Interview: Ed Miliband

On the eve of the UK general election, I interviewed Labour leader Ed Miliband for the Jewish Chronicle.

We discussed his approach to Israel and the Palestinians, antisemitism in Britain, and his views on personalities including British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and American comedian Larry David.

You can read the interview here, on the JC website, or below:

Ed Miliband’s relationship with the Jewish community has been sorely tested in the year since the Labour leader claimed he felt closer to British Jews than ever before.

But as the election campaign reaches its climax, the man fighting to be Prime Minister this week offered a robust defence of his criticisms of Israel and sent a clear message to Anglo-Jewry.

“I think in the community there are people who agree and disagree. The best thing I can do is show consistent and principled leadership and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Mr Miliband spoke to the JC at the end of a long day of campaigning in Newcastle on Monday, discussing his views on the Middle East conflict and tackling antisemitism, and in an emotional moment revealed how he had used his grandfather’s 70th yahrzeit to explain his family’s Holocaust experience to his five-year-old son Daniel.

He was keen to respond to those who attacked his response to Israel’s military actions last summer. Mr Miliband’s position has been seen as a factor in his faltering relationship with British Jews, and one reason for the community’s apparent drift away from supporting Labour.

Does he stand by his comments that Israel’s actions were “wrong and unjustifiable”?

“I do, but I think it’s right to look forward to how we are going to restart a meaningful peace process for a two-state solution that I know so many people in the Jewish community and in Israel want to see,” he said.

Mr Miliband wanted “security for Israel and a viable and secure Palestinian state”, and as Prime Minister would do “everything possible” to get both sides to engage and restart peace talks.

But would the strength of his language last year make it more difficult for him to work with the Israelis if Labour is in power?

“I don’t think so, no,” he says. “I was in Israel about a year ago and I had a good meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

“Look, I consider myself a strong friend of Israel. Friends will disagree from time to time but it doesn’t in any way change my deep belief that we should seek to restart the negotiations, that we should have no tolerance with those who question the legitimacy of the state of Israel, and that we should have no tolerance of proposals for boycott.

“In everything I do I want to encourage the voices that want that two-state solution. In 2011 we supported the proposal put forward by the government on universal jurisdiction. Some people didn’t like that I supported that. My test of everything we do is: How do we advance a meaningful two-state solution? How do we advance the peace process?”

The historic House of Commons vote last October on recognition of a Palestinian state was dogged with confusion over Labour’s approach. A faltering attempt to whip MPs into supporting the motion led to a rebellion by shadow cabinet members including Ed Balls, Tristram Hunt and Luciana Berger. But Mr Miliband was unwilling to admit the issue had split his team.

“That’s not correct. It’s the position we have previously taken,” he said. “It’s about the principle of recognition. When it comes to the issue of recognition itself we’ve always said it has to be part of a contribution towards meaningful negotiations and a two-state solution.”

He also tried to dismiss claims made by Labour candidates in constituencies with significant numbers of Jewish voters and Israel supporters that the stance would make it more difficult for them to be elected.

Mr Miliband does not practise his faith but discussed the depth of his involvement with the Jewish community and the approach he takes when explaining his family’s background to his two sons.

In March last year he had told the Community Security Trust dinner that he felt more a part of the community than ever before. After the bruising experience of the Gaza conflict and Palestinian vote, could the same be said now?

“I really value my relationship with the Jewish community. The last four or five years as leader of the opposition has given me the opportunity to get to know the community better,” he explains.

“It doesn’t mean everyone always agrees with what I say. That’s what happens in politics. The really important thing is that the Jewish community does not have one homogenous view about the issue regarding Israel and that’s what I discover when I talk to people.”

Mr Miliband is reluctant to reveal many details of the individuals who shape his thinking on Jewish life — a sign either that he is discreet , or that his level of interest is lower than he is willing to admit.

He did highlight technology chief and former UJIA chief executive Lord Kestenbaum as “someone I’m obviously close to and work with a lot. But I don’t just look for one voice. I value my relationship with the Board of Deputies, with CST, with a whole range of people in the community”.

