Envoy interview

Israeli antisemitism envoy calls on White House to strengthen position on IHRA, anti-Zionism

Former Knesset Member Michal Cotler-Wunsh called White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s comments on antisemitism ‘unbelievable and unfathomable.’

Shlomi Amsalem

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism, told Jewish Insider on Monday that comments by White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre denying that antisemitic incidents are on the rise and highlighting other forms of hate are “unbelievable and unfathomable.”

“There is a documented rise in antisemitism,” Cotler-Wunsh told JI in an interview in Washington, D.C. yesterday. The former member of the Knesset was in the U.S. capital for meetings with administration officials and lawmakers, after a stop in New York where she met with New York City Mayor Eric Adams, the chancellor of the City University of New York and high-level U.N. officials.

Despite her concerns about Jean-Pierre’s remarks, the Israeli envoy conveyed a “great appreciation” for “the clear messages of the president that recognize that antisemitism is the fuel for” Hamas’ actions.

In her meetings in the U.S., Cotler-Wunsh pressed her interlocutors — including Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff  — to push the administration to unequivocally embrace and implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism and clearly state that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

In its antisemitism strategy earlier this year, the administration offered praise for an alternative definition of antisemitism in addition to IHRA, and trod carefully in how it addressed anti-Zionism. Cotler-Wunsh said that the administration should come out more strongly on both points.

“I do think that a clarification is due, I do think that it would be a very important one. Cotler-Wunsh said. She said that Emhoff had conveyed “a great willingness” to consider such a step. “We would be remiss not to identify that the current strain [of antisemitism] — that is anti-Zionism — is the one that is running rampant.”

Cotler-Wunsh emphasized repeatedly that without the IHRA definition, “you can’t actually identify or combat antisemitism” because of its utility in identifying anti-Zionist rhetoric as antisemitic. She described the Oct. 7 attack as a clarifying moment that “pulls the mask off of the fact that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”

“If you don’t identify that modern, mutated form of antisemitism and combat that, then you’re combating the older forms, the other strains of an ever-mutating virus,” she said, “and you’re enabling the new strain to fester to permeate in the society in which you live, which we know historically collapses the society in which you live.”

She also stressed the need to push back on false equivalencies between Israel and Hamas and those that underlie defenses of Hamas’ atrocities in Israel, cast Israel as an aggressor or a villain and have been used to justify antisemitism and attacks on Jews around the world.

“It’s so Orwellian,” she continued. “It’s hard to imagine, that days later — not years later, or decades later, like with Holocaust denial — days after these brutal atrocities, we would have to deal with the possibility of their denial or anybody holding up a sign that says, ‘I am Hamas.’”

Cotler-Wunsh urged Jewish Americans and Jewish organizations to speak out against antisemitism and in support of Israel, including by pressing officials at every level of government to adopt the IHRA definition.

“All those that recognize this as an assault on our shared humanity, as an assault on civilization, as a war waged on our cherished values of life and liberty — they have a role in this war,” she said. “In war, we lose friends. That means you have to speak up. That means you have to expose false moral equivalencies, whether it be on campus, whether it be in a workplace, whether it be in immediate circles of friends.”

Cotler-Wunsh said the response to Hamas’ attack has also highlighted hypocrisies at the core of cultural institutions and social movements, which, she said, have been hijacked by antisemitism.

She offered particular criticism for universities, which have emerged as particular hotbeds for anti-Israel and pro-Hamas sentiment. Some schools, she said, have been “infected… beyond repair.”

“If you truly cared about peace, if you truly cared about humanity, [if] in the name of human rights, you cannot condemn [Hamas’] atrocities, then something has gone very wrong,” she said. “And when you consider the mission statement of universities [is] to teach, how to think critically — and instead of teaching people how to think what we see is an indoctrination of what to think — that is a failing of the university system. That is a sick, sick reality that academia is going to have to grapple with.”

She similarly argued that antisemitism has latched on to modern human rights discourse.

“That is bad news for anybody who advocates who believes in — like myself — who studies, who champions human rights, because the entire infrastructure collapses, when you weaponize it, to demonize to delegitimize and to apply double standards to any one single entity in the family of nations,” Cotler-Wunsh said.

She added that many Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs have been similarly affected. 

“If you extend diversity, equity and inclusion to everyone except for [Jews and Zionists], then your infrastructure for DEI is not worth the paper it’s written on, “ she argued. “It’s meant to apply equally and consistently to all. Any principle that’s applied selectively, it ceases to exist.”

But, Cotler-Wunsh argued, there’s reason for optimism for Israel and the Jewish people.

“Historically, we’ve never been — as crazy as this sounds, when we’ve been faced with such atrocities — we’ve never been in such a good place. We have independence. We have a nation state, to which we returned, after millennia of exile and persecution. We have an army that can defend us,” she said. “And… the other half of us, those of us in North America, have the capability to speak up, have to be willing to step up with the same action and courage, have to be willing to be the boots on the ground in the unconventional war for public opinion.”

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