In light of Britain’s July 2011 phone-hacking scandal, the public profile of Ed Miliband, who has called for the break up of News Corp, is on the rise. In May 2010, our J.J. Goldberg wrote this piece about Miliband, now the leader of the Labor party, and his politician brother, David.
Perfectly timed to the publication this month of “Trials of the Diaspora,” Anthony Julius’s searing history of antisemitism in Britain, comes a new and unprecedented challenge that is tearing British Jews apart. Well, two British Jews, anyway: the Miliband brothers, David and Ed. Respectively foreign minister and energy minister in the recently ousted government of Gordon Brown, they’re now running against each other to succeed Brown as leader of the Labour Party. Talk about your sibling rivalry.
The Milibands’ simultaneous ministerial service was considered one for the history books; they’re among a tiny handful of brothers ever to serve together in a British Cabinet, and the first since the Stanley brothers in 1938. But their current competition for party leadership, a possible stepping stone to the prime minister’s office, leaves observers groping for an analogy. “The only parallel I can think of is the Williams sisters’ rivalry in tennis,” said a leading London journalist who is friendly with both brothers.
At the time this column was written (May 18), they were the only declared candidates in the race, though other candidates are expected to join them soon. Still, odds-makers say that one or the other Miliband brother is likely to win in the fall, regardless of who else weighs in. And, given the fragility of the newly-formed governing coalition between the wildly incompatible Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, there’s a decent chance that new elections will be called within a year and a Miliband will emerge as prime minister.
Sons of Polish Holocaust survivors, the Milibands have emerged in the last few years as two of Britain’s fastest-rising political figures — and, ironically, as senior leaders of the Labour Party’s warring factions, the market-friendly Tony Blair faction and the union-allied Brown faction. David Miliband, 44, the better-known brother, served for two decades as Blair’s top policy aide, playing a key role in drafting Blair’s post-socialist New Labour platform. In 2006 Blair made him environmental affairs minister, heading up the climate-change effort that Blair hoped to make his final signature cause. Brown, succeeding Blair in 2007, made Miliband his foreign minister partly as a unity gesture and partly to keep him on a short leash.
Ed Miliband, 40, a newcomer on the national scene, was an aide to Brown in the Treasury during the Blair years. He joined the Cabinet for the first time in 2008 — in charge, ironically, of energy and climate change, essentially his big brother’s old portfolio. He’s hardly in his brother’s shadow, though. Telegenic and gregarious in public, he poses a sharp contrast to the stiff, wonkish David. He’s also popular in both factions, while David is widely disliked by the Brownites. Insiders say Ed might end up eclipsing David as the party’s new star.
Some thoughtful readers might think it odd that British Labour, the party of the left in a country where left-wing anti-Zionism is increasingly indistinguishable from old-fashioned Jew-hatred, might choose a Jew as its standard-bearer. Sure, some will say that the two brothers are simply the latest in a long line of deracinated Jewish leftists all too willing to turn on their own people. There are whispers to that effect in some corners of the British Jewish community these days. Critics rarely fail to mention that the Milibands’ father was the late Ralph Miliband, often described as the leading Marxist theoretician of the postwar era, a founder of the New Left Review and other radical publications.
David Miliband is regularly criticized for actions as foreign minister, including the British decision to require that retailers label products made in West Bank settlements, to distinguish them from Israeli products that enjoy certain trade benefits. Miliband is also criticized for his very public display of anger, including the expulsion of the Israeli Mossad’s London station chief, after an assassination team that killed a Hamas operative in Dubai in January was found to be using counterfeited British passports. The low point in his relations with the established Jewish community came last December, when he met with a group of community leaders to discuss Middle East policy and mistakenly referred to the Israeli government as “your government.”
But friends paint out a different picture of the Milibands. For starters, it’s no secret that Ralph, the father, was first introduced to Marxism as a member of the left-wing Zionist group Hashomer Hatzair in his teens in Belgium, where his Polish Jewish family had settled after World War I. Friends go on to note that David’s two sons are named Isaac and Jacob, hardly signs of Marranism.
It was David, as foreign minister, who took the unprecedented step of appointing a strongly affirming Jewish diplomat, Matthew Gould, as British ambassador to Israel. He’s due to take up his post this fall. David also chose Ivan Lewis, who headed the Manchester Jewish Federation before running for Parliament, as his deputy in charge of Middle East affairs. He’s taken a lot of heat from the anti-Israel left for both decisions.
More personally, David took time during an official visit to Poland last June to meet with the planning team of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and made a highly publicized visit to the Warsaw Jewish cemetery where much of his family is buried. In a speech, he thanked the Poles who had saved his mother from the Nazis and noted that, but for luck, he might have been a victim.
Ed Miliband had his own family moment last October, during a working visit to Moscow. Appearing on a radio call-in show, he received a call from a woman named Sofia Davidovna Miliband, who identified herself as his cousin and last living relative in Russia. Officials tried to cut her off, assuming it was a hoax, but Miliband sought her out and paid her a visit at home, standing up a diplomatic reception to learn about his family.
Both Milibands vow if elected to reunite the Labour Party, torn by years of bitter rivalry between the Brown and Blair factions. Each calls the other his “best friend.” Each promises to tap the other as an adviser upon winning. Both insist the campaign won’t interfere with their close family bond — though David recently told a reporter to “ask me again in September.” Both brothers must surely be hoping that the public won’t judge their unifying skills by their handling of relations within their own family.
Sibling rivalry? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).