Friday, April 18, 2014
British Labour leader's trip to Israel was an important personal journey – he has rediscovered his Jewish identity
OK, so we know Ed Miliband isn’t much of a history buff. During last week’s visit to Israel, he told journalists: “I hope that I’ll be the first Jewish prime minister if we win the election.”
Unfortunately, even if he does win the election – a rather remote prospect, in my view – he won’t be the first Jewish PM. As Tim Stanley eloquently pointed out on Saturday:
"Benjamin Disraeli – one of the greatest PMs there ever was – was Jewish. Yes, he converted to Christianity. But Ed Miliband doesn’t even believe in God and describes himself as a “Jewish atheist” – so we’re talking about ethnic identity here, not religion. And Disraeli was keenly aware of his ethnicity, calling himself “the blank page between the Old Testament and the New”.
Labour’s leader remains something of a blank page himself. And his statement was quickly seized on as a gaffe. Not least because Disraeli has provided the inspiration for Miliband’s increasingly tedious "One Nation" agenda/mantra.
But as leadership gaffes go, this was a rather minor one. “That bloke Miliband doesn’t even know Disraeli was the first Jewish PM. He can forget about my vote,” is not a sentiment sweeping the land today.
Ed Miliband’s trip to Israel wasn’t just another political trip. Instead it was the latest leg of an important personal journey.
During the Labour leadership election, a senior member of his campaign team was asked by a journalist about the significance of his possible election as Labour’s first Jewish leader. It wasn’t something he attached much weight to, they were told. The aide then added: “And anyway, David’s much more Jewish than Ed is.”
That statement was partly a reflection of the internal politics of the Labour movement. Hostility towards Israel’s “occupation” of the Palestinian territories is intense, occasionally crossing the line into all-out anti-Semitism. That was especially true among some of the hard Left elements the younger Miliband was trying to bolt onto his electoral constituency at that time.
But it was also a reflection of the fact neither Miliband brother placed their Jewishness at the heart of their of personal or political identities. Senior members of the Jewish community I spoke to soon after Miliband was elected confirmed neither man had engaged with them in a way that indicated they placed significant store on their Jewish heritage.
In fact, Ed Miliband confirmed that himself. In an article for the New Statesman back in 2012 he wrote:
"My parents defined themselves not by their Jewishness but by their politics. They assimilated into British life outside the Jewish community. There was no bar mitzvah, no Jewish youth group; sometimes I feel I missed out."
At the time, Miliband’s sudden awareness of his Jewishness was regarded by some as rather too politically convenient. It certainly came at a time when he was struggling to build a clear picture of who he was, and what constituted his political hinterland.
But since then Ed Miliband has continued to explore this aspect of who Ed Miliband is. And it has taken him to some challenging places.
Last March, a storm blew up when it was reported he had told an event organised by the Board of Deputies that he self-identified as a Zionist. That report was qualified, with Miliband’s office insisting he was a “supporter of Israel” and believed people should be “intolerant of those who questions Israel’s right to exist”. That may not sound a big deal, but trust me, it is to the Labour Left. Not least because his words also came with a strong repudiation of calls for an Israeli boycott. “I think the boycotts of Israel are totally wrong", he said. "We should have no tolerance for boycotts. I would say that to any trade union leaders.”
Last week he was challenging the Left again. Israel was “the homeland for the Jewish people”, he told a group of Hebrew University of Jerusalem students. He then held a meeting with a Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during which the two men smiled and joked like long-lost brothers. Well, maybe not brothers exactly.
Again, this would normally not be noteworthy stuff. But laughing along with “Bibi” is not a way to win brownie points with Labour’s more radical elements. And attempting to win brownie points from that quarter has been one of the signature failings of Miliband’s time as leader.
Predictably, Miliband’s aides didn’t exactly shout about these elements of the visit, preferring to emphasise his visit to Ramallah and the West Bank. But he did what he did, and he said what he said.
And again, while it’s clear politics was the primary motivation for his trip – or journey – it was not the exclusive motivation. The final part involved a visit to his aunt Sarah Ben Zvi, whom he’d last met when he was seven years old.
Sarah Ben Zvi is the first cousin of Miliband’s mother Marion. The two women grew up together in the Polish town of Czestochowa. When the Nazis invaded in September 1939, they commandeered the steel factory, which employed both sisters, and torched Jewish schools and synagogues. Then, in 1942, they began to deport the Jewish population to concentration camps.
Miliband’s mother, his mother’s sister and grandmother fled the village and were sheltered by nuns in a convent. Ben Zvi, was among the thousands who were deported to the camps. She survived and moved to Palestine after the war, where she was briefly reunited with Miliband’s mother.
