MONTREAL— Knesset member Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who spent much of her life in Canada, says Israel must recognize that the Jewish state is “a joint project” with the Diaspora, whose vision of the country’s future must be heard.
“The founding generation built the physical infrastructure; our responsibility is to build its spiritual infrastructure,” Cotler-Wunsh said in a virtual talk hosted by Concordia University’s Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies.
She is not running in next week’s election, Israel’s fourth in less than two years.
The rookie MK entered parliament last June with the centrist Blue and White alliance led by Benny Gantz with which she has “sadly” split because she thought it should be part of the governing coalition.
She is now looking for a party that believes “unity transcends all other concerns.”
Jerusalem-born Cotler-Wunsh, 50, came to Montreal at age 8 when her mother, Ariela Ze’evi, a parliamentary secretary to Menachem Begin, married Irwin Cotler, then a McGill University law professor and later a Liberal MP.
After graduating from Herzliah High School, she returned to Israel to serve in the army and study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After working in the justice ministry, she returned to Montreal to earn a master’s law degree at McGill and stayed here until 10 years ago when she returned to Israel with her husband and four children.
Her bid in the March 2020 election was her third run for office. She was a member of Moshe Ya’alon’s right-of-centre Telem Party which joined with Blue and White. She was not high enough on the list to win, but three months later gained a seat when a member was named to the cabinet.
She has been a member of the Knesset committee on immigration and absorption, and chairs the Israel-Diaspora relations subcommittee.
In contrast to Israel’s tumultuous politics, Cotler-Wunsh insisted the electorate is not polarized. “Eighty per cent of Israelis agree on 80 per cent of the issues, 80 per cent of the time,” she said.
Cotler-Wunsh believes she can effect political change because of her multiple identities, both national and political. She is still a fervent admirer of Begin (his picture hangs behind her desk) and supports the Likud ideology, but upholds the ideal of pluralism that she learned in Canada. She describes herself as religious and liberal.
“I am more than a bridge; I am a translator,” she said.
Israel’s leaders today are lacking in vision because they are “too busy putting out fires” to plan for the long term, she thinks. “The priority is survival. The urgent always shoves aside what is important.”
To Cotler-Wunsh, change starts with transparent and accountable governance. Likud has lost its way because the leadership has been around too long, she said. Cotler-Wunsh wants term limits for elected officials and electoral reform to stem the proliferation of small parties. The 1948 Declaration of Independence must be “anchored in law” to protect the rights of all citizens, she says.
The Diaspora must encourage a vital discussion that, she says, is not taking place in Israel and is causing division: what does it mean to be Jewish and democratic?
“We can’t afford to let this gap (with the Diaspora) grow…Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people,” she said.
Cotler-Wunsh is worried about dissent among Jews over the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which Israel and mainline Jewish organization have been urging governments, universities and other institutions to adopt.
This “consensus definition,” she said, recognizes that anti-Semitism includes, with regard to criticism of Israel, “the three Ds: a double standard, demonization and delegitimization…There is a difference between criticizing Israel, like any country, as opposed to singling out Israel.”
Every word in the definition is important, she said, and warned against any alteration.
(A group of U.S. Jewish academics, known as the Nexus Task Force, has formulated an alternative that allows that this type of criticism is not necessarily anti-Semitic. Philanthropist Charles Bronfman is among those signing on to it.)
Without referring specifically to that alternative definition, Cotler-Wunsh said: “This can rip us apart as a people, it can ravage our connection with Israel.”