The Zionist beliefs of Ed Miliband, the Leader of the Opposition, are mired in confusion after the Labour Party leader — who is Jewish — said at a public meeting that he was a Zionist, only for his office then to deny he had said any such thing.
During a question-and-answer session at a Board of Deputies event last Thursday, an audience member asked Mr Miliband: “David Cameron has described himself as a Zionist. Would you describe yourself as a Zionist?”
Mr Miliband replied: “The answer to that is yes, because I consider myself a supporter of Israel.
“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.”
He added: “But it doesn’t mean that I’m not critical of the government of Israel, and I think there’s a distinction, and I think it’s very, very important that we are able to make that distinction.”
Mr Miliband’s remarks were met with immediate angry responses from anti-Zionist Labour supporters. Critics took to social networking sites to claim it was “disgraceful” for the party leader to support an “extreme and nasty ideology”.
The following day his office issued a supposed clarification in an attempt to distance him from his own comments. The Labour leader’s team said he had “not used the word Zionist to describe himself”, but said he had “made absolutely clear that he is a strong supporter of Israel”.
There was no response to requests for a further, straightforward explanation of whether Mr Miliband does, or does not, consider himself a Zionist.
When David Cameron was asked at a Conservative Friends of Israel lunch in 2007 whether he considered himself a Zionist, he responded: “If by Zionist you mean that the Jews have the right to a homeland in Israel and the right to a country then yes, I am a Zionist.”
Speaking at last Thursday’s event Mr Miliband stressed his opposition to boycotts of Israel after being asked about widespread support for BDS among trade unions. When he was elected Labour leader in 2010 it was with the backing of three of Britain’s four biggest unions.
“I think the boycotts of Israel are totally wrong,” he said. “We should have no tolerance for boycotts. I’d say that to any union leader, any Labour Party member. How do you create a two-state solution? Not with boycotts — you’ve got my very clear view on that.”
Asked whether he would work to ensure religious slaughter and circumcision practices could continue in Britain, Mr Miliband said: “The kosher issue has recently been brought to my attention. I think it is very important that ways of life, that have been ways of life for a long time, are preserved.”
Antisemitism was something he “took very seriously as leader of the Labour Party and I think we should all take very seriously”.
Asked about the language used by politicians to respond to Israeli action against rockets attacks, Mr Miliband appeared to stumble towards equating settlement-building with terrorist attacks by Hamas.
He said: “You’ve got to understand the threat that Israel feels from rocket attacks to Gaza, but equally you’ve got to understand the anger and dismay people feel about settlements, for example. Now I’m not equating the two things at all, but you’ve got to… It’s all about understanding where people are coming from and judging these things on their merits.”
Mr Miliband also spoke of his belief that the Jewish principle of tikkun olam – healing the world – could be adapted for wider use in Britain and compared it to his One Nation initiative.
He made repeated references to his support for a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict and said he hoped Britain could be an “honest broker” in the peace process.
He also said former Labour MP George Galloway’s refusal to debate with a British-Israeli student at Oxford last month was “shameful behaviour”.
“I was shocked by that… it’s just one of a long line of things that he’s done, but that is the kind of behaviour which we should have zero tolerance for.”