(January 4, 2021 / JNS) Michal Cotler-Wunsh is an Israeli-Canadian member of Knesset currently serving within the Blue and White Party, though just announced that she will not run with Blue and White in the upcoming elections—Israel’s fourth round in two years—slated for March 23. She entered the Knesset in June as a replacement for Alon Schuster, who resigned his seat under the Norwegian Law after being appointed to the cabinet.
Though she was born in Jerusalem and returned to Israel eight years ago with her spouse and four children, Cotler-Wunsh spent her formative years in Canada and made aliyah to join the IDF as a lone soldier, serving as an officer in various training and command positions.
An international-law, human-rights and free-speech expert, she earned degrees from the Hebrew University Faculty of Law in Jerusalem and at McGill University Faculty of Law in Montreal. She has held a number of legal positions, and during her years in Canada worked in mediation, formal and informal education, and extensive public activity. Her other experience has included bridging the religious-secular divide, countering terrorism and anti-Semitism, increasing legal services to nonprofits and preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.
In her Knesset role, Cotler-Wunsh has headed efforts to plan, develop and strengthen connections between Israel and the Diaspora, raising awareness and providing exposure of both challenges and opportunities for new immigrants (olim) to Israel.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: Can you describe your early influences and journey to the Knesset?
A: My influences are people and historic events, including many that shaped my legal and political understanding before Knesset, and that were an amalgamation of my own identity, being born in Israel and being present in the Knesset on the night of the Mahapach (a dramatic 1977 Israeli political upheaval that led to an economic, social, political and cultural transformation of Israeli society). Others are some of the giants of Israel and Zionist history, as well as the Jewish people—from Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s five memim (his belief that taxes collected by the state should be used to provide its citizens with five necessities, which all start with the Hebrew letter mem: food, lodging, clothing, education and well-being), which intersects with my own understanding of human rights—to understanding [former Israeli Prime Minister] Menachem Begin’s commitment to statesmanship, humility and the values he embodied.
During my childhood, I would pop over to have milk and cookies next door with Begin’s wife, Eliza, until my mom, who served as Begin’s parliamentary aide, came home from work. He was a visionary and a statesman for the Jewish people. These are leadership qualities that are perhaps underappreciated but so important in a leader; they are even spoken about in the biblical context of Moses’ virtue of humility.
Then I moved to Canada after my mother married Irwin Cotler, a human-rights activist champion and warrior who is haunted by the proposition that our commitment to never again should fail in a world of again and again. As a child, this discussion was part and parcel for our Shabbat dinners, discussing Soviet Jewry, Sharansky, Mandela, Sakharov … the genocide happening in Rwanda … to understand that to prevent the genocide of others is also to prevent ours.
These all contributed to the continuation of my legal and political understanding, in everything I do—not just in Knesset. These are what brought me here after my legal and social activism, to improve Israel’s resiliency and Israel-Diaspora relations—to renew that covenant and create a paradigm shift in Israel’s standing in the international arena. To speak the language of rights in order to rise to the docket of the accused.
Q: Can you tell me more about what you are doing to renew the covenant between Israel and the Diaspora, and the paradigm shift you mention?
A: There is a very important opportunity and responsibility with the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, and I have been honored to host discussions on this at the committee level as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Israel-Diaspora Relations.
The coronavirus has shed light on things that we missed and that we must be aware of, as is the case for the shift in the relationship paradigm … the voice of the Diaspora must be heard around the decision-making tables, to engage with Knesset members, and Knesset members should acknowledge and recognize these challenges. Not one side telling and one side giving.
Anglo olim—a community that has informed identity—also has a very important voice that must be sounded.
Q: Speaking of the role that olim like yourself play in politics and Knesset, what is it like to work within the Knesset, given that you have seen other political systems such as Canada’s, and what changes would you make within the political system if you could?
