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.
David, the elder brother, entered politics in his 20s as a wunderkind protégé of Tony Blair. More conservative than his father, he was a key author of Blair’s centrist 1997 New Labour platform, which echoed Bill Clinton’s New Democrats program. By the time Blair retired in 2007, David was his environment minister and presumed heir to his legacy. That made him a threat to Blair’s successor and longtime party rival, left-leaning finance minister Gordon Brown.
Instead of challenging Brown, David signed on as foreign minister in a show of party unity. Ed, four years younger and a Brown protégé, joined the cabinet in a junior post. British media gushed over the novelty of sibling ministers serving together, only the second such pair since medieval times. Ed was promoted the following year to energy and climate minister, David’s old turf. Despite their ties to rival party factions, the brothers were considered close. David was known as brainy and reserved, Ed as garrulous and charismatic.
In May 2010 Brown led Labour into elections and lost. He promptly resigned as party leader. A week later David declared his candidacy for leadership. Ed announced his upstart leftist candidacy two days later. Eventually a five-way race emerged. Both brothers insisted the competition wouldn’t affect family relations. The only clear sign of strain was from their mother, who reportedly told friends she wished they’d entered academia like their parents.
When the primaries were over, Ed had won by a whisker, bolstered by union and left-wing votes. This only heightened the drama. Ed asked David to join his leadership team. David declined. Publicly, David said he didn’t want to undermine Ed by inviting speculation about continuing rivalry. Privately, associates said Ed felt hurt by David’s rejection, while David reportedly viewed Ed’s inner circle as lightweights.
For two and a half years David sat quietly in parliament, dabbling in teaching and volunteering on the side, turning down job offers. Finally, when the International Rescue Committee called, he jumped.
Whatever else the rivalry might have done, it appears to have intensified the brothers’ public identification as Jews. After the vote, Ed gave a rare interview to the weekly Jewish Chronicle, saying there was “a set of values my parents taught me about justice and making the world a better place, which are recognisably ‘left’ values but also owe something to the Jewish tradition.” Ed’s sons are named Daniel and Samuel. David’s are Isaac and Jacob.
In 2011 Ed married his longtime partner in a civil ceremony at which he ceremonially broke a glass. In May 2012, in his most public gesture yet, he wrote a personal essay for a special issue on British Jewish identity in the left-leaning monthly New Statesman. He described an uneasy mixture of attachment to and distance from the Jewish past, proclaimed his love of Yiddish slang and Woody Allen films and defiantly asked, “How can my Jewishness not be a part of me?”
As for the reserved David, he may find that New York and his new job force his private identity into the open. The International Rescue Committee, for all its non-sectarian cachet, remains at heart the non-Jewish Jewish institution it was at birth. Most of its leaders over the years have been Jewish; its current board includes, along with A-list diplomats, such luminaries as Elie Wiesel, Jessica (Mrs. Jerry) Seinfeld and two of America’s best-known Jewish labor leaders, retired ladies’ garment chief Jay Mazur and teachers’ union president Randi Weingarten.
Miliband will find he’s been recruited not just as a diplomat, but also as a voice of the next generation of Jewish socialism. While taking on the global future, he’s also reclaiming his past.
Meanwhile, a March 23 poll in The Guardian showed 54% believe Ed will be Britain’s next prime minister.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).