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Jon Lansman: what the left gets wrong about Israel

The Momentum founder on his kibbutznik past, how progressives should respond to anti-Semitism and Jeremy Corbyn’s mistakes.

By George Eaton

Jon Lansman was 16 when he first visited Israel in 1973 and worked on the Sde Boker kibbutz in the Negev, the desert region in the country’s south.

“I was living in basically a shed with around 30 other people about a hundred yards from [Israel’s founding prime minister, David] Ben-Gurion’s house, picking peaches and pistachios,” the lifelong socialist recalled when we met recently. “That was a radicalising experience, doing manual labour. I was enthused by the collectivism, though it was clearly being eroded.”

This experience – Lansman’s aunt lived in Be’er-Sheva and he has five cousins in Israel today – means he can offer a rare perspective on the left’s fraught relationship with the country.

I met Lansman, who founded the Corbynite activist group Momentum in 2015 and led it until 2020, at his partner’s townhouse in Highbury, north London. We spoke in his study, which features a 4-foot-high red statue of Karl Marx, a Gilbert & George print (“Are you angry or are you boring?”) and a mini-library devoted to Labour history. Lansman, 66, who divides his time between London and his home in St Ives, Cornwall, appeared relaxed after several years away from the political front line, but he has been troubled by the left’s response to Hamas’s 7 October massacre in Israel.

“Most of all I feel sorrow and I find it difficult to relate to how much of the left responded,” Lansman, who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in north London, told me. “There isn’t an understanding, or there isn’t much sympathy, for the feeling in Israel that they need to prevent such an attack again. And part of that is about how the left sees war, or in fact how all of us in Britain have seen war for a long time. We’ve seen a lot of unjust wars, Iraq most importantly.

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“There isn’t an understanding that there could be a just military response to horrific events. It’s difficult for the left to adjust to that but I do think that it needs to adjust. I think that some level of response by Israel is justified – not all of it, by any means: I am horrified by the extent of civilian deaths in Gaza.”

But in common with another Jewish socialist, the US senator Bernie Sanders, Lansman is wary of supporting an outright ceasefire in Gaza. “I want to see the violence stop as soon as possible… but calling for a ceasefire from the comfort of Britain? I can understand that Israelis need to ensure such attacks [by Hamas] don’t happen again.” The left, he said, “absolutely” needs to demonstrate greater empathy towards Jews and criticised the popular protest chant: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

“The language you use at times when there are emotionally driven responses to violence on both sides matters. The Jewish community in Britain, understandably, sees the phrase ‘from the river to the sea’ as an attack on Israel’s existence, people should understand that. Why not find another phrase?”

Lansman similarly rejects the description by some leftists of Israel as a “settler colonial state”.

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“It’s not a characterisation I would make at all. Most Jews who’ve migrated to Israel have been refugees, they’ve been arriving recently from Ukraine. The reason for Israel’s existence is the Holocaust, the fact that no other place would take them! Not Britain, not the US, who introduced immigration controls.

“In Britain’s case it was ironically [Arthur] Balfour, who’s treated as if he’s some kind of hero for Israelis [for signing the 1917 declaration stating Britain’s support for Israel’s founding], but actually introduced the Aliens Act, which ended Jewish immigration, and for those who couldn’t get in… it didn’t end well.”

Lansman harbours no illusions about the nature of the Israeli government, which includes extremist ministers and is led by Benjamin Netanyahu who is facing corruption charges. “It’s a far-right government… they are encouraging terrible things while eyes are on Gaza – the persecution of Palestinians on the West Bank and in mixed cities in Israel is appalling.”

It was as coordinator for Tony Benn’s 1981 deputy Labour leadership campaign that Lansman came to political prominence. Benn, in common with much of the party’s left, initially identified as a Zionist and admired Israel as a socialist experiment. After visiting it in 1956, Benn wrote in his diary of “the miracle of a home for Jews after 1,900 years of pogrom and ghetto” and mused that “perhaps the kibbutzim have the answer – stay rooted to the soil and pass it on more richly fertile than before to your sons and grandsons”.

When did the left’s relationship with Israel fracture? Lansman cited the 1967 war – when Israel occupied the Gaza Strip and the West Bank – and the 1982 Lebanon war as key turning points, but also spoke of a wider political sea change. “It ceased to be a left that had grown out of a broad front between Labour and the Communist Party in the 1930s. The New Left didn’t have a sense of the injustice that had been done to Jews who had migrated to Israel for that reason, they hadn’t lived with Jews as a persecuted people.”

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The constituency in which I met Lansman – Islington North – has been represented by Jeremy Corbyn since 1983. If Corbyn, as expected, stands as an independent candidate at the general election, would Lansman support him?

“It’s a mistake for him to stand as an independent. I do think that Jeremy has been unreasonably treated. He didn’t handle anti-Semitism well but he is not an anti-Semite. He shouldn’t have been put in this position but I don’t think he should stand against the party.” Has he had much contact with Corbyn since Labour’s 2019 election defeat?

“I haven’t. I bumped into him in parliament many months ago and spoke to him. I have no animosity towards him, but that’s not to say I think he did a good job – I don’t think he did a good job. But he didn’t expect to win and none of us expected him to win at the start of that leadership campaign [in 2015].”

He added of Corbyn’s handling of anti-Semitism: “He had a real problem talking to Jewish communal bodies. If what you do when you see the Board of Deputies or the Jewish Leadership Council is read out a statement that Seumas [Milne, Corbyn’s director of communications] has written, it’s not going to work – and it didn’t.”

Lansman was for decades regarded by many in Labour as an arch-sectarian. He has long argued for the mandatory reselection of MPs and the empowerment of local activists. But he also has a pragmatic streak and speaks more favourably of Keir Starmer than some of his former Corbynite allies. “Keir Starmer does not have the politics of Tony Blair… He talks too much to Blairites, he listens to them too much, but I don’t think he is at heart a Blairite, he is a social democrat.”

Once asked why he remained in the Labour Party throughout the Blair years, Corbyn recalled Benn’s response to him: “You know what, comrade, we’re just in it, aren’t we?” Jon Lansman takes a similar view today. “I will be canvassing for the Labour Party at the next election. There is no alternative on the left to a Labour government. You can criticise it afterwards, you’re not giving anyone a blank cheque. But I was deeply depressed at times during the Blair government. And if I could stick with the party then, I can stick with it now.”

[See also: GB News isn’t a news channel – it’s Tory TV]

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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury