“It’s Our Duty to Talk About All Struggles”

“It’s Our Duty to Talk About All Struggles”

An interview with Collectif Golem, a left-wing Jewish group in France fighting antisemitism and the far right.

Collectif Golem

In November, 180,000 people marched in the streets of Paris against antisemitism. French flags flew above the crowd. Leading politicians, both active and retired, stood at the head of the protest, and organizers bragged about the march as an orderly display of republican citizenship. But on the periphery, a skirmish broke out. In defiance of the attendance of the far-right Rassemblement Nationale, a group of protesters chanted, “Le Pen, get lost! The Jews don’t want you here!” Police pushed them back with riot shields and members of the far-right Jewish Defense League assaulted them, but the disruptive group of protesters, organized by the newly formed Collectif Golem (Golem Collective), remained in the crowd, eager to make themselves seen and heard.

It was an exceptional scene in a community that has become increasingly besieged in recent years. Europe’s largest Jewish community is also one of its most precarious. Institutions stand under regular police protection. Tensions often boil over in the banlieues of Paris, where many Muslims and Jews who immigrated across the Mediterranean from North Africa live in close proximity. Islamist shootings in the 2010s against a Jewish day school and a kosher supermarket heightened fears of antisemitic violence. In response, France’s historically left-wing Jewish population has shifted toward the center and even the fascistic right, which presents itself as a barrier to Muslim immigration. The situation has deteriorated further since October 7. Physical violence and threats against Jews have spiked, and there have been two stabbings. In many communities, Jews have been afraid to leave their homes, and French Jews have emigrated to Israel in record numbers.

Collectif Golem represents something new within French politics. Established by Jewish activists in the wake of October 7, the organization has brought a broad swath of left-wing Jews into the struggle against antisemitism and the far right. It opposes republican Islamophobia through active involvement with the movement against a new anti-immigration law championed by President Emmanuel Macron. The group is horizontalist and independent from legacy communal institutions.

In December we sat down with Lola Yaïche, a member of Collectif Golem, to ask about the foundation of the group and to discuss the situation of the Jewish left. We formulated the questions together, and Ben conducted the interview in French and translated it into English. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Elisha Arafel and Benjamin Wexler


Benjamin Wexler: Has it become more difficult to be a Jew on the left in France since October 7?

Lola Yaïche: Of course it has. The beauty of Collectif Golem is that we want to make it a home for left-wing Jews. As many people have been able to testify, the Golem brings together a multitude. I like the expression “two Jews, three opinions.” Well, at the Golem, we’re full of Jews and full of opinions. We have Jews who are close to Judaism religiously or culturally. We have people who are only attached to their Jewishness through their history and the memory of the Shoah. We have Jews from all social classes. All identify as left-wing and feel profoundly alone since October 7. They are in unions, feminist organizations, environmentalist organizations, and they feel that their comrades have not been listening and have been denying or minimizing Hamas’s actions. They see in the Golem an activist space in which they can breathe.

Wexler: What inspired the creation of Collectif Golem?

Yaïche: In November, there was a national march in response to the growing number of antisemitic acts since October 7. The problem was that the far-right parties, Rassemblement National [formerly the Front National] and Reconquête [a far-right anti-immigration party founded by Éric Zemmour], were invited. As Jews, but also as anti-racist activists against Islamophobia and homophobia, we wanted to fight against antisemitism but also to block the far right. So the group was created in a rush, in just two or three days, as a kind of cordon sanitaire.

Wexler: What reaction did you receive at the march?

Yaïche: There were a few confrontations with the police. We were kettled, but a lawyer we brought along made sure that we wouldn’t be totally trapped. Some marchers joined us. A portion of the community was grateful and told us, “We felt uncomfortable coming to this march, but you were able to take action against the far right, to say that they will never be our ally against antisemitism.” But there was also fierce pushback. Some see the far right as allies of the Jews, and groups like the Jewish Defense League threatened us quite clearly. Another portion of the community complained that we were politicizing the event—as if it hadn’t been politicized already! We told them, we don’t want the fight against antisemitism to be instrumentalized for Islamophobic and anti-migrant purposes.

Wexler: Were there responses from Jewish community institutions?

Yaïche: Yes, but mostly off the record. We got a call from Yonathan Arfi, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), thanking us on their behalf. I’ve had contacts with the Union of French Jewish Students (UEJF), and a portion of the union suggested their members join our group. Public thanks came from Jewish institutions already rooted on the left, like Revolutionary Jews (JJR) and the Jewish queer group Oraaj.

[Since the time of this interview, Collectif Golem, JJR, and UEJF have organized a Conference On Antisemitism, which took place on the February 6.]

Other institutions denounced us and wanted nothing to do with the march. Some self-proclaimed anticolonial Jews told us the march was in support of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s politics and Macron’s silence on the war in Gaza, although it was simply a march against antisemitism.

Wexler: What was the reaction from the broader left?

Yaïche: Much of the left participated in the march—the environmentalists, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party—but La France Insoumise rejected it. The party’s leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has made several remarks that might be called antisemitic—when he said that Jesus was crucified by his own people, that is to say Jews; when he talked about finance and Jews; when he suggested a conspiracy in the Merah Affaire [a 2012 al Qaeda–linked attack on a French Jewish school]. There’s also the New Anti-Capitalist Party, which publicly celebrated the acts of Hamas as a form of resistance. So, clearly, there’s a split on the left, and a part of the left flirts with antisemitism.

