Editor’s note: Michal Cotler-Wunsh was featured in CFHU’s Alumni Spotlight series 100 Alumni We Love. Click here to visit her spotlight.
On the night of May 17, 1977, a seven-year-old girl named Michal danced with joy at the Knesset along with right-wing politicians, who won a historic victory that night in an upheaval that brought their bloc to power for the first time.
The girl was there because her mother, Ariela Ze’evi, was the parliamentary secretary of Menachem Begin’s Gahal and then Likud parties.
Forty-three years later, the girl came back to the Knesset on Monday to be sworn in as Michal Cotler-Wunsh, Knesset member of the Blue and White Party.
Looking back, Cotler-Wunsh, 49, remembers experiencing both euphoria and humility that night, because she knew that she was among great people who served Israel well. Thanks to her mother’s job, Cotler-Wunsh often played piano after school at the home of Menachem and Aliza Begin, while she was waiting for her mother to return from work with the prime minister.
Cotler-Wunsh’s return to the Knesset and swearing-in at the Knesset rostrum were accompanied by similar emotions.
“It was moving and emotional, but it was also a commitment,” she said, in an interview in her new office in the Knesset. “I am a lawyer, so I already have a trade. This is a mission for me, so it was humbling. I hope to fulfill the mission with courage and humility for the benefit of Israeli society and the Jewish people.”
That commitment to serving not just Israelis but also the Jewish people came because Cotler-Wunsh returned to the Knesset with multiple identities that she attained since she was there as a seven-year-old. A year later, her mother married world-renowned Canadian lawyer Irwin Cotler, who later became Canada’s justice minister and was a counsel for human rights advocates Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky.
Growing up and studying in Canada gave Cotler-Wunsh the politeness and respectful behavior that are seen as the opposite of what is typical nowadays in the Knesset. But being a strong Zionist advocate raised by a man who struggled for human rights around the world made her much less apologetic than that Canadian stereotype.
Passing the smoking garden in the Knesset courtyard on the way to a meeting, Cotler-Wunsh signaled to her Vancouver-born aide, Becca Wertman – “that’s not for us Canadians.” To enter the Knesset, Cotler-Wunsh had to begin the process of renouncing her Canadian citizenship, but there are parts of her Canadian identity that she will continue to embrace proudly as an MK.
“I don’t have to renounce the commitment to values that I see as a Canadian or my behavior and expectations,” she explained. “It’s not just the what that’s important to me, it’s the how. My commitment to engaging in respectful conversation is important to me. They are not going to ruin me. I’m tougher than I look. I’m not naive, not one little bit.”
The liberal Modern Orthodox MK quoted from last week’s Torah portion of Korah which describes an argument that was for the sake of power that was masked as an argument for the sake of heaven.
“I can fight, but I don’t have to fight the way that is dictated to me,” she said. “I can fight differently, without mudslinging. I don’t plan on playing the game how someone else prescribes. There is a smarter way to advance the issues.”
That feeling that key issues must be advanced smartly is what brought Cotler-Wunsh to the Telem Party of former defense minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, and it is also what led her to leave the party when it refused to join the government and split Blue and White along with the Yesh Atid Party of Yair Lapid.
Telem, whose platform Cotler-Wunsh helped write, is an acronym for National Statesmanship Movement, but beyond statesmanship, the Hebrew word “mamlachtiyut” refers to both patriotism and professionalism.
“Declaring yourself statesmanlike is a responsibility,” she said. “Being statesmanlike meant we had to hold ourselves accountable to the word that defines us. There were many decisions during and after the campaign that were not statesmanlike, including calling for a secular government or accusing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of being [Turkish leader Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. Telem and Yesh Atid leaving Blue and White is not taking responsibility.”
Cotler-Wunsh supported a unity government from the moment she entered politics and spoke about the need for national reconciliation on the campaign trail, including at an energetic Jerusalem Post debate near her home in Ra’anana against then-New Right Knesset candidate Caroline Glick and other party representatives.
Ya’alon was the first person Cotler-Wunsh told when she decided to enter the Knesset and the coalition as a Blue and White MK and not an opposition MK of Telem. She was one of five Blue and White candidates who were sworn in thanks to the controversial Expanded Norwegian Law that enabled ministers to quit the Knesset in favor of the next candidates on their party list and return if they quit their ministerial posts.
