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Ed and Ben


Ed Miliband, I have read recently, declared that he would like to become Britain’s first Jewish prime minister. 

It is a worthy ambition for the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, though for reasons unrelated to religion or ethnicity, not one in which I personally wish him success.  I am, however, confused about his remark, because I was under the distinct impression that Britain has already had a Jewish prime minister, a Victorian dandy by the name of Benjamin Disraeli.  

Ed seems to be saying that Disraeli was not Jewish.  As far as I am concerned he was, but then there are those, Jews and Christians alike, who no doubt would argue that he was not.  The reason for the confusion is – well, confusing. 

Disraeli was born to Jewish parents, who in turn were presumably the children of Jews – and so on and so forth, back in history. However, Benjamin’s father, when the kids were very young, decided, on behalf of the entire family, to convert to Christianity, apparently because he thought that mingling with the great and the good of a society that formally as well as spiritually embraced the Church of England would help his children in their careers and their social aspirations.  Benjamin for the rest of his life was an enthusiastic church-goer, and married an Anglican.  “See, it worked!” said Dad.

By his father’s proxy, and later by independent enthusiasm for his adopted faith, Benjamin had renounced Judaism.  Had he by extension, not also renounced his status as a Jew?  Disraeli himself evidently did not think so.

Ed Miliband, like Disraeli, had Jewish parents, and he too has renounced Judaism, though not for Anglicanism or for any other religious persuasion: Ed says he is an atheist.

Now, if Ed no longer believes in Judaism, how can he, any more than Disraeli, still consider himself a Jew?   And if Ed is a Jew, then why was Disraeli not?

I have no idea.  The Oxford English Dictionary, in a multiple-choice definition, fails to clarify.  It defines a Jew as “a member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins to the ancient Hebrew people of Israel”. 

The defining factor is surely bloodline.  Blood is more significant than anything else in identifying ethnicity; certainly more significant than attending, or failing to attend, synagogue or church, or observing or not traditions like blessing the bread on Friday evenings or eating hot-cross buns for Easter.

I made the mistake of asking my dear wife to clarify matters.  Having put the question to her at breakfast, M was still formulating the answer at lunch.  She herself, incidentally, rarely attends synagogue, and to all intents and purposes is an agnostic (she would dispute this, I am guessing), but she considers herself a Jew in all respects. 

For that reason, this very evening, the first night of the Passover holiday, we will be sitting down to consume barely edible food in the name of tradition if not of faith.

If adherence to the tribal faith is neither here nor there, which Ed believes by declaring that he is at once atheist and Jew, then Disraeli could be both Christian and Jew. 

Ergo, Ed will not qualify as Britain’s first Jewish prime minister.  (Actually, he may be the first atheist prime minister.)

All this is academic.  The fact is that no one cares whether the next prime minister is a Christian, a Jew, an atheist or a member of the Flat Earth Society.  That much is reassuring.  

Good Yontif, everyone.

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