A: The miracle that is the State of Israel is only 72 years old, and we have the responsibility to create the processes for the next 72 years. That said, COVID-19 has highlighted the need to transition in our own role of government. We need clear, whole and transparent long-term plans, using consistent key performance indicators to measure the duties that ministries are charged with, based on the principles that our founding fathers and mothers laid. In the committees that I chair, such as the subcommittee on Israel’s relations with the Diaspora and also internal issues like the special committee for dealing with drugs and alcohol, I urge for data collection that informs policy and vice versa. It is imperative that long-term plans are applied consistently. That is our role in our generation.
Also seeing the Canadian processes, it is important that more seasoned democracies inform what we need to implement, which includes transparency and due process. Canada has stated online its clear and transparent policy regarding non-Canadian immediate family members visiting the country; Israel has not. You must have the public’s trust, and to deserve it, create a transparency of the information and make it accessible, and even communicate the logic behind policies, even if they change. The Israeli public is very savvy, and I believe in it. We have the responsibility to create change that the public deserves.
Q: Speaking of changes, what would you like to do to serve the public in the future, given the changes we might be seeing soon in Israel’s political arena?
A: A dysfunctional government is worse than elections. I supported the unity government at the time, and my aspirations in Knesset have always been to fulfill my mission with courage and humility for the sake of Israeli public and Jewish people. If I can do it in Knesset, I will. If not, I will do it in another platform where policy is made and can be challenged, and where paradigms can shift—where I can bring my professional knowledge, academic expertise, voice and identities as an Israeli and Canadian that must be heard around the table in this very historic time for the State of Israel.
Q: How have these dysfunctions affected olim and Israel’s citizens?
A: The dysfunctions we see in the government unfortunately indeed affect olim, as they do all Israel’s citizens. For example, the fact that the Ministerial Committee has not met for months has delayed the passing of important legislation, including a bill I proposed that would eliminate the double social security payments paid by new immigrants that live in Israel but work abroad in countries, such as the United States, that Israel does not have bipartisan agreements with on this issue. Always and more so as we go to elections again, it is important for olim to sound their voices and the viewpoint diversity they bring with them, informing decision-makers of issues that must be addressed. I am committed to continuing to engage and represent these voices of olim, with the hope to continue raising them in Knesset, as I have had the honor and responsibility to do throughout the past six months.
Q: You have played a major role in the lives of olim in Israel, becoming a voice for them in the Knesset. What are you working on currently in this regard?
A: I advocated for visitation of family members when we closed the borders—for lone soldiers, b’not sheirut, for parents of olim who are having babies … a Band-Aid approach, as my preferred way is a holistic policy. Olim who have been here for four years are now supposed to have visitation rights from first-degree family members, and we are insisting that the government authorities follow through on what was promised to the public. These are challenges that are emotional—and our responsibility is that much greater because many olim are here alone and haven’t seen their family members in a long time.
We also cannot talk about the importance of aliyah separately from that of the Diaspora. Aliyah was a value of the State of Israel inscribed in its Declaration of Independence. Our role is to identify hurdles preventing aliyah. A quarter of a million new immigrants have come from all over the world, and we have a duty to ensure not just their initial arrival and absorption, but to enable successful integration. I am completely committed to enabling olim to make us aware of the hurdles to address them.
Q: These are indeed challenges that new immigrants face within Israel. What do you believe are Israel’s greatest challenges as a whole?
A: Israel’s challenges intersect with global challenges. I did my doctoral studies about free speech on university campuses, and I would underscore those global processes as they affect Israel, such as cancel culture, or understanding the [rejection] of free speech moving online, onto digital platforms. Anti-Semitism is but one example, the question of the very legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state as it was founded.
Today, war is declared utilizing tools of public opinion. There is a war against the State of Israel of double standards. The U.N. General Assembly just condemned Israel 17 times with only seven resolutions against the rest of the world—and look at who sits on the U.N. Human Rights Council. The International Criminal Court is in dire need of reform. Those institutions are failing.
Anti-Semitism is the canary in the mine shaft; this is not just undermining of international law. And I want to point out that criticism is not the same as delegitimization. There has been not one other country in the world whose right to exist is in question.
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