If the winner of Thursday's election in Britain turns out to be the Labour Party, its leader Ed Miliband could make history as Britain’s first Jewish prime minister. However, the historic significance of the honor could be diminished by a number of factors, including the Labour leader’s own strained relations with Britain’s Jewish community.
Miliband’s claim to the title of first Jewish premier would itself be on shaky ground, and depends on whether Benjamin Disraeli, who served as prime minister twice in the late 19th century, is counted as Jewish. The influential Conservative political leader was born into a British Jewish family in 1804 but was baptized early on and raised in the Anglican Church. Disraeli’s Christian upbringing enabled him to pursue his political career, as Jews were banned from participating in Parliament until 1858.
While some consider Disraeli to be Britain’s first Jewish prime minister, the leader had an ambivalent relationship with his lineage. Indeed, his most notable public reference to his Jewish heritage was delivered in the form of a biting rebuttal to an opponent in Parliament: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”
Miliband refers to himself as a proud member of the Jewish community, and has also framed his identity as a crucial part of his political career. “For me, my Jewishness and my Britishness are intertwined,” Miliband wrote in a 2012 essay for the New Statesman, explaining that while he was not religious, his Jewish background has played a role in shaping his mission as a politician.
Sixty members of Miliband’s family, including his grandfather, were killed during the Holocaust and both his parents arrived in Britain in the 1940s as refugees from the war. “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,” Miliband wrote.
The irony is that despite Miliband’s background and his personal connections to the most painful parts of contemporary European Jewish history, his appeal to Britain’s Jewish community has remained at best lukewarm leading into the election. The Labour leader’s positions on Israel in particular have cost him dearly among Jews in the British electorate -- there are about 260,000 Jews altogether in Britain -- with only 22 percent of British Jews planning to cast a ballot for Labour. 69 percent intend to vote for the rival Conservative Party, said a recent survey by the Jewish Chronicle, based in London.
The shift away from Labour by Britain’s Jewish community has been directly linked to Miliband’s critical stance on Israel, including his condemnation of the Israeli government’s actions during last summer’s Gaza war as “unjustifiable,” as well as his support for recognition of a Palestinian state. “That was catastrophic for his relations with British Jews,” Jewish Chronicle Editor Stephen Pollard told Financial Times. Another Jewish community leader remarked, “When you told me we might have our first Jewish prime minister, my first reaction was: I didn’t know David Cameron was Jewish,” in reference to Miliband’s perceived inability to match the current British prime minister’s enthusiasm for the Jewish state.
Growing concerns about rising anti-Semitism in Europe and around the world have made the issue of support for the Jewish community -- and, for many, Israel, by extension -- a major priority for many Jewish voters. Miliband’s ability to deliver on this front remains a question mark for many, notably summarized in an editorial in Israel’s Haaretz this week: “On this measure, Miliband failed the test, at precisely the moment when Jews around Europe feel under heightened pressure.”