Canadian-raised MK wants to improve Israeli society, childhood memories of Aliza Begin ‘affect everything I do’

Blue and White MK Cotler-Wunsh discusses her goals in the Knesset, challenges facing new immigrants, Israel-Diaspora rift, anti-Semitism; defends party’s no-confidence vote that could force elections.

By Atara Beck, Senior Editor, World Israel News

Canadian-Israel Member of Knesset Michal Cotler-Wunsh is one of Israel’s newest lawmakers, having entered the Knesset last June. A lawyer by profession, she serves as Chair of the Special Committee on Drug and Alcohol Use, Chair of the Subcommittee on Israel-Diaspora Relations, and as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense, Law, Children’s Rights, Women’s Rights, and Immigration and Integration Committees.

She is also the Chair of the Canada-Israel Friendship Group, the Knesset’s Official Representative on Matters Related to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and a founding member of the Inter-Parliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism, as well as leading the Knesset’s Caucus for Ethiopians in Israel.

In an interview with World Israel News, Cotler-Wunsh discussed her goals as a Member of Knesset and touched upon some of the main challenges facing the State of Israel and the Jewish People, including the possibility of new elections. Following are excerpts.

Q: Were you in favor of the opposition bill calling for the Knesset to dissolve itself, paving the way to new elections?

“Obviously, I voted in favor of it [as a member of Blue and White].

“We entered the government after three difficult election campaigns, in the looming shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were not even aware yet then of the extent of the economic, health, societal, emotional ramifications. When we entered that unity government, it was with great hope for strengthening that sense of unity, but also for the creation of a functional government that would enable the State of Israel to function and to give some stability in a time of tremendous instability.

“I’ll say that a government that cannot pass a budget, that cannot function, that cannot allocate funds for about a million unemployed…so many businesses are going under. As chair of an addictions committee, I can tell you of programs running for the education, for the accompaniment, for the detox, for those who have already coped with addiction and entered the real world – the fact that there is no budget [is a problem]. I’m not talking about long-term plans. We’re talking one year ahead. And I’ll also add as a lawyer that agreements, where I come from, are meant to be upheld.

“Elections are a really, really bad choice, but the question is: What’s worse? A dysfunctional government or the really bad choice of elections?”

Q: What are your main goals as an MK, and why did you choose Blue and White?

“To me, as somebody who’s very, very concerned about the internal Israeli societal fabric, with the rift between Israel and the Diaspora and with Israel’s standing in the international arena, there is an imperative for this type of a collaborative party where we know that 90% of the issues, or the old sort of divisions of left and right, are really no longer. And the understanding that a party such as Blue and White, at the time when we first came together, should reflect the fabric of the center, as three elections ago actually indicated.

“What brought me to the Knesset was my involvement in international law and human rights, including the legal consultation that I’ve given the Goldin family with regard to the two soldiers and two civilians held in Gaza for over six years… It is essential for the State of Israel to affirm international law and to speak the language of rights in order to expose the tremendous double standard which undermines the very fabric, the very mandate of both international law and human rights…”

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Q: What can Israel do to improve its PR, especially on issues like these?

“The first thing – I would say my raison d’etre for being in the Knesset, if nothing else – is that it really should no longer be called Israeli PR or hasbara, as we call it, as if you have to explain that you’ve done something wrong. And when I say we refer to international law and utilize the language of rights, the lingua franca used both by our friends and our foes. It upholds, protects and maintains international law;  it upholds, protects and maintains human rights. The only thing that it doesn’t necessarily speak that language in order to expose the double standards that are used in order to single Israel out…

“But it’s not about Israel and it’s not about the hundreds of soldiers that will be possibly tried for crimes against humanity by the ICC….crimes they did not commit. It’s about the ICC failing to uphold its own mandate…. It is not Israel’s problem or the soldiers’ problem.

“I was appointed by the Knesset spokesperson, Yariv Levin, to be the Knesset liaison in the issue of the ICC and their pending decision [whether to recognize the Palestinian Authority as a state, thus allowing the ICC to investigate Israel for war crimes during the 2014 war in Gaza]. This is an issue that we have to engage with parliamentarians around the world, and that is precisely what I’ve managed to do in Knesset as well.

“Of course, the issue is directly connected to anti-Semitism. And the funding of terrorists – it’s directly connected. Because the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] working definition of anti-Semitism, which has been adopted around the world, has to be implemented. It’s adoption is not enough. When we engage with our peers, with parliamentarians around the world – and there are official and unofficial opportunities – it’s very important that we understand this. It’s very important that we speak the language – I don’t mean English, but the language of rights – to use this language to explain and engage in discussion with our peers so that they, too, can understand the challenges that are theirs, such as terrorism.

“Also for the Europeans. You can’t counter terrorism if you enable it by funding terror, even if not directly, by funding presumably human right organizations and ultimately that funding ends up in the hands of PFLP…

“Anti-Semitism online and offline is surging during Covid… If I manage to engage all these little platforms within the Knesset, hold hearings within the Knesset…and then create this interparliamentary, international bipartisan platform with parliamentarians around the world and addressing this global responsibility and challenge, then those are the very things that brought me to the Knesset.”

Q: You mentioned the rift between Israel and the Diaspora? What are your thoughts on this issue specifically, as a Canadian-Israeli? Do you think it’s true that North American Jews, on the most part, are less attached to Israel than a generation ago? If so, is Israel to blame?

