Ed Miliband was in feisty form during his first Q&A forum with the Jewish community as Labour leader.
In a wide-ranging discussion that overran, amiable Ed tackled an array hot potatoes including immigration, the NHS, multiculturalism, youth unemployment and the “shameful” recent behaviour of George Galloway.
He also amusingly spent time sharing his passion for the Boston Red Sox baseball team and reflected on how his Jewish upbringing influences his worldview as an adult. One vivid memory of visiting his grandmother in Tel Aviv as a boy and asking about his grandfather who perished in the Holocaust was particularly poignant.
On these assorted topics he was never less than articulate, well informed and down-do-earth. The only time he left his comfort zone was when broaching his sometimes contentious views on Israel, the moribund peace process and Labour’s recent endorsement of Palestinian state at the UN. Indeed, far greater depth on his party’s position on these points was provided by his foreign spokesman, Douglas Alexander at his own Jewish News Q&A last month.
Miliband earned plaudits from the 300-strong audience for his unequivocal opposition of Israel boycotts. He even pledged to readdress this issue with the trade unions and affiliated societies, despite their overwhelming support that enabled him to snatch victory from his older brother David in the 2010 leadership contest. His progress on this front will be followed with interest.
The night will perhaps be best remembered for an intriguing “is he or isn’t he a Zionist?” debate, which broke out across Twitter in the hours following the event.
Here’s the question from an audience member: “Would you describe yourself as a Zionist?”
And Ed’s immediate response: “The answer to that is yes, because I consider myself a supporter of Israel.”
So, naturally, the crowd left secure in the knowledge that the Labour leader was, indeed, a Zionist. And remained secure in this knowledge until the following afternoon, when his office felt obliged to clarify that, in fact, he isn’t. Rather, he is purely a loyal supporter of Israel. Not a Zionist.
Perhaps it was the words of footballer Joey Barton, one of a number of high-profile tweeters on the subject, that provided the straw to break the fleeting Zionist’s back: “Seems as though @Ed_Miliband committed political suicide last night by announcing, he is a (wait for it)… #zionist What a nugget!”. Philosophical analysis there by the Marseille midfielder.
Of course, Ed can be forgiven for treating carefully as far as the Z-word is concerned.
After all, some people might crassly perceive that because he’s Jewish and calls himself a Zionist, he must have a divided loyalties and a hidden agenda as far as the Middle East is concerned. He may not always put British interests first.
The same vile and vacuous charge was leveled at Matthew Gould, Britain’s Jewish ambassador to Israel, by Labour MP Paul Flynn back in 2011. Flynn claimed that in place of Gould, the UK requires an Israeli envoy “with roots in the UK who can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty”.
With this ugly episode still fresh in the mind, the thought of Ed Miliband becoming Britain’s first Jewish prime minister since Benjamin Disraeli seems fraught with such potentially uncomfortable episodes.