David Miliband

By | Oct 12, 2011

That Miliband is Jewish is almost never mentioned in professional assessments. Unlike the large and organized Jewish community in the U.S., the U.K.’s Jewish community is smaller—around 267,000—and quieter, too. According to one of its leaders, who prefers to speak anonymously, the community has “genuine ambivalence about one of their own being close to power,” despite the fact that Jews have a long history in British politics. While in the U.S., Democrats can count on wide support from the Jewish population, British Jews are more divided between the Conservative and Labour parties, according to Todd Endelman.

David Miliband grew up in a home without a close connection to London’s Jewish community, which is traditionally more religiously observant than its American counterpart. According to one close observer, “The Milibands were not active members of the community and this was resented. They were not acknowledged as really being Jewish.”

Miliband, who is an atheist, has become more open about discussing his ethnic roots than in the past. This June, he undertook a private visit to Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery, where he spent time on his own looking for the graves of his family. In a candid article for London’s Jewish Chronicle, Miliband conceded that this visit had been too long in coming. “There must have been a deep ambivalence at the heart of this delay. Poland is my roots,” he wrote. “But Poland is the scene of terrible tragedy—mass murder on an unimaginable scale.” And he learned more about his family’s past when his brother traveled to Moscow for talks on climate change. While there, during a radio interview, an elderly caller announced on the air, “I am Sofia Davidovna Miliband. I am your relative; I am the only one left.” It was no hoax. The woman was indeed his 87-year-old cousin. The pair had a private meeting during which Ed learned that he and David had previously unknown distant cousins living in Britain.

Many members of the Jewish community have come to appreciate David Miliband’s growing public acceptance of his heritage. Some especially like that he hosts a Hanukkah celebration at his official residence, something that no foreign secretary had ever done. “He has learned the power of small symbols to the Jewish community,” added the community leader approvingly.

With a general election expected next May, Labourites and the Conservatives have already commenced campaign hostilities. The Labour Party is considered to be in the position where the Conservatives were in 1994: ripe for defeat. They are currently 16 to 18 points behind the Conservatives in every opinion poll.

The Conservatives are led by David Cameron, a contemporary of Miliband’s at Oxford, and just as fresh-faced as the foreign secretary. He has studied the New Labour playbook and repositioned his party squarely in the middle ground of British politics—except on one issue: Europe. Britain’s Conservatives have long been skeptical about the country’s membership in the European Union, which some view as nothing more than a stealth program for creating a United States of Europe, headquartered in Brussels and run by France and Germany. During tough economic times, like now, there is popular resentment, for example, of the 600,000 Poles who have migrated to Britain for work since 2004. Nevertheless, the Conservatives’ invitation of Kaminski and Zile to their 2009 conference has allowed Labour to stir controversy and puncture the carefully crafted new image of the Conservatives as the “nice” party.

Even the spotlight on the Conservatives’ strange bedfellows may not be enough to pull Labour out of its doldrums, which means that Miliband could be out of government after the elections. What he will do then is a matter of wide speculation among London’s chattering classes. If he makes a bid to lead the party he could end up being prime minister by the middle of the next decade.

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