Israel’s new antisemitism envoy primed for battle in ‘ongoing war’
Michal Cotler-Wunsh is taking aim at social media companies, Israelis protesting their government abroad and Palestinian hate
When Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen announced earlier this month that Michal Cotler-Wunsh would be Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism, there was an outpouring of support and well-wishing, but Cotler-Wunsh said her appointment has a big downside.
“People are congratulating me and I want to cry,” she told Jewish Insider during an interview in Jerusalem this week. “It’s 2023 and countries need to appoint special envoys for combating antisemitism… It’s not something we should be celebrating. It’s a testament to the rise and mainstreaming of antisemitism.”
The special envoys in the U.S., Canada, U.K., European Union, Germany and many South American states work together as a coalition, while they each “have a responsibility to make a difference both domestically, advising their own governments…using the [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s] working definition of antisemitism, and in the international arena, transcending borders of religions, nations and political partisanship,” she said.
Cotler-Wunsh is a lawyer and conflict-resolution expert who spent many hours of her childhood in the hallways of the Knesset where her mother worked for Menachem Begin’s Likud party, before they moved to Canada when her mother married human rights attorney and eventual Justice Minister of Canada Irwin Cotler. She was a member of Knesset for the Blue and White party in 2020-2021, where she co-founded the Interparliamentary Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism, and has dedicated herself to that mission ever since. While in the U.S. State Department, the special envoy role is a Senate-confirmed, ambassador-level position, Cotler-Wunsh is serving Israel on a volunteer basis — as did her predecessor, actress and producer Noa Tishby.
The new envoy plans to continue the work she did in the interparliamentary task force, which held hearings in the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament and the Knesset focused on social media companies.
Cotler-Wunsh explained that at first, legislators did not know the right questions to ask of social media companies. An early error was trying to tackle online antisemitism geographically when social media has no borders. As such, she said, the effort must be international.
She compared the rise of social media to other media revolutions, such as the printing press or radio, which were used to spread calumnies against Jews, but also had broader social effects, while pointing out that social media moves at a much faster pace.
“I try to make this clear when we engage the tech experts, platforms and parliamentarians from all over the world — Jews and non-Jews. We need to recognize that antisemitism is just a case study. It’s not just the way antisemitism is fueled by and fuels real-world hate and violence and thus has to be tracked and understood, it’s about the change in the way we consume information,” she said.
“We are using yesterday’s models in today’s reality… Speech on social media is not free; it’s very expensive,” she continued. “The assumption that we are using the same paradigm as standing on a box in Hyde Park is not relevant. We don’t all have the same opportunities to choose freely, because the algorithm or echo chamber created for me is different from the echo chamber for you. Further, recognizing the real-world harm caused by online hate, we have to ask ourselves what unnecessarily shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater means in a digital reality.”
Among the most important jobs for a coalition of special envoys to combat antisemitism, Cotler-Wunsh posited, is “to understand that we need to hold social media companies to account for the tremendous power they have. The first order is transparency, when there is a complete lack of transparency.”
“Our goal is not to shut down or censor. Our call is for transparency in policy and implementation,” she added. One example she gave is that the EU is moving towards demanding “algorithmic transparency,” which she called “the beginning of asking the right questions.”
Cotler-Wunsh had a follow-up question after watching Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talk with X (formerly Twitter) owner Elon Musk: “You say you’re fighting antisemitism; then how are you doing that?…How do you define antisemitism? We need transparency of policy and that has to include a definition of antisemitism — I would say it should be the IHRA definition, which was the result of a long democratic process, adopted by over 40 countries and 1,000 entities, enabling the comprehensive identification of antisemitism — and requiring transparency of implementation.”
Facebook and X have said they remove content denying the Holocaust, but have not shown any proof that they do so, she said.
While many Jewish organizations have expressed alarm specifically about X since Musk bought the platform last year, “It’s not just Twitter that has raging antisemitism on it,” she said, adding that it was there before the billionaire took over.
“Politicizing or personalizing antisemitism takes our collective eye off the ball and enables its mutation and permutation,” Cotler-Wunsh argued. “It’s not about any one individual or platform. It’s about the tremendous power that social media companies hold, and the tremendous responsibility that comes with it that they need to be held to account for.”
The job of the Jewish state’s special envoy for combating antisemitism may seem like one that is entirely focused on international antisemitism, but Cotler-Wunsh said she has her work cut out for her at home.
In one of the first interviews she gave in Hebrew after her appointment was announced, shock-jock Ron Kaufman called Haredim “a cancer” — a term often used by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to describe Israel.
“This crystallized everything we need to work on,” Cotler-Wunsh said. “It was this moment of complete exposure of everything [Israelis] too need to understand about what we don’t get about antisemitism. If we don’t understand it ourselves, we can’t make it accessible to the outside world.”
Cotler-Wunsh called for Israeli schools to teach the IHRA definition “as a resource to identify and combat antisemitism rising in the world,” and that while Israeli diplomats abroad call on universities to adopt the IHRA definition, Israeli universities should use it, as well.
