Jon Lansman, the founder of the hard-left Momentum activism group, believes there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to tackling antisemitism in the Labour Party.
Speaking at a packed Limmud session in Birmingham this afternoon, Mr Lansman said the problem of Jew-hatred had to be dealt with by all political parties, revealed he had not expected Jeremy Corbyn to win the Labour leadership, and discussed his own Jewish roots.
He said the party must tackle antisemitism and “stamp it out, oppose it, make clear it is unacceptable. It has to be dealt with. It was obviously right that the party introduced the rule change at the last conference – I and Momentum argued for that. We have to challenge every form of antisemitism and I do.
“I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all method of dealing with it. There are some lesser forms of antisemitism where what’s really required is education. People need to understand the effect of their words.”
Expressing clearly well-thought out views on Jew-hate and its occurrences in politics and society, Mr Lansman said he believed there was as much antisemitism in the Conservative Party as within Labour. A number of members suspended from the Labour Party in the past two years over allegations of antisemitism have been Momentum activists. Mr Lansman’s group has repeatedly said it opposes Jew-hatred and all forms of racism.
He told the Limmud audience: “There is antisemitism in the Labour Party, I think it falls into three categories. There’s the kind of petty remarks about big noses, which are dreadful, completely unacceptable antisemitism. People make petty xenophobic remarks and some are made against Jews. I don’t think there’s much of that [in Labour].
“There’s the antisemitism that arrives from the Israel-Palestine conflict. We all understand that when that conflict heats up, it results in dreadful antisemitism. It shouldn’t result in that, but it does.
“The third type is extremely rare, it’s the real old-school antisemitism that believes in blood libels and so on. I don’t think there’s a lot of that. But there is a lot of denial of antisemitism.”
In a compelling interview with Andrew Gilbert, a prominent Jewish Labour supporter, Mr Lansman said he believed the “furore” around Jew-hate in the party had only “started with the front page of the Jewish Chronicle asking 10 questions of Jeremy Corbyn during the leadership campaign.
“I’m not saying they were unreasonable questions to ask – it was very difficult to answer them. Some were dealing with meetings that happened many years earlier. It was hard to check some of the details. Jeremy had not expected to be a candidate for leader. He had not researched the backgrounds of people on panels many years earlier.”
Mr Lansman did not directly answer a question from Mr Gilbert about how controversial figures including Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker and Tony Greenstein remained Labour members.
He said: “The party has a process and it’s right to have a fair process.”
He described Mr Greenstein – a Jewish anti-Zionist who has been suspended from the party over comments he made about Jewish MP Louise Ellman – as “probably the rudest person I know in politics. He says many offensive things, most of the time”.
Mr Gilbert asked about Mr Corbyn’s attitude to the Middle East and concerns within the Jewish community about his leadership of the Labour Party.
The audience – of which around 50 per cent raised their hands when asked whether they supported Labour – openly laughed Mr Lansman said he was “not aware of Jewish people leaving the party”.
“They are under pressure from Jews in the community who do not support Labour,” he said. “You expect divisions in the Jewish community on political issues, but the debates that are taking place are not very fair and tolerant.
“Jewish Zionists in the party are treated to unreasonable pressure from those on the political right of the community.”
Mr Lansman said he believed there was antisemitism throughout British society and that it had become difficult to have a “rational debate” about the issue.
Asked whether he had chosen Mr Corbyn as a potential leader of the party, Mr Lansman said: “It was most certainly not planned in advance. We wanted a candidate to shift the debate left. Jeremy Corbyn was not the first person I thought of. I thought of dozens of other people. With hindsight, he was the only person on the left who could have gone on the ballot paper.
“He was someone with no enemies in the party. He had always fought for what he believed in and people saw him as having integrity and being principled.”
Mr Gilbert asked whether Mr Lansman felt he had “lost control of the creature” he had created in Momentum, but the long-standing Labour figure said it was “wrong to think I had control in the first place. Jeremy won because he was arguing for an alternative to austerity. People wanted to hear his alternatives”.
Mr Lansman, who is attending Limmud Festival as a paying participant, also discussed his upbringing in what he called a “typical north London Jewish family”, where he grew up in a kosher home and had his barmitzvah at Cockfosters Synagogue before joining his aunt on a kibbutz in Israel.