For a few hours this morning it looked as though Ed Miliband might do something uncharacteristically courageous. The Jewish Chronicle reported that the Labour leader had described himself as a Zionist at a meeting organised by the Board of Deputies. It may be sad that this would need to be considered, as Dan Hodges put it, ‘a brave and welcome statement’ but that’s the modern British left for you.

Mr Hodges wondered if Miliband would ‘stand by’ this statement. His scepticism was sensible. And sure enough, word comes that Miliband’s views have been ‘misinterpreted’ by the Jewish Chronicle. As Hodges relates the story:

‘Asked at the event whether he was a Zionist Miliband reportedly responded, “Yes, I am a supporter of Israel”. But I’m told he wasn’t using the word Zionist to describe himself, but merely reaffirming his strong support for the state of Israel, and warning that we should – in the words of a Labour source – be “intolerant of those who questions Israel’s right to exist”.’

In other words, Miliband wants British Jews (and others) to know that he supports Israel but he doesn’t want to be considered a Zionist. Well, half a cake is better than no cake, I suppose.

It was pleasing to discover that, unlike much of his party, Miliband opposes boycotting Israel. That’s welcome too.

Nevertheless, it remains regrettable that he cannot or will not or chooses not to describe himself as a Zionist. Words are supposed to have meaning and by declining to badge himself a Zionist Miliband, wittingly or not, cedes the field to those people (on the right as well as the left) for whom the label ‘anti-Zionist’ has become a convenient semantic shield.

A reminder: Zionism has a clear and particular meaning. It was, originally, the movement to secure a Jewish homeland. To be a Zionist today is to be someone who supports the right of that homeland to exist and to think that it needs to be defended against its enemies. That is all.

There is no contradiction – none – between being a Zionist and deploring some, or even all, the policies pursued by the Israeli government. There is no requirement for Zionists to support the idea of a Greater Israel. None at all. Indeed, many do not.

But “Zionist” has become a useful substitute for “Jew“. You know how it goes: There’s nothing anti-semitic about being anti-Zionist, I’m not anti-semitic I just deplore Zionism. Some of my best chums are Jewish blah, blah, blah. Perhaps not, though one can’t avoid observing that all anti-semites are also anti-Zionists.

I suspect Miliband was happy for his Jewish audience to understand that, in the dry, technical, accurate definition of Zionism he is indeed a Zionist. That is, he supports Israel’s right to exist. But I also think, as this afternoon’s back-pedal demonstrates, he also wants the broader left to understand that he’s not a Zionist in the way much of the Labour party understands the term. Me, a Zionist? I mean, come on!

Which is unfortunate because it allows the anti-Israel brigade to capture language to which they have no right. The language of “Anti-Zionism” is frequently a form of camouflage disguising rather deeper, darker, ranker sentiments. It softens the prejudice, making it seem more respectable than it frequently is.

Reclaiming the definition of Zionism, then, is a means of clarifying matters. I suspect Miliband, an intelligent fellow after all, knows the real meaning of the word. Which makes it regrettable that he’s so quick to disassociate himself from it. He is a Zionist and he should be happy to say so. Instead we see a mildly craven capitulation to anti-Israeli sentiment on the left as Miliband effectively declares: I am a Zionist but I have no intention of declaring myself such because so many of you fail, deliberately or not, to understand or respect the meaning of the term. I have neither the courage of my convictions, nor the inclination to challenge your prejudices. 

Truly, a profile in courage!

Tags: british politics, Ed Miliband, Israel, Labour, Zionism