During his time in Downing Street, former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown enjoyed a friendship with the then Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, but do their two successors also benefit from regular phone calls and private chats?

Again, there are no specifics from Mr Miliband, but his admiration for Ephraim Mirvis is apparent.

“I think Rabbi Mirvis is doing a brilliant job,” Mr Miliband says. “People I speak to value his humanity and warmth and how he unites people and brings them together. I was a great admirer of Jonathan Sacks as well, but Rabbi Mirvis is a deeply impressive person.”

At his wedding to lawyer Justine Thornton in 2011, Mr Miliband stamped on a glass in a nod to his Jewish heritage. Opportunities to engage in aspects of Jewish life are currently limited — he admitted to “occasional” Friday night dinner invites — but the couple believe it is important for their two boys to understand their paternal family history.

Mr Miliband explains: “It’s something Justine and I talk to our kids about. They’re a bit young at four and five, they need a little bit of time.

“It was the 70th anniversary of the death of my grandfather in January and the tragic story was that not only did he die in one of the camps but it took years for us to discover where he died. When I went to Yad Vashem we discovered that. I lit a candle in January for him and explained to my oldest son why we lit the candle and what it meant.”

How did it feel, then, when a JC poll last month showed the community rejecting him and his policies? David Cameron scored higher with Jewish voters on issues relating to Israel and Jewish life. Mr Miliband’s personal approval ratings with British Jews barely made it into double figures.

“Let’s see what happens on May 7. You know there’s one poll that counts, and that’s how people vote on May 7,” he answers, brushing off the potential impact of the numbers which, if reflected at the ballot box, could swing results in key constituencies with sizeable Jewish communities, including ultra-marginal Hendon, in north London.

Mr Miliband also denies his party is damaged by backbenchers who have been among Parliament’s strongest proponents of boycotting Israel. Together with Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander he has repeatedly outlined opposition to sanctions and delegitimisation.

“I couldn’t have been clearer with the Jewish community on where I stand,” is his blunt response when asked about colleagues who have celebrated outside stores selling Israeli goods which were temporarily closed by pro-boycott activists.

He tells me he still believes he can have a strong relationship with Anglo-Jewry: “People in the community will have their own views, but I think what I’ve said clearly on a number of issues will reflect what some people in the community believe and what some others don’t believe.”

My brief mention of the bacon sandwich “incident” is ignored by the Labour leader, who consumes nothing more than regular slurps of Diet Coke during our interview. He is happier discussing his love of American Jewish comic Larry David, complaining that a ninth series of Curb Your Enthusiasm has not been made yet.

Could that admission from the guarded politician lead to uncomfortable comparisons with the hapless Larry, the archetypal Jewish man who always puts his foot in it?

Broadcaster Jeremy Paxman, who conducted last month’s televised leaders’ interviews, told Mr Miliband that some people saw him as a “north London geek”. Some within the community thought that was code for “Jew”, but Mr Miliband disagrees.

“Two people came up to me after another programme and said that was what ‘north London geek’ meant. They thought it was a sort of euphemism. I certainly don’t think whoever used it meant it in that way.”

There have been similar suggestions from commentators that negative media coverage targeting the Labour leader in the past four years was motivated by underlying antisemitism.

“I personally don’t feel that,” Mr Miliband continues. It was right that the Conservatives this week suspended a local council candidate who had referred to him as “Miliband the Jew”, but the darker side of social media, including Twitter, is not something he looked at “very regularly”.

His fellow Jewish frontbencher Luciana Berger was targeted online last year by a group of neo-Nazis. He says the episode heightened his concern about antisemitism in Britain, and strengthened his determination to act in government.

“Look, what happened to Luciana is in a totally different category and appalling and disgraceful, and that’s why we have to be alert and alive to anti-semitism.

“I’d say to the community, look at our proposals on hate crime, looking at the CPS and police guidelines, a cross-communal strategy on antisemitism and all of those issues. There’s definitely more we can do. We need better education in schools, that’s incredibly important.

“You can strengthen the police and CPS guidance, which we’ll do. We can mark people’s records if they engage in hate crime and antisemitic attacks. There’s a lot we can do.”