Monday, October 04, 2010

Introducing Ed Miliband

The newly elected leader of the British Labor Party, 40-year-old Ed Miliband, pledged during his campaign to visit Gaza, the West Bank and Israel to see first-hand "what is happening on the ground." But Labor's first Jewish leader is expected to make Britain's budget and debt burden – not foreign affairs – his top priority. Though union support gave Ed Miliband his narrow margin of victory over brother David, he has moved quickly to jettison his "Red Ed" moniker.

What to make of Miliband's Jewishness? He makes no effort to deny his origins; neither is there any sentimentality for Jewish civilization. His parents fled Europe as Jews but raised their children to embrace exclusively "progressive" values. His Polish-born mother is an ardent pro-Palestinian activist. His late Belgian-born father was said to have evinced early Zionist sympathies before becoming permanently enamored with Marxism.

Plainly, Miliband will be no particular asset to Britain's 262,000-plus Jewish community. Likewise, his frosty attitude toward the Jewish state is not likely to undergo metamorphosis. He has described himself as a “critical friend of Israel” who opposes "blanket boycotts of goods from Israel." As a Euro-liberal he acknowledges Israel's right to self-defense purely in the abstract. For Miliband, even Israel's "right to exist" is implicitly conditioned on its ability to deliver "justice for the Palestinians." No wonder that party hard-liners fixated by the Palestinian Arab cause gravitated to his campaign.

Miliband takes the helm of a party that has always been of two minds about Zionism and Jews, its early association with the urban Jewish working classes notwithstanding. Nowadays, demographic and class shifts – there are fewer Jewish cabbies and more Jewish lawyers – have left Jews without influence in unions and their political loyalties mostly split between Labor and the Tories.

Founded in 1900, Labor began as an amalgamation of the Fabian Society, trade unions and a precursor socialist party. This did not automatically translate into tolerant attitudes toward Jews. The unions, for instance, supported passage of the 1905 Aliens Act aimed at restricting Jewish immigration from Czarist Russia. In 1911, trade unionists carried out a pogrom in Wales that forced out local Jewish merchants. On the other hand, in 1917, Labor warmly championed Jewish settlement in Palestine. And in 1922, Labor sent its first Jewish member, union leader Manny Shinwell, to parliament.

In the dark days before World War II, Labor only grudgingly accepted the necessity of rearmament against Nazi Germany. In opposition in 1944, Labor's platform was friendly toward Zionist aspirations; and in 1945 the party was calling for an end to Britain's heartless barring of Jewish immigration to Palestine.

All that changed within months of Labor's sweeping post-war election victory as foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, a former labor organizer with strong anti-Jewish prejudices, totally embraced the Arab line. The party remained hostile toward the Zionist enterprise until end of mandate and beyond. Paradoxically, this same Labor electoral victory sent an astounding 26 Jews to parliament. But as Prof. Geoffrey Alderman makes clear, not only did they not form a Jewish caucus, only six could be cajoled to venture the slightest public opposition to Bevin's catastrophic Palestine policies.

After Israel's War of Independence, the Labor government petulantly withheld diplomatic recognition until February 1949. Similarly, in 1956, Labor's Jewish MPs, then in opposition, refused to break ranks with party leader Hugh Gaitskell over his nasty criticism of Israel during the Sinai Campaign.

By the 1960s Labor's hard-left factions were on the ascendant. Yet even moderate prime minister Harold Wilson was cold to Israel's entreaties in the lead up to 1967 war. After Labor's 1979 defeat by Margaret Thatcher, the party only barely adjusted its leftward drift replacing Michael Foot with Neil Kinnock. The moderates regained control over the party when Tony Blair led "New Labor" to power in 1997. During Blair's long reign hostility toward Israel – and oftentimes obliquely toward Jews -- by Labor's supporters in the media, unions and academia became viral. Though Blair incessantly lobbied Washington to extract strategically costly diplomatic concessions from Israel during the second intifada, his continuing opposition to the Jewish state's de-legitimization tarred him as a philo-Zionist among leftists.

That era ended in May when Conservative David Cameron defeated Blair's successor Gordon Brown. Now, Miliband's victory makes it official: New Labor is finished.
Miliband is a radical optimist with a pragmatic streak. The new leader's hardheaded assessment may be that Israel-bashing provides few political benefits against an incumbent premier whose lack of empathy for the Zionist enterprise parallels his own.

-- September 2010

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