Wexler: As you are surely aware, there were racist and Islamophobic slogans at the march against antisemitism. A Golem member told Joseph Andras that had they been Muslim, they would have felt uncomfortable attending the rally. Marches against the invasion of Gaza by Israel have also sometimes included antisemitic slogans. How does the Golem attempt to construct solidarity between Jews and their Muslim and Arab neighbors under these conditions?

Yaïche: The Golem says that we walk on two legs, our Jewish leg and our left leg. Neither is more important than the other. Our thinking is based on an intersectional analysis of struggles and the fight against all forms of discrimination. So we did postering on the silence of certain feminists in response to reports that Hamas committed sexual violence against Israeli women. But we also talked about Palestinian women. We believe it’s our duty to talk about all struggles, and if the Golem was at the march against antisemitism today, it will be at the march against Islamophobia tomorrow. The Golem wants to be the home of left-wing Jews, but also of their allies, including Muslims, Christians, and atheists.

Wexler: Are any of your organizers involved with pro-Palestinian demonstrations?

Yaïche: Some are. Others don’t go because it can be harmful to them to be confronted with antisemitic slogans minimizing the acts of Hamas. We have our opinions about the Middle East, but our founding act is fighting antisemitism. Some of our members are Zionists, others are not, and some are more attached to the history of the [Jewish Labor] Bund. We base ourselves on the demands of international law: we demand an immediate ceasefire and the liberation of hostages. We want the Israeli far right out and we want Israel to have an interlocutor other than Hamas. But there are a million opinions within the Golem on Zionism, and besides, what is Zionism anyway? There are plenty of definitions.

Wexler: Your group defies a certain tendency in Jewish communities: for reasons of both safety and propriety, Jews today rarely engage collectively in public disturbances. How do you construct a culture of disruptive protest despite these obstacles?

Yaïche: It comes from prior experience. There are lots of us with different backgrounds in activism. I’m involved in environmentalist groups and I participate in environmentalist civil disobedience. And civil disobedience, postering, disruptions, are part of our militant culture. If it’s not accepted by other Jewish groups or by the Jewish community, what can we do? It’s our left leg which gives us our militant culture.

Wexler: The Golem recently joined a march against antisemitism in Brussels. Do you hope to expand beyond Paris?

Yaïche: We’re definitely hoping to expand to other European cities and we’re already trying to expand more evenly across France. At the moment, we’re pretty Paris-centric, but a branch of the Collectif Golem has begun meeting in Marseille, although they have yet to make any public actions or statements, and there are discussions about Toulouse. Above all, we’d like the Golem to remain a group for direct action. And it’s precisely to do disruptive action that we need to be territorially anchored. So we’re very happy to be operating in Belgium, and we hope to extend this as far as we can. Why not a Golem in Montreal?

Wexler: French and American Jews seem to be experiencing similar trends recently, but there are still major differences. While there are fears of an increase in antisemitic violence in North America, it’s not a routine part of Jewish life like it is in France. While the American Jewish left is independent and well-organized, mainstream Jewish political institutions here are more conservative and less democratic than those in Europe—and even progressive Zionists are less willing to engage with the left. There was a strong far-right presence at the march against antisemitism in Washington, but no show of force against it from the Jewish left as there was in France. As our political circumstances seem to converge, what should we be learning from one another?

Yaïche: You can try to bring out left-wing Jewish voices that tend to be alone, to be separate and scattered, and show that you have an activist culture, that the left gives the tools to organize as Jews and left-wing Jews. Why do you think it is, that there was not organized left-wing pushback against the far-right at the march [in Washington]?

Wexler: I’d say there are two forces. On the one hand, the central Jewish community is not only less open to the left, but it’s also more opposed to any type of conversation. Compare this to France, where there is a real meeting of views because it’s a smaller community and because the experience of antisemitism is more vivid. That’s the other issue, the immediate reality of antisemitism. In the case of the Golem, this pushes left-wing Jews to do something. It’s a bit more complicated in North America. It’s a difficult moment, as on the one hand, there’s so much racist, Islamophobic rhetoric disguised as speaking out against antisemitism, and on the other hand, we find that the left is increasingly antisemitic and can’t hear when Jews say that this scares us.

Yaïche: In view of the fact that antisemitism is so virulent in France, we, the victims of antisemitism, identify with one another. I think the success of the collective came from the fact that it was initiated by ten or fifteen people who already knew one another through organizing or social media. The action succeeded because we were a small group, we could identify ourselves quickly, and so the Golem was conceived.

Wexler: And how many are you now?

Yaïche: We are about 300, but there are many asking to join. So it will rise, and exponentially, I’m certain.

Elisha Arafel, a lapidarist by trade, is active in organizing both within his local Jewish community and as a member of Democratic Socialists of America and IfNotNow.

Benjamin Wexler is an undergraduate history student based in Montreal, Quebec, with a scholarly focus on nationalism, race, and antisemitism.

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