It was perhaps the most consequential Jewish brother vs. brother feud since the biblical Joseph was packed off to Egypt. It ended, appropriately, during Passover. That’s when former British foreign minister David Miliband announced, two and a half years after losing a bitter Labour Party leadership battle to his little brother Ed, that he was quitting politics and moving to New York.
David Miliband, 47, will take over in September as president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, the massive, blue-chip American refugee and disaster relief agency. The committee was formed in 1933 at Albert Einstein’s urging to rescue Jewish intellectuals and socialist activists from Nazi Germany. It’s now active in 40 countries, with a staff of 12,000, a budget of nearly a half-billion dollars and a board that includes Kofi Annan, Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice. It’s come a long way. So, in short order, will Miliband.
In his March 27 resignation letter to party leaders, Miliband cited his lifelong efforts “to make a difference to the disadvantaged and vulnerable” and the vast resources the IRC can marshal. But he added a telling personal note. Recalling the organization’s anti-Nazi roots, he wrote that “given my own family history there is an additional personal motivation for me. I feel that in doing this job I will be repaying a personal debt.”
As most of Britain knows, his late father, Ralph Miliband, a celebrated sociologist and Marxist scholar, came to England in 1940 as a teenage Jewish refugee, together with his Polish-born father, on the last boat out of Nazi-occupied Belgium. First introduced to socialism as a member of the labor Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair, Ralph went on to become one of Britain’s most renowned social theorists. His widow, scholar-activist Marion Kozak, survived the war hidden by nuns in her native Poland.
Both brothers speak frequently about their background as children of Holocaust survivors and their debt to Britain for saving their parents. Yet they rarely refer to themselves as Jewish, more often calling themselves atheists of Jewish background. Both have sharply criticized Israeli actions in the territories, but both insist they are devoted friends of Israel.
They’ve publicly pursued their roots in Eastern Europe. David demonstratively visited the family gravesite in Warsaw during a state visit in 2009. Ed was contacted in Moscow that year on a radio call-in show by a long-lost cousin, Sofia Miliband, and skipped an official meeting to visit her. David met Sofia a year later. He returned in 2012 for her 90th birthday. He described the relationship and the double impact of the Holocaust and Communism on his family in a touching newspaper article, ending with a quote from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks about the importance of memory.
Lately, though, the Miliband family history that most interests the public is the one unfolding now — the fraternal rivalry that’s rattled the Labour Party, upset their mother and apparently ended what was once considered Britain’s most promising political career.