another Jew. It was exactly the kind of chutzpah Benjamin Disraeli himself was renowned for.

It fell to William Hague to claw back Disraeli for the Tories. But it was straining credibility to describe Disraeli as "a Conservative through and through". At the start of his political career, Disraeli stood for any political party that would have him. Whig. Radical. Whatever. After his fourth failed attempt to get elected, he confessed he was willing to stand on his head if it would win him votes.

Disraeli was no socialist and certainly did not share Ed's passion for inclusion or his egalitarian convictions. He toured the industrial north with a scented hankie clasped to his nose, then rushed back to his Mayfair club to recover. Dizzy's lifelong dream was to get as far up the greasy pole as possible and stay there. The only person he truly cared about including was himself, at the heart of the British social and political elite.

The spirit presiding over Ed's speech was the ghost of another quite different Jewish leader, a Hungarian by the name of Theodor Herzl, who in the 19th century had a vision of One Nation - not for Britain, but for the Jews. In Altneuland, published 110 years ago, Herzl set out his utopian dream for rebuilding a Jewish state in Palestine, describing the country he wanted it to be in 20 years. It's a terrible novel, but a fascinating thought-experiment.

Herzl called this vision "mutualism", but the similarities with Miliband's One Nation socialism are striking. Collective endeavour; distribution of wealth; public-private sector co-operation; equal citizenship (the one character in the book who thinks Eretz Israel should belong only to the Jews is modelled on a notorious Viennese antisemite). Then there's vocational training for the young; care for the elderly; universal health care.

I happen to own a fine illustrated edition of Altneuland. It belonged to my grandfather, who swept into parliament on the Labour landslide of 1945. Herzl and Disraeli were his role models. It was a time of great confidence for Labour. It was also a time when the Holocaust had lent new and terrible urgency to the Zionist dream of a Jewish nation.

Sixty years on, Israel is not the harmonious, egalitarian One Nation Herzl had the chutzpah to envision. Divided and embattled and adrift from its pioneering Zionist roots, yet still a country to be proud of in many ways. A country forged on the anvil of social idealism and political dreams, and long, hard graft.

Last week, Miliband invoked Jewish leaders from both sides of the political divide. His speech was imbued not only with the values of socialism but suffused throughout with the central tenets of Judaism. Respect for parents and the elderly. Care for the weak and sick. Kindness to strangers. Giving according to your means. Leaving the world a better place. Education, education, education.

Before we dismiss his idealism or mock his vision of One Nation Britain as impossibly out of reach, let's not forget that Jewish leaders have realised dreams before and, who knows, maybe they can again. As Herzl said: "If you will it, it is no dream".

Rebecca Abrams is an author and journalist

Last updated: 4:42pm, October 11 2012