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Ed Miliband: the patriotism of a refugee

The Labour leader recalls how he imbibed Jewish history from his mother and father.

“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.

Intertwined heritage

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 idio­matic 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 refu­gee, 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.

This article appears exclusively in print in the New Statesman special issue on the British Jewish experience. To read the full contents of the magazine - on newsstands from Thursday 24 May - click here. Single issue copies of the magazine can also be ordered online.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?