One of the contemporary forms of antisemitism, trying to turn Zionism into racism and promoting the “demonization, double standards and delegitimization of Israel,” as Cotler-Wunsh repeatedly said, quoting Natan Sharansky’s “three Ds,” is part of a war that has been fought against Israel since the establishment of the state.
“If this is part of the war against Israel’s existence, then the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has to understand antisemitism, the IDF chief of staff has to understand it,” she said. “If Israel is demonized and delegitimized, deemed a pariah state, then the world will thank Iran for destroying Israel. There’s no justification for what is deemed an apartheid state to exist in this world.”
Cotler-Wunsh said the situation is as though Israel is “in absentia in this ongoing war; we don’t — and must — have a systematic plan to address this.”
“Israel’s special envoy is the platform from which not only to engage the outside world but also to equip our decision-makers with a critical understanding, not only in remembering our past, but as we diagnose and address the challenges of now and tomorrow.”
Cotler-Wunsh also expressed concern that Israelis and Diaspora Jews protesting against the Israeli government while outside of Israel shows a lack of understanding of the problem of antisemitism.
Projecting the message that Netanyahu is a liar onto the U.N. building, while “the butcher of Tehran is about to speak there, or [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] launched an antisemitic tirade with Holocaust denial…shows a lack of understanding that this is an existential war waged against the State of Israel and the Jewish people and gives a semblance legitimacy to the messaging of that war,” she said.
In addition, Cotler-Wunsh said that while most Israelis do not believe that the ongoing tensions between them will escalate into a civil war, it is difficult to convey that to Jews outside of Israel. The protests abroad “drive a very hurtful wedge between Israel and global Jewry, where there is a lack of understanding and nuanced conversation.”
Israelis do not understand “that Jews around the world actually have a complete sense of catastrophe that their nation-state to which we returned after millennia of persecution is on the brink of civil war. They’re borrowing from their own countries… We have challenges but we don’t have the challenges America has. Imposing that story on us drives a further wedge between American and Israeli Jewry,” she lamented.
The Israeli “disconnect from global Jewry is a blind spot,” Cotler-Wunsh said.
The envoy hopes to serve as a bridge in that respect, “transcending real differences of politics and geography to convey a very clear message of moral clarity, of unity with dignity of difference and of Israel’s standing in the international community when international institutions enabled the mutation of antisemitism” that is the three Ds.
One view that Cotler-Wunsh shares with some of the more policy-minded protesters against this government is that Israel’s Declaration of Independence should be enshrined in law; she proposed a bill to that effect when she was a member of Knesset. Today, she says it is part of the Jewish state’s moral message to the world.
“Israel’s Declaration of Independence tells us to opt in and not only be negatively defined by the outside, by hate,” she said. “It anchors the values of this country as the nation-state of the Jewish people, an indigenous people who returned after millennia of exile and persecution, and is committed to equality. That commitment is anchored in and ‘envisaged by the prophets,” a country whose identity is Jewish and whose mechanism of governance is democratic. At 75 years young, deciphering what that means and looks like is the awesome role and responsibility of our generation.”
That being said, when it comes to the judicial reform question, Cotler-Wunsh pointed out that the Declaration “has nothing to say about the relationship of the three branches of government.” Rather, “it is the soul and identity — the vision, mission and values.”
Cotler-Wunsh said Israel should “use the Declaration of Independence to engage global Jewry, but also to engage Israel’s delegitimizers.”
For example, she said, “Israel does not exist because the Holocaust happened. It’s the opposite. The Holocaust would not have occurred if Israel existed.” Rather, the Declaration points to Jews’ prototypical indigeneity and connection to Israel throughout Jewish history.
“Until we take back our rightful membership and identity as an indigenous people, a legal concept that has meaning in the court of public opinion in which we have been sitting in the docket of the accused, we cannot push back against anti-Zionists,” she said.
That insight brings Cotler-Wunsh to another message she plans to emphasize internationally:that Palestinian leadership cannot “continue to get a free pass for pure, unbridled antisemitism.”
She pointed to “The Palestinian leaders’ lack of acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish state in any borders, their attempted severance of any connection to Jewish history — like the UNESCO decision on Jericho and [UNESCO decisions on] Jerusalem consistently, Abbas wearing a key under his lapel at the U.N.,” symbolizing his hope for a return to pre-1967 Israel.
“Antisemitism has to be fought comprehensively,” she said. “If one form is allowed to run rampant, then you haven’t done anything to address the virus. We know that from COVID — strains mutate and spread. It’s not remotely possible to identify and fight antisemitism if you do it selectively, and only do the part that is easy. Holocaust denial is not only low-hanging fruit, it’s fruit on the ground.”
By enabling Abbas and ignoring rampant antisemitism within Palestinian society, the international community “enabled the continuing, festering antisemitism that not only targets Jewish children and adults with terror, not only enables the abuse of children’s rights by inculcating them with hate, but creates an obstacle to fighting antisemitism and to prospective peace with the Palestinian people. Double standards always undermine the entire principle,” Cotler-Wunsh said.
Plus, the envoy said, “it’s the racism of low expectations.”
“I expect the very same principles to apply to everyone. Negating the responsibility that comes with agency… constitutes not only an affront to human rights, but an outright impasse to peace and the prospect of a better future for Palestinians.”