The Jewish leader of Britain’s Labor party is currently in Israel expressing his support for the country, just as Prime Minister David Cameron did back in March. Yet for all his platitudes about his support for what he refers to as the “Jewish homeland” and his repeated references to his own family background, you won’t catch Ed Miliband referring to himself as a Zionist. (He almost did it once, but has certainly learned his lesson since.) The simple truth is that for a politician on Britain’s left, referring to oneself as a Zionist would be nothing short of political suicide. And Miliband is undoubtedly of the left; conservative pundits in the UK delight in referring to the Labor party leader as “Red Ed,” but more to the point Miliband has openly declared himself a socialist. How telling that Zionism—the national liberation movement of the Jewish people—is considered so much further beyond the pale than an ideology like socialism, which has a rather troubled record to say the least.
During a Q&A session with a group of Israeli students at the Hebrew University Miliband was questioned on whether or not he considers himself to be a Zionist. Knowing already the consequences of answering in the affirmative, he instead sidestepped the question by saying that he sees the matter in terms of his family, his grandmother having come to Israel following the Holocaust. Miliband’s coyness on the matter is warranted, for this is a subject on account of which he’s been burned before. Asked on a previous occasion if he considered himself a Zionist, he was reported to have responded, “Yes, I consider myself a supporter of Israel.” However, Miliband’s Zionism lasted less than 24 hours, with his office—no doubt seized with panic—releasing a prompt “clarification,” or rather a retraction.
Yet, it is noteworthy that while it was unthinkable for the Jewish leader of the Labor party to confess Zionism, non-Jewish members of the Conservative party have been more unabashed in identifying themselves as Zionists. When he was himself leader of the opposition David Cameron described himself as a Zionist (although one wonders if he would still do so openly now that he is prime minister), and similarly the education secretary, Michael Gove, has defended being a Zionist as well as having long been a vocal supporter of the Jewish state.
As a politician on the left, however, Miliband finds himself in a far more complicated position. Hostility to Israel extends far beyond the radical left in Britain, with several members of the parliamentary Labor party and significant sections of the Trade Union movement actively campaigning against the Jewish state. And after all, Miliband won the race for the party’s leadership in part because he had the backing of the Trade Unions. For many of these people, Jews are tolerated provided they first establish their credentials as being anti-Israel. By expressing support for Israel in the way that he has done on occasion, Miliband is already entering dangerous territory, to come out as a Zionist Jew too might well be more than certain key constituencies could stand.
As already mentioned, Miliband has had no such qualms about calling himself a socialist and has even claimed that he is all about bringing back socialism, something that will sound pretty unsettling to many voters. Of course there have been many strands of socialism and no one would wish to suggest that Miliband has ever expressed support for the regimes that have practiced its more authoritarian and genocidal incarnations–unlike, say, Labor’s deputy leader Harriet Harman, who has expressed praise for Fidel Castro, or another prominent voice in the party, Dianne Abbott, who claimed that Chairman Mao had done “more good than bad.” Indeed, Miliband’s father Ralph was a prominent Marxist theorist and it is quite conceivable that if Ed were to refer to himself as a Marxist then he’d cause less controversy within his party than if he announced himself as a Zionist during his visit to Israel.
It might well be asked if there’s any meaningful difference between calling oneself a strong supporter of Israel as opposed to an out and out Zionist. And the answer is yes; thanks to a determined campaign, that word is now sullied with so many undesirable connotations. The truth is that, for many on the British left, the United Nations’ “Zionism is racism” ruling was never really overturned. But at anti-Israel events and rallies, Zionism is not only declared a form of racism but rather is knowingly equated with Nazism. Images of swastikas stamped over the Star of David are common at anti-Israel demonstrations, while protestors have given the Nazi salute and had even begun goose-stepping while targeting one Israeli-owned business. It is then no exaggeration to say that there are those for whom declaring oneself a Zionist would be akin to endorsing National Socialism. No wonder that Ed Miliband is going out of his way not to drop the Z-bomb.