The many ways of being Jewish in Britain
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The Labour leader recalls how he imbibed Jewish history from his mother and father.
By Ed Miliband, New Statesman
“The first Jewish leader of the Labour Party.” It says something about me and about Britain that I am rarely described as such.
I am not religious. But I am Jewish. My relationship with my Jewishness is complex. But whose isn’t?
My family history often feels distant and far away. Yet the pain of this history is such that I feel a duty to remember, understand and discuss it – a duty that grows, rather than diminishes, over time.
As children we were only dimly aware of it but we caught glimpses. When I was seven, my family went to visit my grandmother in Tel Aviv. Pointing at a black-and-white photograph, I demanded to know who was “that man in the picture”. I remember being taken swiftly out of the room and then being told quietly that he was my grandfather David, who had died in Poland long before I was born. It was only some years later that I realised my mum’s father had died in a concentration camp, murdered by the Nazis for being Jewish.
Before she arrived in Britain in 1947, my mother had spent the war under an assumed name, being sheltered by heroic people who took her in.
My dad came here in 1940. He would happily talk about his time in the Royal Navy during the war but, for a man who could discuss almost anything, he generally steered clear of the events that brought him here.
As a 16-year-old he caught one of the last boats from Ostend to Britain. The family had decided, with German soldiers closing in, that Jewish men were most at risk, so his mother and sister were left behind. He did not see either of them again until after the war was over.
Like many others from Holocaust families, I have a paradoxical relationship with this history. On one level I feel intimately connected with it – this happened to my parents and grandparents. On another, it feels like a totally different world.
When I was in my late twenties, I went back to Poland with my mother to visit the town of Czestochowa, where she had spent so much of her childhood. As we left a house in which she once sheltered, a man pointed at us, shouting: “The Jews are coming to take back their property.” That was another glimpse of the world she had come from and an echo of the ancient hatreds that propelled my family to Britain 70 years ago.
So how can my Jewishness not be part of me? It defines how my family was treated. It explains why we came to Britain. I would not be leader of the Labour Party without the trauma of my family history.
For me, my Jewishness and my Britishness are intertwined. My parents defined themselves not by their Jewishness but by their politics. They assimilated into British life outside the Jewish community. There was no bar mitzvah, no Jewish youth group; sometimes I feel I missed out.
And yet, I did not miss out on many other aspects of Jewishness: my mum got me into Woody Allen; my dad taught me Yiddish phrases (there is no better language for idio¬matic expressions, some of them unrepeatable). And my grandmother cooked me chicken soup and matzo balls.
Although my wife Justine is not Jewish, my Jewishness is part of me, so when we got married last year, we broke a glass at our wedding, an old Jewish ritual. I will explain our heritage and the connection to my boys. I will encourage them to identify with it and, when they have got past CBeebies, I will sit down and watch Woody Allen with them.
But what about being leader of the Labour Party? At an event organised recently by the Jewish charity Norwood, a member asked me whether being Jewish complicated my approach to Israel or the Middle East.
My answer was an emphatic “no”. I support a two-state solution because I long for the peace that both Palestinians and Israelis need so badly. And if that says something about me, it also says a lot about Britain that I know I will be judged not for my background but for what I believe.
I also get to do things as leader of the Labour Party which I might not have had the chance to do before. One night, I went to a dinner with Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, where we sang a traditional prayer. I remember thinking my grandparents – their grandparents, too – would have said the same words.
A better place
I have seen the huge contribution the Jewish community makes to our national life, in business, in charities, in arts and culture. It is a strong and confident community, proud of its Jewishness and proud, too, of Britain.
In a way that I would never have realised when I was growing up, the patriotism of the Jewish community, the patriotism of the refu¬gee, is something I now see existed in my dad, even though he might have denied it.
He preferred coming back to going on holiday. He revelled in the spirit he had seen in the navy. He was grateful to Britain for saving him from terror, for providing us with the security of a home.
Above all, what I see in so many parts of the Jewish community is a desire to leave the world a better place than you found it. Whatever people’s politics, that is so familiar from the upbringing my parents gave me.
I was not indoctrinated with Marxism. Nor was I brought up with religion. But I was given a sense that the world could be a better, fairer and different place. And we all have a duty in our own way and our own time to seek to make it so.
Ed Miliband is the MP for Doncaster North and leader of the Labour Party.
Who represents British Jews?