“The first thing we have to acknowledge is the imperative to shift the paradigm of Israel-Diaspora engagement. Covid-19 didn’t invent anything, but it has shone a large spotlight on everything that’s been bubbling beneath the surface. We’ve needed to reengage for a long, long time. We have to start speaking to each other, not about each other. Sometimes that means speaking truth to power in both directions and changing the conversation we’ve had in both directions. It’s part of the reason I formed the committee for Israel-Diaspora relations within the Knesset, and it’s been very important to me that we reengage on the issues in a very different way.

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“This is a very important point for olim (immigrants) to recognize… the imperative for our voices to lean in. I think olim have a real responsibility to lean into the conversation. That’s another reason I find myself in the Knesset, not only representing olim voices and olim needs, but also representing the diversity that olim bring with them. I say that because the engagement with Diaspora communities not only has to continue and deepen, we have to renew the covenant.

“One of the first legislations that I proposed is the Basic Law Declaration of Independence because to me, everything we’ve spoken about intersects in that proposed bill. The Declaration of Independence is the solution to healing the rift internally within Israeli society, to healing the rift between Israel and the Diaspora, with Israel being the Jewish homeland of the Jewish People with everything that that means, and we have to engage in discussion about what that looks like in 2020. In all of the difficult issues, the status quo issues so to speak that need to be addressed in terms of Jewish and democratic, and of course in terms of Israel’s standing in the international arena, in the reaffirmation of Israel as not just democratic, but Jewish and democratic – the nation-state of an indigenous people that returned to its ancestral homeland and has the word ‘equality’ about 30 times scattered all over the Declaration of Independence.

“Indeed, there are challenges with the diaspora. I think Covid-19 presents a tremendous opportunity of engagement. And of course one more thing we should note is the interest in Aliyah and the potential for Aliyah… The interest in Aliyah has gone up in a very steep way. But in order to realize that potential, we have to identify and remove the many hurdles of Aliyah that are really, I would say, a product of many years of lack of policy.

“We have all sorts of issues that come to my attention, some Covid-related and some not. One , for example, with regard to university education and even professional certification, which presents huge challenges to Aliyah. The option of studying Hebrew is limited… And I’ll give you a Covid-19 example. It became very clear to me that with the criteria for visiting or for arriving in Israel- for Olim, there would be multiple problems, whether it’s lone soldiers, B’not Sherut, Olim who’ve given birth. Of course, their parents are not here. Also, olim with older parents or olim with younger children [abroad]. There are tremendous challenges of not being able to see each other for such a long period of time. And of course I say that knowing that we have an imperative to maintain public health and to have all the regulations for quarantining and so forth, but with the knowledge olim are in a very precarious position…the emotional well-being and psychological challenges of this period, whether it’s the loneliness and the concern and the worry, separation from family for such a lengthy period that Olim experience very differently. So I was able to extend the criteria  so we could take into account that this is a prolonged challenge; it’s not going away any time soon.”

Has Israel been dealing well with the challenge of the coronavirus?

“Israel is handling it poorly because we don’t have the mindset of creating long-term, transparent policy that is implemented consistently. This is what challenges us. In many ways Covid-19 has enabled us, and that’s why I say the opportunity alongside the challenges, to see very bluntly, very clearly, what needs to be fixed in every walk of life – education, health care, transportation. Everything. And it’s all there in the raw. And now what we need to do, and for this you need a functioning government, is to create long-term plans – you definitely need a budget for this – that are holistic, that are comprehensive, that are applied consistently and transparently to the public. I think that we’re in a process. I just hope we identify and realize at least some of the opportunities regarding what’s ailing Israeli society internally.

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“Also in terms of the rift in Israel-Diaspora relations, it also exposes that, because if you think of what’s going to happen philanthropically, you look at the communities and the relationships that have been guiding us through the years. Well, all of that philanthropy – they’re already saying it but they’re  going to say it even more: ‘Our synagogues are collapsing, our schools are bankrupt, our community centers are shut down. We cannot financially support the State of Israel.’

“What does this new relationship look like? What does this new partnership look like? What are the values we realign on? Where and how do we renew the covenant?

“I can’t help think of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose voice we so deeply need and his differentiation between hope and optimism. According to Rabbi Sacks, hope is very, very active. It takes courage to have hope. And so, I’m very hopeful.”

Q: Your father [Prof. Irwin Cotler] is a world-renown, award-winning human rights lawyer and a former Canadian justice minister. He was recently chosen as Canada’s first-ever Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Anti-Semitism. Has growing up with him influenced your career and your goals?

“Of course… My own children were present at his swearing-in ceremony as minister of justice, where the words he spoke were in Hebrew – ‘Tzedek tzedek tirdof‘ [Justice, justice you shall pursue – Deuteronomy 16:20] – influenced  by his commitment to engagement and his universal values while uncompromisingly being steeped in his Jewish identity.”

Q: Your mother, Ariela Cotler, was a legislative assistant to former Prime Minister Menachem Begin. What about your childhood memories from Jerusalem and the family connection to Likud? Have they stayed with you and influenced you as well?

“The first picture that went up on my office wall next to the Declaration of Independence was one of Menachem Begin. I remember being present the night of the mahapach [literally ‘revolution,’ referring to the 1977 Likud victory over Labour, which ruled Israel since its founding] and sitting among giants…incredible individuals who really shaped the history of the State of Israel…

“I knew Menachem Begin so well. I was privileged…

“I used to go with my mother and [Menachem Begin’s wife] Aliza Begin night after night visiting groups of women because Aliza realized that through these women she could convince those families to move into better neighborhoods, to give a better education to their children, to give them better social mobility. What she did single-handedly while chain-smoking, the entire Ministry of Welfare doesn’t do today, and I bear witness to all of that.

“It affects everything that I do, every day, and it affects the commitment that I have to those values, in the most humble way to be able to champion those very same values in whatever political framework I find myself.”