Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen appoints Michal Cotler-Wunsh as Israel's antisemitism envoy on Sept. 13, 2023. Cotler-Wunsh, a human rights lawyer who spent her formative years in Montreal, is a daughter of Irwin Cotler, Canada's Special Envoy on Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism. PHOTO BY MICHAL COTLER-WUNSH / X

The Cotler family's fight against the 'vicious circle' of antisemitism

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, daughter of Irwin Cotler, has been appointed Israel’s special envoy for combatting antisemitism

In news from abroad with a Canadian connection, Michal Cotler-Wunsh has been appointed Israel’s special envoy for combatting antisemitism. A human rights lawyer and former member of the Knesset (2020-21), Michal follows in the footsteps of her famous father, Irwin Cotler — renowned human rights lawyer and former Liberal cabinet minister — who is presently rounding out his tenure as Canada’s special envoy for preserving Holocaust remembrance and combatting antisemitism.

Born in Jerusalem, Cotler-Wunsh spent her formative years in Montreal. She did military service in Israel, then returned to Canada. More than a decade ago, with her husband and four children, she made Israel her permanent home. An expert in international law, human rights and free speech (especially online), Cotler-Wunsh is — again, like her dad — a happy (and equally eloquent) warrior, stalwartly defending Israel as the nation state of an indigenous people returned from exile to its ancient homeland.

I spoke to Cotler-Wunsh earlier this week. We Jews are at a critical junction, she believes. More than 80 years after the Holocaust, old forms of antisemitism have mutated into new paradigms. It will be part of her mandate to “connect the dots” between the tropes of traditional and contemporary antisemitism, which have maligned Jews as, variously, an intolerable religion, an intolerable race, and now an intolerable nation.

Israel, “a 75 years young miracle,” must assume responsibility for diagnosing and exposing the viral mutation of antisemitism into anti-Zionism as part of an unconventional war to exterminate Israel by non-military means. You can’t combat hatred, though, unless you can define it: “We need definitions to create a common language.” Thus, Cotler-Wunsh is a passionate advocate for global adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition” — not legally binding, and already adopted by 40 countries, including Canada — which states:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

The words “similar to that levelled against any other country“ are paramount, and a source of contention for anti-Zionists. The newly created Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism (ICSZ), for example, a group closely connected to the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, is mounting a mid-October conference, titled “Battling the ‘IHRA definition: Theory and Activism.” Their mission is to discredit and replace the IHRA definition with one that allows for Israel exceptionalism regarding “criticism.” Co-opting the constructs of social justice (racism, colonialism et al), and borrowing respectability from their ivory-tower/NGO affiliation, their spokespeople describe the ICSZ as “the first step toward establishing a new academic discipline that will wrest the study of Zionism from its presumed exclusive location in Jewish Studies.” “Presumed?” Their founders’ bios reveal an insalubrious history of associations bruiting false allegations against Israel. Sour old wine, shiny new bottle.

Cotler-Wunsh has first-hand experience of that corollary in action. In April, as one stop on a speaking tour organized by the pro-Israel Academic Engagement Network, she was invited by Yale University’s Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA) to speak about antisemitism. A week before the event, the JLSA withdrew its sponsorship, because, according to Cotler-Wunsh, she was “too controversial.” If not for a deputy dean’s offer to host the event, it would have been cancelled.

At her Columbia University event, attendees had first to sign an admission that they were Zionist, an effective prophylactic to attendance by all but the most courageous Jewish students. At NYU, her talk was interrupted by protesters chanting “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea,” code for the elimination of Israel as a Jewish state.

A tragic outcome of this relentless campaign to demonize Israel has been, for many Jews, internalized loathing of Israel as the price of social acceptance, even though virtually every single Jewish student’s forebears have intoned the hope for “next year in Jerusalem” since time immemorial. Cotler-Wunsh tells me she tried to cajole one Jewish protester into coming to listen to what she had to say. He told her, “I would never come to your talk. I hate Israel; I wish it would disappear.” The anecdote illuminates “one of the greatest crises of our people,” she said.

Campus antisemitism — home to the BDS movement, Apartheid Week et al — is probably the most consequential of the hydra-headed monster in terms of its recruitment pool size, but all forms of antisemitism, from neo-Nazis to the Holocaust-denying Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, to the far left, including the U.S. Democratic Party’s “Squad,” are interconnected. “I envisage them all as a vicious circle: one feeds the other,” Cotler-Wunsh tells me. “If we don’t connect the dots, we are only reactive and cannot break the cycle. … They literally feed one on each other.”

I asked Cotler-Wunsh what she aspires to accomplish in her new role. “To be out of a job,” she laughed. We agreed that was not going to happen. But a sense of humour is de rigueur for anyone who chooses life at the coalface of this deep and dirty mine.