This is a version of the article published in the above special issue of the New Statesman
While the British Jewish community has always been divided and fractious, post-1948 and particularly post-1967, Israel came close to being a point of consensus.
Since at least the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, this near-consensus has been breaking down. Disquiet at Israeli actions has meant that substantial numbers of left-leaning Jews have become highly vocal in their criticism. Jews for Justice for Palestinians, founded in 2002, has become a public voice for Jews supportive of the Palestinian struggle. Yachad, the ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ group founded in 2011, loosely inspired by the US group J Street, offers a liberal Zionist home for self-defined supporters of Israel who are concerned about Israel’s current direction.
The growth of these groups and others like them has created difficult challenges for leaders and organisations claiming to represent British Jews.
The dominant strategy of Jewish communal leaders in the post-1948 period was to be publicly supportive of Israel and to only express criticism – if ever – privately. This strategy is clearly no longer viable. Too many Jews will not keep silent and will resist anyone who claims to represent them. So in 2007, the group of left-leaning Jews who formed Independent Jewish Voices declared that ‘We come together in the belief that the broad spectrum of opinion among the Jewish population of this country is not reflected by those institutions which claim authority to represent the Jewish community as a whole.’
Faced with these challenges, there has been a move among some Jewish communal leaders to cautiously open up the Israel conversation. At a public meeting In November 2010, Mick Davis, chair of United Jewish Israel Appeal and of the board of trustees of the Jewish Leadership Council, asserted the right of Diaspora Jews to criticise Israel as ‘the government of Israel … have to recognise that their actions directly impact me as a Jew living in London.’ This new openness is still within strict
limits. There is no suggestion that Zionism itself could or should be criticised.
The strongest and loudest attacks on the legitimacy of Jewish representatives and institutions now come from the centre and the right. Mick Davis’s stance was denounced by the chairs of the Zionist Federation and the Jewish National Fund, who both maintained that Diaspora Jews should never criticise Israel publicly. Frustrated with what they see as the Jewish establishment’s weak defence of Israel, a number of grassroots organisations and ad-hoc projects have been set up, such as the British-Israel Coalition, to fight what they see as they rising tide of hatred against Israel.
The Board of Deputies is one of the battlegrounds on which the ever-widening divisions play out. The Board of Deputies’ constitution states that it will ‘Take such appropriate action as lies within its power to advance Israel’s security, welfare and standing.’ This is already too much for anti-Zionist Jews. Conversely, for a substantial number of Deputies, the Board is betraying its constitution by failing to commit to non-holds-barred action against ‘anti-Israel’ forces inside and outside the Jewish community.
Another battleground is the Jewish Chronicle. Stephen Pollard, the editor since 2008, has steered the paper in a rightward direction, offering a platform for some of Israel’s most vociferous defenders. Its political editor Martin Bright works tirelessly to expose what he sees as Jewish toleration for Islamist infiltration of groups such as London Citizens. While today’s JC is always an invigorating read, it is often criticised for stirring up Jewish communal tensions.
Against this tumultuous background, the issue of anti-Semitism has become almost as toxic as the issue of Israel. While earlier generations of Jews may have differed as to what caused anti-Semitism and how to fight it, they could more or less agree on how to identify it. Today, the question of when criticism of Israel becomes anti-Semitic is highly contentious. The Community Security Trust, which tries to unify the community in defending against anti-Semitism, frequently becomes mired in controversy, as in its recent attempts to encourage the expulsion of from the UK of Raed Salah, a leader of the Islamic Movement in Israel, for alleged ‘blood libels’ against Jews.
It’s now impossible for any Jewish organisation to truly speak for British Jews on Israel or anti-Semitism. While surveys have shown that a large majority of British Jews see themselves as supportive of Israel and Zionism, the tensions within this majority are substantial, to say nothing to the significant minority who don’t see themselves as supporters.
The British Jewish community is beginning what will probably prove to a long and painful process –to recognise the fact of pluralism on Israel. I myself have tried to make a small contribution to this process, by bringing groups of Jewish leaders together over confidential dinners to try and nurture a more civil conversation about our differences. At least some leaders do recognise the need for civility and the dangers of the Jewish community descending into endless in-fighting.
There is something that non-Jews can do to help this process: when outside forces – on the left or the right – champion one particular kind of Jew as particularly righteous, they only stoke the flames of intra-Jewish conflict. Both Jews and non-Jews have to recognise that for every Jew whose opinion they admire, they will be at least one other who they will disagree with – and they are not going to go away.
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