When he was addressing Jewish students in Jerusalem, he recounted a story of his first visit to Israel:
"The image in my mind from 37 years ago is of going to visit my grandmother’s house and seeing a photograph of somebody, and asking who it was, and my grandmother was very upset. I was taken out of the room and it was explained that it was my grandfather who was killed in the camps. And so I come here very conscious of my family’s history, and also with a deep sense of gratitude to Israel, which was a sanctuary for her from the most indescribable grief."
Ed Miliband may still be something of a blank page to most of the British people. He may never fulfill his ambition to Britain’s second Jewish prime minister.
But he knows his history after all. And his history knows him.
Cameron says Britain should be 'more confident about our status as a Christian country - and more evangelical about faith'
David Cameron has claimed that Britain should be 'more confident about our status as a Christian country'. The Prime Minister insisted that being a Christian country did not mean 'doing down' other religions or 'passing judgment' on those with no faith at all.
It comes after the Government came under attack from senior clergy over its welfare reforms, but Mr Cameron has responded by saying 'we all believe in many of the same principles' and that churches were 'vital partners'.
In an article for the Church Times Mr Cameron described himself as a 'classic' member of the Church of England, 'not that regular in attendance, and a bit vague on some of the more difficult parts of the faith'.
And he rejected the idea that in an 'ever more secular age' people should not talk about their religion.
'I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people's lives,' he said.
'First, being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgment on those with no faith at all.'
Mr Cameron said he had 'felt at first hand the healing power of the Church's pastoral care' and Christians 'know how powerful faith can be in the toughest of times'.
Earlier this year the Government came under attack from 27 Anglican bishops who warned that thousands of people were being forced to rely on hand-outs from food banks as a result of the coalition's benefit changes.
The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales Cardinal Vincent Nichols has also said it was a 'disgrace' that in such a wealthy country there were people who could not afford to feed themselves.
'Many people tell me it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too.
'Crucially, the Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none - and we should be confident in standing up to defend them.
'People who, instead, advocate some sort of secular neutrality fail to grasp the consequences of that neutrality, or the role that faith can play in helping people to have a moral code. Of course, faith is neither necessary nor sufficient for morality.
'Many atheists and agnostics live by a moral code - and there are Christians who don't. But for people who do have a faith, that faith can be a guide or a helpful prod in the right direction - and, whether inspired by faith or not, that direction or moral code matters.'
Mr Cameron acknowledged that welfare was 'controversial' but said 'not enough is made of our efforts to tackle poverty'
The Prime Minister, who has faced criticism from within his own party over the Government's commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of gross national income on overseas aid, said the policy should be a 'source of national pride'.
The article is the latest demonstration of Mr Cameron's religious faith.
At an Easter reception in Downing Street earlier this month he told an audience of Christian leaders and politicians in Downing Street that his 'moments of greatest peace' occurred every other Thursday morning attending the Eucharist at St Mary Abbots, the west London church linked to the school his children attend.
'I find a little bit of peace and hopefully a bit of guidance,' he added.
Sorry, Rev, but Christianity isn't just about being nice to people
By Tim Stanley
Here’s a thought for the day: Most people are “nice”, but Christians should be nice with a purpose.
I am not a fan of the sitcom Rev, which depicts a vicar trying to be kind to his parishioners – with hilarious consequences. His congregation is small, full of delinquents, and the eponymous clergymen is often driven to drink by their unholy antics. Justin Welby disagrees with the show’s depiction of Anglican life because he notes that many churches are growing. The Rev’s, by contrast, conforms to a self-lacerating vision of Christianity as nice but niche.
But self-laceration is the stock-in-trade of the 1960s liberal Christian tradition, and Rev is its fifth gospel. The priest character is full of doubt, constantly questioning his vocation, reluctant to preach about sin and contemptuous of those who do (evangelicals are portrayed, inevitably, as gurning bigots). It’s never entirely clear why he wants to be a priest at all. Except, perhaps, to be nice to those who undoubtedly need it. Rev imagines Christians to be social workers in dog collars: faith is far less important than acts of kindness. Which is all very nice, but hardly conducive to filling the pews. If the church only ever gives, then people will only ever take from it. What’s the point of committing oneself to a faith that asks nothing in return – including firm belief?
