Ed Miliband: Hamas, Ken Livingstone and Jewish values

Ed Miliband’s Jewish intellectual heritage could not be more impeccable. His father, Ralph Miliband remains a colossus of the British left, who lies buried in Highgate cemetery within sight of Karl Marx himself.

His mother Marion Kozak, is a feminist thinker and human rights activist of considerable renown. Both parents were Polish Jews who came to Britain as refugees from fascism.

“My Jewish identity was such a substantial part of my upbringing that it informs what I am,” he said. “I visited Israel as I was growing up because my grandmother was living there. I visited for the first time when I was seven, so I was always very aware of my Jewish relatives living in Israel.”

Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle in his office in the House of Commons, the new Labour leader emphasised that his Jewish heritage is more than a mere accident of birth, “I think there was a set of values my parents taught me about justice and making the world a better place, which are recognisably ‘left’ values but also owe something to the Jewish tradition.”

He said he remains envious of his parents’ community of Jewish friends : “I sometimes hanker after what they had, which was not just a political community but a recognisably Jewish community: people who had been on Jewish youth groups and probably had more fun than I did when I was growing up.”

Perhaps because of his Jewish background, Mr Miliband’s coments in his leadership acceptance speech condemning Israel’s actions against the Turkish flotilla and the blockade of Gaza came as a shock to some in the community.

He is keen to address this issue: “I consider myself as a friend of Israel... I have lots of relatives living in Israel. I admire many of the aims of the founders of Israel. I have absolutely no truck with people who question the legitimacy of Israel.

"But the reason I said what I said is that sometimes you have to be honest with your friends. As a friend of Israel you worry that some of the things the government has done haven’t necessarily promoted Israel’s long term interests. I mentioned the blockade and what happened with the flotilla, but just for the record, I absolutely condemn Hamas rocket attacks on civilians in Israel.”

I ask him why he didn’t you move more quickly to reassure the Jewish community? He concedes there is some bridge building to be done: “There is a task for me to get to know the Jewish community better as the leader of the Labour Party and it’s something that I take very seriously.

"And there’s a task for the community to get to know me.. I admire lots of things the Jewish community do: the philanthropy of the community, the generosity of the community, many of the great things that British Jews do for our country. I think it’s very important for me, whether I was Jewish or not, to put that on the record. And my door is very much open.”

I wonder if he feels that Israel is losing the argument within the international community “I don’t think Israel is losing the argument for the state of Israel,” he says. “But let’s be honest, the situation in the Middle East doesn’t seem to be moving forward as we’d hope it would. What people feel is a sense of frustration that the progress that has been promised from Gaza to the wider Middle East seems so stalled.”

He is tight-lipped on the issue of universal jurisdiction, the legal principle that permits arrest warrants to be issued for Israeli politicians accused of war crimes. Gordon Brown promised to change the law, but Mr Miliband said he will wait and see:

“I think the government needs to come forward with the legislation and we will look at it. Our position hasn’t changed but we’ll look at what they come up with.” Does he accept that senior Israeli politicians need to come and go in freedom: “I don’t think the current situation is a good one to be in. Clearly not.”

On the domestic front there has been concern about the election of Lutfur Rahman as the independent mayor of Tower Hamlets and the labour leader’s refusal to condemn Ken Livingstone for campaigning for him. Again, he is unforthcoming. “Anything like that is a matter for the national executive committee.”

I explain that there could not be a more unpopular Labour figure in the Jewish community than Ken Livingstone and ask whether he has any words of reassurance. “Stuff happened in the past with Ken, but I think he knows that he has to be the mayor for the whole of London. I’m sure he knows that the Jewish community is a very important part of London. And in the spirit of dialogue and change, I hope people will give him a chance to show that in his campaign for mayor.”

Last updated: 1:47pm, November 5 2010