Having reluctantly realized that traditional wars—with tanks, bullets and fighter planes—have failed against Israel’s military prowess, enemies of the Jewish state have turned to unconventional tactics in an effort to defeat it. That includes “weaponizing” international law to delegitimize Israel, according to Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a former member of Knesset who is now a senior policy adviser and research fellow.
During a speaking tour from April 17-21, which took her to the campuses of the law schools at Columbia, Yale and New York universities, as well as to the City University of New York (CUNY) and Rutgers University, Cotler-Wunsh spent an hour on the phone with JNS describing the main thesis of her lectures. (The nonprofit Academic Engagement Network organized the tour.)
An attorney by training, Cotler-Wunsh knows that legalese can confuse people and seem removed from everyday life. So she turns to an example that non-lawyers will understand demonstrates that selective application of rules and principles undermines the entire system.
“When I say to a 3-year-old that we’re going to play a game, and you’re going to play according to the rules but I’m not, that 3-year-old will turn around and say to me, ‘I don’t want to play with you. You’re cheating,’ ” Cotler-Wunsh told JNS. “The game is finished. There’s no game.”
As preschooler games go, so goes international law. “The rules-based order has to be applied equally and consistently,” she said. Instead, many seek to apply rules selectively to the detriment of the lone Jewish democracy in the world.
Attacks on Israel are often couched in what some would call “progressive” or “woke” liberal values, but Cotler-Wunsh doesn’t think they are progressive at all. “I think in many ways, they cause regress,” she said.
The 1975 “Zionism is racism” U.N. resolution was reversed in 1991, but only after its damage was done, according to Cotler-Wunsh. Students these days are either “in the closet as Zionists,” fearing being dubbed racists, or open about their Zionism, knowing they will be labeled racists.
“That’s also the greeting that I received at Columbia in the law school,” she said.
“The most shameful part was we are standing in an amazing law school, and rather than engaging ideas with which they may disagree, they didn’t want to come in.”
Protesters carried Palestinian flags and signs, including those that referred to Israel’s “racist defenses of ethnic cleansing” and being a country that practices “apartheid.” One she shared on Twitter read: “By allowing speakers like Cotler-Wunsh on our campus, Columbia Law School is actively complicit in the dehumanization and repression of Palestinians.” Someone also wrote “Zionists not welcome” in chalk outside an NYU building prior to her talk.
A Jewish student group at Yale backed out from hosting Cotler-Wunsh in the 11th hour, reportedly caving to pressure. She took to Twitter to thank Yair Listokin, a deputy dean at Yale Law School, for interceding or the “event (and I) would have been canceled.”
At Columbia, Cotler-Wunsh found that the protesters had made up flyers that referenced her specifically.
“The most shameful part was we are standing in an amazing law school, and rather than engaging ideas with which they may disagree, they didn’t want to come in,” she told JNS. “I kept asking other people to please invite them in.” A few protesting students came into the room, but the majority stood out in the hall.
“These individuals had the capability of actually challenging themselves, and they’re going to be lawyers. They’re going to have to represent people with whom they may disagree or cases with which they may have a hard time,” she added. “They weren’t able to consider listening and engaging in ideas.”
She was also struck by the “chilling effect” of the protesters. They did not interrupt her, but she assumes that they dissuaded some would-be attendees who didn’t want to walk past them and be seen attending a talk with someone they called a “genocidal, racist woman.”
Another thing that struck Cotler-Wunsh was that the protesters responded to a lecture about antisemitism on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, by holding Palestinian flags. That underscored for her the urgency of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.
She told the students that if they genuinely care about Palestinian rights, they should care about Palestinian leadership, which holds civilians hostage and which pays terrorists and their families for their attacks.
‘A line in the quicksand between radicals and moderates’
Just as Cotler-Wunsh thinks the Columbia protesters had a chilling effect, the broader movement that claims Zionism is racism and apartheid seeks to end the conversation there since there is nothing redeeming about an apartheid state.
“Criticism is not the same as delegitimization. Delegitimization says, ‘You have no right to exist.’ There is no other country in the world that is met with that delegitimization,” she said.
As such, the IHRA definition of antisemitism is helpful because one must define something before identifying and combating it.
“It actually forces us not to politicize antisemitism whether it comes from what we call the extreme right or the extreme left,” Cotler-Wunsh said. “In other democracies as well, what we know of traditionally as right and left is in many ways no longer relevant, not just vis-à-vis antisemitism. We are experiencing a line in the quicksand between radicals and moderates, and I would say this certainly about Israel, but I would believe that it’s probably true for the United States as well. The majority moderates are silent or silenced, enabling or paving the path for the radicals from both polarities.”
The real world is emulating social media, which tends to reward radical positions and circulate them more widely than more moderate ones, she added.
Asked if she would welcome the chance to return to the Knesset and to again serve Israel as an elected official, Cotler-Wunsh said that she is committed to servicing Israel and championing human rights on the most effective platform at the time.
“Absolutely, if I were not only called but able to lean in and have an impact around the decision-making table from within Israel, I would absolutely answer that call,” she said.
She told JNS that she wanted to end the long, sobering phone call on a high note, for which she quoted the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom differentiated between optimism—belief that everything will be OK—and hope, which he took to mean that people can collectively make it OK.
“In that sense, optimism is a passive virtue, whereas hope is an active one. It does not take much courage to be an optimist but a great deal of courage to have hope,” Cotler-Wunsh said. “The national anthem of the 75-year-young, miraculous Jewish democracy is ‘Hatikvah,’ the hope.”