Exclusive Miliband interview: I’ve no issue with people calling me a Zionist

Ed Miliband greets his great aunt, who he hasn't seen for 37 years

Ed Miliband greets his great aunt in Kibbutz Nachshonim, who he hasn’t seen for 37 years. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Ed Miliband returned this week from a three-day visit that mixed political with the intensely personal, writes Justin Cohen in Jerusalem. In his only interview with the British Jewish media during the trip, Ed Miliband tells the Jewish News:

  • I’ve no issue with people calling me a Zionist
  • I now want to take my sons to Israel
  • I’d like to celebrate more traditional Friday nights
  • I’m confident of returning to the Jewish state as prime minister

Ed Miliband has told the Jewish News he is happy for people to call him a Zionist as he revealed plans to bring his own children to Israel for the first time.

The Labour leader opened up to this newspaper during a three-day visit to Israel and the territories which had “strengthened” his personal connection to the country which gave his grandmother refuge after the Shoah.

The visit – his first foreign trip as Labour chief other than to meet troops in Afghanistan – veered from the political including talks with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas to the intensely personal with a Friday night reunion with family he hadn’t seen since the age of seven.

His first public engagement on Thursday morning saw a wide-ranging question and answer session with Hebrew University students, at which he described Israel as a “homeland for the Jewish people” – words which would have gone down well with Netanyahu as he continues to call in vain for the Palestinians to recognise Israel as the nation state of the Jews. However, a year after his office denied suggestions he described himself as a Zionist at a Jewish News forum, Miliband stayed well clear of that word when repeatedly challenged on the matter.

But the man hoping to enter Downing Street next May later told the Jewish News: “I think it’s for others to make these judgements. The reason I’m being cautious about using labels is they will mean one thing to one set of people and another thing to another.

“That’s why I’ll characterise it in my way and if people want to describe it in that way that’s absolutely fine for them to do so, and other people want to characterise it in another way. I’ll use my own words and people will draw their own conclusion.”

Miliband and his wife Justine were shown a photo album by his 84 year-old Aunt Sarah Ben Zvi at her home on Nachshonim Kibbutz. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Miliband and his wife Justine were shown a photo album by his 84 year-old Aunt Sarah Ben Zvi at her home on Nachshonim Kibbutz. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The 44-year-old used his visit to heap praise on the “incredible success story” of Israel, particularly in the fields of hi-tech and education. He also expressed “affection” for and “gratitude” to the state for what it did for his grandmother.

The 44-year-old – who was accompanied throughout by his wife Justine, shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and LFI director Jennifer Gerber – said in the interview that he will be talking to his two sons about the visit and now plans to bring them to Israel “because it’s so much a part of my family history”.

Self-described atheist Miliband – who travelled to Kibbutz Nachshonim to spend Friday night with cousins he hadn’t seen for 37 years – added: “I’d like to do Friday night more actually. I’ve been discussing this with Justine. People’s Jewishness expresses itself in different ways.”

Saying he was “proud” to be Jewish, the Labour leader added: “I want to become prime minister and being the first Jewish prime minister would be a matter of incredible pride to me. There will be all sorts of reasons why people decide to vote for me or not but I don’t believe being Jewish is one why people will say we’re not. I think that’s a really important thing for people to understand the kind of country we are.”

Miliband said his understanding of the challenges faced by the state had increased since winning the leadership in 2010, and further still by being on the ground this week. In Sderot, three and a half years after being criticised for failing to mention rocket attacks from Gaza during his very first speech as leader, he surveyed a hilltop view just 800 metres from Gaza and was shown the shells of several of the thousands of rockets that have rained down on Israel’s south.

A photo album showing pictures of Miliband in Israel when he was teenager. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

A photo album showing pictures of Miliband in Israel when he was teenager. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

“I’ve got a clear sense of the real security concerns there are, including rocket attacks from Gaza, and the impact that has,” he said. “I met an incredibly brave family in Sderot whose son was horribly murdered three years ago. I understand the reasons why Israel feels so concerned about its security and I think that’s very much a part of understanding how you can get solutions.”

He said the peace process was on a “knife edge”, with “huge challenges” requiring risks to be taken on both sides. But he was “clear” after meeting Netanyahu about “his seriousness in trying to make a solution work”. Miliband declined to speak out against the PA’s recent moves for membership of international bodies, saying: “I’ve taken the same position as William Hague on this which is to say negotiations are the priority. That it’s not for us to be taking a position on what the Palestinians have done, it’s just too sensitive at this stage.

“We’re for the negotiations getting back on track and that is a responsibility on both sides. I think that the best thing we can do in these circumstances is to be relentless encouragers for a successful negotiated outcome.”

On the eve of the overwhelming rejection of an Israel boycott motion by the National Union of Journalists and with the prospect of UNISON debating such a move this summer, Miliband reiterated his long-term opposition to boycotts – and said the sensitive state of the peace process should bring home more than ever that they are “So not the solution. Don’t vote for a boycott,” he said. “My advice to the NUJ or UNISON or whoever is the same.”

But he also had strong words for Jerusalem on the issue on settlements. During a visit to a Bedouin community of Khan Al Amar in the West Bank on Saturday, Miliband said their growth presented a “mortal threat” to the peace process.

“There have to be compromises and courageous steps on all sides. There is concern, it’s been expressed to me by members of the Jewish community in Britain, about the growth of settlements and the dangers it represents for Israel.”

Turning his attention to his prospects of returning to Israel as premier after next year’s election, he said he was “Confident. We’ve got a big fight but I think we’ve got a big argument to make about the future of the country. Countries around the world are wrestling with this question of how you make the country work for everybody and not just the few at the top. That’s our argument about how we change Britain and I’ feel confident we’ve got the right answers”.

If successful, former LFI director and current shadow public health minister Luciana Berger could play a role in the next Government. Though refusing to be drawn on whether he would promote the MP, he described her as “Brilliant. I’m incredibly proud to have her as a member of Parliament and doing the job she’s doing on our front bench. I really rate her. She’s a real asset to the party”.