Ed Miliband looked out on the 1,000 guests gathered for a sit-down, kosher-catered meal and said: “This is the barmitzvah I never had.”
Actually he didn’t say that, but perhaps he should have. When the Labour leader addressed the annual dinner of the Community Security Trust last week, he didn’t bother with an opening gag. He said a few thank-yous, then went straight into substance.
He told his audience he had never felt more a part of the Jewish community than he did now. He said the experience of his family, as refugees from Nazism, had taught him that the only correct approach to antisemitism was “zero tolerance. Because antisemitism is never innocent.” In that spirit, he promised a Labour government would continue funding for security at Jewish schools.
What’s more, his family experience had convinced him that “it’s incredibly important to support the state of Israel.” There were no caveats, no qualifications. Indeed, he urged “zero tolerance of people who question the right of Israel to exist.” He stood against the anti-Israel boycott campaign because “boycotts are always part of the problem, they’re never part of the solution.”
Given the views of some in his party, it’s not trivial for a Labour leader to say all that. That much was clear in the online response to Miliband’s remarks once they became public: he was sharply criticised by those who deemed him far too supportive of Israel. So you might assume Miliband was regularly interrupted by loud applause at the CST, that his speech was greeted with a warm ovation of approval. But you’d be wrong.
The audience listened closely but clapped spontaneously only once — at the promise on school security. As for the response once the speech was over, it was tepid: the applause had died by the time the guest speaker was back in his seat.
How to explain such a muted reaction to a national political leader — who the polls suggest may well be prime minister in 14 months — saying everything the Jewish community could possibly want to hear?
His delivery was too low-key, said some. It’s quite true that Miliband’s style was conversational, eschewing the usual politician cadences which all but demand applause at the end of a sentence. He didn’t talk long enough, said others, insisting that previous speakers — George Osborne, David Cameron or Gordon Brown — had come to the CST with a detailed, substance-heavy text, while Miliband spoke without notes. The problem was simpler than that, said a third group: the room was packed full of Tories who were never going to embrace a Labour politician.
There might be elements of truth in all those explanations, but here’s what I couldn’t help thinking. It wasn’t him that was at fault, it was us. Here was the Leader of the Opposition and possible next prime minister of the UK, seeking to soothe every source of Jewish anxiety, to address every neuralgic spot — and still it wasn’t good enough. His answers on Israel and boycotts will give him grief with the Labour left – but still his Jewish audience could barely stir itself to say thank you.
The truth is, we’ve become spoiled. We don’t realise how unusual it is for a community of just 250,000 in a country of 65m to be treated this way, with leaders of both government and opposition regularly attending our communal occasions, saying everything we need to hear.
We’re blasé. They shower us with compliments and still we shrug. I only hope the day never comes when we look back on this era – and regret that we had no idea how lucky we were.