“I told Bogie that I felt strongly that we had to take responsibility in light of the election results,” she said. “Had I been an MK when the party split, I would have been able to choose a party. I joined Blue and White because it represents a broad spectrum, which gives it an opportunity to lead a conceptual change.”
Cotler-Wunsh said she was called bad names like defector, traitor and worse. But she said she feels no guilt about joining the Knesset through the Norwegian Law, because the Knesset is among the world’s smallest parliaments and the parliament needs to function better, with enough MKs serving on committees that oversee the work of the government.
Blue and White gave its new MKs time to “get their feet wet” and adjust to serving in the parliament before being assigned to committees. Cotler-Wunsh said she hopes to serve on committees that would help her advance issues that are part of her expertise, given her background.
Cotler-Wunsh was born in Jerusalem, attended the capital’s Noam School and then, from age eight, pluralist, Zionist schools in Montreal. At 17, she came back to Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University. She served as a lone soldier, training underprivileged new recruits. She got her law degree at Hebrew University, clerked for future Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor at the Jerusalem Court of Appeals and worked as a lawyer in the public and private sectors.
She returned to Canada in 2000 with her husband, Rafi Wunsh, and their baby son and earned another degree at McGill University in Montreal. She returned to Israel a decade later with three more children, and since then has lived in Ra’anana, where she is part of the community of activist Rabbi Seth Farber. Her children are friends with the kids of her neighbor, Naftali Bennett, who was the first MK to congratulate her after she was sworn in.
Another MK who congratulated her is Sharren Haskel (Likud), who was born in Toronto. They spoke about their fathers, who both live in Canada.
Cotler-Wunsh has worked at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and was a research fellow of its International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. In that role, she met the Goldin family, whose deceased soldier son, Hadar, is being held captive in Gaza. She has advised the family for nearly four years, which led to her meeting Ya’alon, who is a relative of the Goldins.
As a citizen who returned to Israel, Cotler-Wunsh said she has a unique understanding of the new and veteran immigrants who “want to contribute to Israeli society” and “have a tremendous role to play.” She believes Israel-Diaspora relations need an urgent “paradigm shift.”
The first bills she wants to advance would help thousands still waiting to move to Israel from Ethiopia and pass into law the Declaration of Independence and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s universal definition of antisemitism. She also intends to be involved in matters of religion and state, in which Farber, who heads ITIM – the Jewish Life Advocacy Center – can be a guiding light.
“I see my role as to challenge current paradigms and create alternate paradigms,” said Cotler-Wunsh, who advised the Goldin family to end the paradigm of trading terrorists for bodies in favor of solutions that address humanitarian needs in Israel and Gaza.
Cotler-Wunsh wants to be active in defending Israel abroad, which she can do in international forums of members of parliament.
“Israel needs to rise from the docket of the accused,” she said. “The battle for public opinion at the International Criminal Court has been waged in absentia. Israel has been not fighting or fighting with two hands behind its back. We don’t have the privilege to not speak the language of international law that our opponents have been speaking.”
Unlike some of her new colleagues in Blue and White, Cotler-Wunsh is in favor of applying sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and speaks favorably about what was known of US President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan at the time of the interview. She cited the plan’s call for Israel to have defensible borders that she said should include a united Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley and settlement blocs, and its demands for the Palestinian Authority to end support for terrorism, violence and incitement, stop paying terrorists and their families, and accept Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Asked if she defined herself as right-wing, she said: “I consider myself pragmatic, Zionist and consistent, and bound to the rule of law and morality. Where Israel applies its law, the people must all be equal citizens. No population should be transferred. No one should have to leave their home, Jew or Arab alike.”
On corruption, Cotler-Wunsh said the place to evaluate whether a law has been broken is in a court of law, not the court of public opinion, and the rule of law cannot be used selectively. She believes in due process and the imperative to enforce the law equally.
She was interviewed at the same time that the Knesset Finance Committee dealt with Netanyahu’s controversial demand for hundreds of thousands in tax refunds at a time when nearly a million Israelis remain unemployed due to the impact of the coronavirus.
“This is simply not the time,” she said. “We must focus on the needs of the public, especially in view of the tremendous economic, physical, emotional and social challenges that Israeli citizens and Jewish communities are facing. Our first priority must be to address the immediate and long-term challenges and anticipate the short- and long-term implications of the solutions created.”
It is that long-term perspective that Cotler-Wunsh could have only dreamed of back then in the Knesset as a young girl.