Damned by his own words

May 14, 2015 12:17

Twice in 10 years, the British people have had the chance to elect a Jewish prime minister - and twice they've said no. Michael Howard took on Tony Blair in 2005 and failed. And, last week, Ed Miliband followed Howard into the pantheon of electoral losers .

Chances are the same factors that doomed the party with the wider UK public alienated it from the Jewish electorate: namely, anxiety over Labour's economic competence and the low estimation of the party leader. The two E's - the economy and Ed - would have resonated with Jews as much as they did other Britons.

Still, it seems likely Jews had reasons of their own to reject Miliband. Generally, Labour did well in London . Yet look at the constituencies of Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green, two strongly Jewish areas where the Labour candidates were popular with local Jewish communities. Labour were soundly defeated in both places, with a substantial swing to the Tories.

That suggests Jewish misgivings about Labour and its leader that even well-liked individuals could not overcome. This is the irony that I struggled to explain to curious observers from abroad: Labour's first Jewish leader had a Jewish problem. Jews liked him less than they had liked either of his predecessors. Why?

I suspect the problem went back to the beginning. Some have suggested that his run for the leadership against his older brother offended an ancient Jewish sensibility. I doubt that. You can make a decent case that, on the contrary, Judaism is the religion of the younger brother: think of how Jacob edged out Esau, how Moses took precedence over Aaron.

Many saw in Miliband an anti-Zionist type they disliked

No, the die was cast within a few days of Ed's victory. In his first speech as leader, Ed mentioned only one foreign policy issue. Not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not Iran - but the Gaza flotilla affair. Even those who might have shared his criticism felt uncomfortable at the implied notion that Israel was the most troublesome trouble-spot in the world. They felt singled out. That worry deepened during his five years at the top.

Plenty of Jews didn't like the hard line Miliband took during Operation Protective Edge, Israel's 2014 offensive against Gaza. Others chafed when he whipped Labour MPs to vote for recognition of a Palestinian state in the same year. To many Jews, this felt like an unhappy contrast with the effusive pro-Zionism of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

More deeply, I think many Jews saw in Ed Miliband a type they recognised and didn't much like: the leftie Jewish anti-Zionist. Never mind that Miliband himself insisted that he had a deep attachment to Israel, where he has close family, and even once described himself as a Zionist (though that statement was hastily walked back). Somehow, he made Jews suspicious that, when it came to Israel, his heart was not in the same place as theirs.

But I wonder if it went deeper still. Plenty of analysts say Ed's real problem was not that he was a geek, but that he seemed somehow fake, carrying himself and speaking in a way that suggested strenuous media training and which didn't quite ring true. I suspect Jews detected a version of that in Ed early on: that, Jewishly, he just didn't seem comfortable in his own skin.

That's hardly his fault: he's spoken about the limited Jewish upbringing his parents gave him. But it left an unexpected legacy. It meant he was never fully trusted - even by those who might have been expected to embrace one of their own.

Read our full Election 2015 coverage here

May 14, 2015 12:17

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