Giles Fraser makes a similar point in an article that is worth meditating upon. It’s a critique of David Cameron’s recent “coming out” as a Christian, in which the PM spoke of Jesus as a bloody nice bloke and Christianity as being primarily about helping people in need. Fraser calls this the “religion of good deeds” and notes that while it is all jolly decent, it misses a couple of crucial points about Christianity. First, Jesus was not just all about being kind:
No-one was ever crucified for kindness. Jesus was not strung up on a hideous Roman instrument of torture because of his good deeds. If Jesus is just a remarkably good person whose example we ought to follow, why the need for the dark and difficult story of betrayal, death and resurrection that Christians will commemorate this week?
Why indeed? Because it’s a reminder of the fact that Jesus was the son of God who lived, died and rose again. And the second thing that Rev and Cameron miss is that Christians do nice things not just because they are nice people but because they are commanded to by scripture. Helping the poor or the sick is not simply an act of humanity, it’s an act of faith. It’s also an act of witness – a way of showing the world the reality of Christ’s love in the hope that more people will accept him as their saviour. "Witness" is what martyr literally translates as from the ancient Greek. The saints were willingly crucified, shot, tortured, burned and guillotined in part as an act of testimony to the Christian faith.
Recall the incredible story of José Sánchez del Río, a 14-year old boy who was stabbed and shot by Mexican secularists. He used his final moments of life to draw a cross in the sand. Now that is faith in action.
For Christians, love is a multifaceted thing. It’s about giving, it’s about sacrificing. And it’s an act of love to tell people when they’re going wrong. Nice atheists don’t have to do that because there’s no commandment to rescue others from themselves. But we have to – and we need to do more of it. Christians should speak out against the greed of payday loan companies that manipulate people’s desperation. Against theft from the taxpayer or the political decisions that leave the disabled or children without adequate support. Against regimes that torture and against mobs that pick on minorities. Against the tide of pornography that degrades the personhood of women. Against abortion-on-demand and against an unfair society that compels so many women to seek it. Against the decline of religious tolerance as so many countries seem determined to squeeze all faith out of the public sphere.
We think we are so civilised here in the West, but by Christ’s standards we are savages. Christians who fail to point out these sins are surely as culpable as the people who commit them. It is not enough to be “nice”. Sometimes nice tips over into blind tolerance; a virtue becomes a vice.
Challenging thoughts, maybe, but this is a challenging time of year. This Holy Week, we have to contemplate directly a moment when a religious leader challenged the ethics of his society and was nailed to a cross for his courage. The good news is that he came back from the dead to build a new church. We mere mortals, on the other hand, only have one life to make a difference in. Let’s not just spend it being “nice” to people. Let’s shake things up a bit.
The significance of the AFSC [a quaker NGO] today also stems from its leading role in the global BDS [Anti-Israel] movement. In addition to its relief efforts, the AFSC also had a separate strand toward radical pacifism. Though this pacifism derived from the Quaker religious tradition, in the aftermath of World War II the organization’s leaders saw the danger of nuclear war as so profound that it consciously abandoned its previous political neutrality and took a strident tone regarding disarmament.
The United States rather than the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China was cast increasingly as the party responsible for the Cold War. The organization argued that the US was the global bully, but little was said or done for victims of Communism.
By the 1960s and the Vietnam War the AFSC’s anti-Americanism was obvious; arguably it was the organization’s central policy. It routinely condemned the US in sham international proceedings and even provided direct aid to the North Vietnamese government, in contravention of US law.
From the 1950s to the 1970s the Quaker concepts that had guided the organization, not least of all modesty and political neutrality, had completely disappeared and it became a routine left-wing pressure group, supporting whatever causes the US opposed.
At the same time, after 1967 the AFSC took up the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of its primary missions. It uses the network of Quaker schools in the West Bank established in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as more recently NGO activities to support Palestinians and attack Israel, in Israeli courts, international fora, and at the grassroots levels.
Since 1967 it has become more extreme in its disdain for Israel, gradually adopting elements of Protestant supersessionism and ‘liberation theology’ that see modern Jewish Israel as having lost its covenant with God, replaced by a near sacred Palestinian people.
All the while it professes respect for Jews, but demands that Jews give up support for Israel. The AFSC leverages its history and past good work against Israel.
The AFSC’s support for the BDS movement is one element. Another is the way in which anti-Israel radicalism are introduced into Friends schools through the intellectual leadership provided by the AFSC.
The many local Quaker fellowships around the country, although greatly reduced in number from their 20th century heyday, are important tools for the AFSC to shape local BDS efforts, usually in association with other Christian, pro-Palestinian, and ‘anti-war’ groups. All this is predicated on a distinguished history that the AFSC both leverages and disregards.
Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.
American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.
For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS and DISSECTING LEFTISM. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here.