In Ed Miliband, the Labour Party has its first leader from a Jewish background. "Background" is the word to remember because, as with Benjamin Disraeli, Ed Miliband's father renounced his faith. Isaac Disraeli joined the Church of England and allowed his children to flourish in the sectarian English establishment of the day. Ralph Miliband joined a creed more mystical than Anglicanism, the now-lost religion of socialism.
Like Ed and David Miliband, I am a "red diaper baby" from an atheist home that was closer to Marx than Moses. I had no contact with Jewish religion and precious little with Jewish culture. But I was a "Cohen" and so came to know about hostility to Jews.
It has taken me a while to realise that you can learn much about the characters of non-Jewish Jews by watching how we deal with soft and not-so-soft antisemitism. Writers and politicians from privileged backgrounds should be grateful. We have the opportunity to discover racism – to feel what being the target of racism means – denied to most of our contemporaries. A consistent opposition to prejudice in all its forms ought to follow.
The alternative is to emulate Sam Finkler, Howard Jacobson's protagonist in The Finkler Question and try to divert the attention of racists and conspiracy theorists. Finkler's manoeuvre is to form ASHamed Jews, at whose meetings, celebrities and academics cry in effect, "I'm not the one you want!" Like the Milibands and me, you did not need to believe you were truly Jewish to attend.
From The Finkler Question: "One among them only found out he was Jewish at all in the course of making a television programme in which he was confronted on camera with who he really was. In the final frame of the film he was disclosed weeping before a memorial in Auschwitz to dead ancestors who until that moment he had never known he'd had. 'It could explain where I get my comic genius from,' he told an interviewer for a newspaper, though by then he had renegotiated his new allegiance. Born a Jew on Monday, he had signed up to be an ASHamed Jew by Wednesday and was seen chanting 'We are all Hezbollah' outside the Israeli Embassy on the following Saturday."
In contrast to his older and better brother, Ed Miliband is a Finkler. If he argued as part of a consistent leftist philosophy that the conscience of humanity demanded that Palestinians receive their own state, I would have nothing against him. But the squalor of Finklerism lies in its lack of consistency; in what it omits rather than what it includes. In his first speech as Labour leader, Miliband announced that Israel was the only obstacle to a "just and lasting peace" in Middle East. He offered no comment on Hamas, Hizbollah and their Iranian controllers, or about the hundreds of millions suffering under secular and theocratic dictatorships.
The Arab revolutions did not merely catch him by surprise – they caught everyone by surprise – but revealed his parochialism: the selfish Little Englander hiding behind the progressive mask. The uprisings did not follow the Finkler script. They had nothing to do with Israel and everything to do with tyranny and corruption. To the visible despair of those in Labour who still believe in internationalism and comradely obligations, Miliband responded by implying that anyone who asked for a no-fly zone over Libya was a "neo-con".
As abroad, so at home. When David Cameron –admirably, I thought – said his government would stop funding Islamist groups that opposed democracy and the emancipation of women, the Labour leadership accused him of "writing propaganda" for the far right.
To anyone who's located outside Finklerdom, it is nonsensical to cast opposition to misogyny, homophobia and anti-semitism as fascist. Inside the laager (defensive encampment), Islamism
is a rational reaction to the provocation of Israeli and western conservatives, and hence it is "left-wing" to condemn critics of fascistic movements as fascists themselves.
Ed Miliband squeezed home in the Labour leadership contest by appealing to the party's gut emotions. He was against the second Iraq War, he said, which was news to everyone who actually knew him. He would fight the cuts, although if he got into power he would be implementing many of them himself. Continuing to tell people what they want to hear may eventually take him on to Downing Street, but the record suggests that he would not know what to do if he gets there.