Labour Chief, a Jew Who Criticizes Israel, Walks a Fine Line

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Ed Miliband, who could become Britain’s first Jewish-born prime minister since Disraeli, has denounced Israeli actions in Gaza. FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA / EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Ed Miliband, who could become Britain’s first Jewish-born prime minister since Disraeli, has denounced Israeli actions in Gaza.


OCTOBER 23, 2014

LONDON — Ed Miliband, who as leader of the opposition Labour Party could become prime minister after next year’s general election, has often spoken of what it means to him to be Jewish: his parents’ flight from the Nazis, family reunions in Israel, and even his grandmother’s chicken soup and matzo balls.

But Mr. Miliband has also strongly criticized Israeli actions during the latest conflict in Gaza; his remarks have soured relations with parts of Britain’s Jewish population just as some seemed to be warming to him ahead of the campaign.

Britain’s center-left Labour Party often sympathizes instinctively with the Palestinian cause, and Mr. Miliband is not the first party leader to criticize Israel. Yet his willingness to speak about his family’s story and connections to Israel — showcased in a high-profile visit there this year — has brought a personal dimension to a loaded issue.

If he leads Labour to victory in May, Mr. Miliband will become Britain’s first Jewish-born prime minister since Benjamin Disraeli — who converted to the Anglican Church as a boy — left office in 1880.

Tensions over Israel surfaced this month when Mr. Miliband voted alongside the majority of his party’s lawmakers to recognize Palestinian statehood in a largely symbolic parliamentary vote.

But the issue has been simmering since the Israeli operation in Gaza got underway this summer and Mr. Miliband said Prime Minister David Cameron was “wrong not to have opposed Israel’s incursion into Gaza” and rebuked him for his “silence on the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians caused by Israel’s military action.”

Mr. Miliband also described Hamas as a terrorist organization, criticized its “wholly unjustified rocket attacks” and its “murderous intent” and said he believed in Israel’s right to self-defense.

He did not outline an alternative security response but called for a renewed cease-fire and the resumption of talks on a two-state solution. Israel’s military actions were “wrong and unjustifiable,” and would “increase the future threats to its security rather than countering them,” he said.

Criticism of Mr. Miliband’s stance came from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, which said his position ignored “the ideology of Hamas, the psychology of Hamas, the actions of Hamas and thus the reality faced by Israel.”

Stephen Pollard, editor of The Jewish Chronicle, described his readers’ reaction to Mr. Miliband’s stance as overwhelmingly negative.

“Just because he is Jewish, I don’t think people would expect his support for what Israel was doing, but there was no attempt from him to give an evenhanded criticism,” Mr. Pollard said.

“The view was that, the moment Israel was under pressure and under fire, the first thing he did was to dump on Israel,” he added.

Mr. Miliband’s aides reject that argument, saying that being Jewish and a friend of Israel does not disqualify him from criticizing Israeli policy when necessary.

“Ed has talked openly about his Jewish family history and how it is an important part of who he is,” said Stewart Wood, a close adviser and a member of the House of Lords. “But he rejects the idea that being Jewish and embracing that part of his identity means that he cannot criticize actions of the Israeli government — for example when it comes to supporting settlement expansion or with regard to aspects of this summer’s military action in Gaza.”

Mr. Miliband is the Labour Party’s first Jewish leader, though, as he wrote in the British magazine New Statesman in 2012, “it says something about me and about Britain that I am rarely described as such.”

Mr. Miliband, who says he is not religious, wrote in the article about growing up in left-wing, secular, intellectual North London. “There was no bar mitzvah, no Jewish youth group; sometimes I feel I missed out,” he wrote.

“My relationship with my Jewishness is complex,” he said. “But whose isn’t?”

His father, the prominent Marxist historian Ralph Miliband, arrived in Britain in 1940 on one of the last boats transporting Jewish refugees from Belgium. Mr. Miliband’s mother followed in 1947 having spent World War II living under an assumed name in Belgium while other family members perished in the Holocaust.

Last year that family story became a public issue when Mr. Miliband accused The Daily Mail of lying about his father after the newspaper used the headline “The man who hated Britain” for an article focusing on his left-wing beliefs.

According to those close to Mr. Miliband, he has taken a growing interest in his family history, and the visit to Israel was intended both to underscore his interest in the Middle East as a geopolitical issue and to show the public more about his family background.

In a subsequent speech in June to a party group called Labour Friends of Israel, Mr. Miliband described settlement building in the occupied territories as “a significant threat to a negotiated agreement,” and emphasized his support for a two-state solution. But he also recounted his visit in emotional terms and emphasized his attachment to Israel.

“I want you to know,” he concluded, “that if I become prime minister in less than a year’s time, I will be proud to do so as a friend of Israel, a Jew and, most of all, someone who feels so proud to be part of the community gathered here.”

With the visit and speech, Mr. Miliband seemed to be reaching out to the Jewish population, according to Mr. Pollard, one reason for the dismay felt by some at Mr. Miliband’s comments over Gaza.

Yet neither his family background nor Labour Party politics suggest that Mr. Miliband was ever likely to shrink from criticizing Israel when he disagreed with its government’s policies.

His mother, Marion Kozak, is a signatory of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, which describes itself as a network of Jews who are British or live in Britain and who “oppose Israeli policies that undermine the livelihoods, human, civil and political rights of the Palestinian people.”

Many Labour lawmakers worry about the plight of the Palestinians, and some represent constituencies with large Muslim populations, which could be crucial in the May general election.

Some, including Grahame Morris, a lawmaker who leads a group called Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East, want tougher policies against Israel.

Mr. Morris said he was “proud of Ed when he opposed Israel’s summer assault on Gaza,” but added that “there is still plenty of room for improvement” in policies and called for a “ban on trade and investment with illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories.”

Meanwhile, the junior partner in the current Conservative Party-led coalition government, the Liberal Democrats, has also been critical of Israel’s policy in Gaza.

“There is competition for Labour and Liberal Democrat voters on the center-left, and for Muslim votes, and both constituencies are much more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause,” said Toby Greene, research director for the British Israel Communications and Research Center, which aims to promote ties between Israel and Britain.

But, while there is political logic in hardening his rhetoric, Mr. Miliband may have used this tougher tone to keep internal divisions under control without actually toughening party policy against Israel.

Labour has consistently supported the principle of recognizing statehood for the Palestinians, and it was Mr. Morris — the backbench lawmaker — not Mr. Miliband who secured the recent nonbinding parliamentary resolution backing recognition of a Palestinian state.

Official pronouncements kept open the timing of recognition if Labour comes to power next year.