David Miliband, Most Secular of Jews, Trades British Politics for New York NGO

Good Match To Lead International Rescue Committee

Crossing the Pond: David Miliband will leave his home in the UK for a post at a New York-based NGO this September.
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Crossing the Pond: David Miliband will leave his home in the UK for a post at a New York-based NGO this September.

By Nathan Guttman

Published April 19, 2013, issue of April 26, 2013.
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David Miliband, the former British foreign minister, takes great pride in his Jewish roots but lists his religion as “atheist.” Moreover, he has devoted his career to secular rather than Jewish public missions.

It’s a very particular kind of Jewish identity — and one that may put him in perfect symmetry with the New York-based International Rescue Committee, the world’s largest private refugee relief group, whose leadership reins Miliband will assume this September.

Like Miliband, the IRC has never viewed its Jewish roots as defining its identity. But they were never out of sight or out of mind.

Humanitarian Mission: Although Jews have played prominent roles in the International Rescue Committee, the group has always defined itself as non-sectarian.
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Humanitarian Mission: Although Jews have played prominent roles in the International Rescue Committee, the group has always defined itself as non-sectarian.

“Jewish individuals have played a central role in the IRC, but the organization, from the start, defined itself as nonsectarian,” said Edward Bligh, the IRC’s vice president and editorial director. Among those Jewish individuals who shaped the IRC is Albert Einstein, who is credited with having had the idea to found an international rescue organization to help Jews fleeing the Nazi regime as Hitler came to power in Germany. Leo Cherne, a Jewish polymath, chaired the IRC for four decades, and Reynold Levy headed the organization from 1997 to 2002.

The IRC’s board still includes many Jewish names; among them writer Elie Wiesel and labor leaders Randi Weingarten and Jay Mazur.

But the organization’s focus has shifted greatly from those early days, and more recently, so have its sources of funding. The choice of Miliband to lead the IRC, which came in late March, in some ways reaffirms that amid all this, the group’s understated grounding in Jewish values remain undimmed.

The IRC’s recruitment of its new high-profile hire drew attention on both sides of the Atlantic. For British observers, it was the final sign that Miliband was indeed leaving the political arena to his younger brother, Ed Miliband, who won leadership of Britain’s Labor Party in a 2010 contest that pitted the two brothers against each other. In the United States, the selection of the group’s first ever non-American president marked the IRC’s shift toward international sponsorship, following the funds that are already coming mostly from overseas.

David Miliband, 47, served as foreign minister of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010. An early adviser to Tony Blair, who repositioned Labor as a more centrist party with a broader appeal, Miliband became one of his top aides after Blair became prime minister. After winning his own parliamentary seat, Miliband received his first Cabinet appointment as environment secretary. He became foreign secretary under Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown.

But Miliband’s stellar career came to an abrupt halt when his brother Ed bested him in his bid to lead the Labor Party. David Miliband immediately withdrew from the spotlight, keeping his seat in parliament but steering clear of top-level politics, until his career change in late March.


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