Michal Cotler-Wunsh (right) speaking with at Oshman Family JCC CEO Zack Bodner on Jan. 22, 2024. (Photo/Courtesy)
Michal Cotler-Wunsh (right) speaking with at Oshman Family JCC CEO Zack Bodner on Jan. 22, 2024. (Photo/Courtesy)

Israel’s envoy for combating antisemitism makes her case in Bay Area

When Michal Cotler-Wunsh was appointed as Israel’s special envoy for combating antisemitism in September, she had an agenda in mind for presenting her case to the world.

Three weeks later, the Hamas massacre of Oct. 7 caused her to pivot — hard. Since then she’s made seven trips abroad from her home in Ra’anana, six of them to North America. During these “emergency trips,” as she calls them, she speaks to political leaders, academics, students and Jewish communities, describing the hatred that fueled the Hamas attack that killed 1,200 people in Israel. She also discusses the ways in which antisemitism has ratcheted up since then with the “attacks on Jews we see on university campuses, in social media spaces and on the street.”

Cotler-Wunsh, 53, spoke to J. at the beginning of a three-day visit this week to the Bay Area to meet with local mayors and other political leaders, speak at the Palo Alto JCC and join a panel discussion with Stanford’s president and provost to discuss racism and antisemitism. This is her first trip to the Bay Area since her appointment.

She noted that the Jan. 24 event at Stanford falls just days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Saturday.

“It is especially important for me to engage with the Stanford academic and student communities … because of what we’ve seen happen on university campuses, including the most Orwellian inversion of fact in calling for the genocide of Jewish students even as the State of Israel is accused of perpetrating a genocide in the International Court of Justice.”

A lawyer specializing in human rights and a prominent scholar of contemporary antisemitism, Cotler-Wunsh was born in Israel, grew up in Montreal and returned to Israel for her military service. She has since carved a path through the worlds of politics, academia and Jewish communal service, including a stint as a Knesset member from 2020 to 2021. With degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and McGill University in Montreal, she has served as scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federations of North America and as a research fellow at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya, among other postings.

She is a formidable speaker, as demonstrated in her November address to the United Nations, where she defended one of her central theses: Anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

She told members of that body that the 1975 U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism was the foundational brick in the development of contemporary antisemitism. She also drew a clear line from the “othering” of the Jewish people throughout history to the isolation of the Jewish state today. Similar to the “proverbial” wandering Jew, she said, Israel has never been accepted in the family of nations.

“This is what is alive and well on university campuses, online and in the streets,” she told the gathered delegates. The political anti-Zionism long propagated by the Arab world and the former Soviet Union has become today a “mainstream, legitimate, mutated form of an ever-mutated hatred of Jews,” she said.

Cotler-Wunsh is one of about 30 antisemitism envoys that represent countries from around the world, mostly in Europe, and international agencies.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Photo/Courtesy)
Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Photo/Courtesy)

She is the second such envoy from Israel, following actress and activist Noa Tishby, whose one-year tenure ended in April when she was removed from the post following public comments she made criticizing the Netanyahu government’s plans for a judicial overhaul.

Cotler-Wunsh has a wealth of knowledge and experience that puts her in a league with Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, currently serving as the U.S. antisemitism envoy. The two issued a joint statement in October condemning the Hamas attack on Israel.

“I take my responsibility very, very seriously,” Cotler-Wunsh said. “That’s why I keep going on these emergency trips, although I’ll share with you that it’s probably the most difficult thing that I’ve had to do.” Three of her four children are serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Getting on a plane while they are fighting for Israel is “terribly hard,” she said.

One of her major goals in meeting with U.S. political and academic leaders is to encourage the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism. Based on recognition of the “three D’s” — demonization, delegitimization and double standards applied to Israel — the definition has already been adopted by more than 30 countries. It continues to face opposition in the U.S. by Jews and non-Jews.

“You can’t combat something if you can’t define it,” she said, adding that she brings up the topic in every meeting she attends.

As an envoy sent from Israel to argue the case against antisemitism on the world stage, it’s part of her job to help Jews outside of Israel understand what’s happening as they find themselves attacked for Israel’s war against Hamas.

“The masks are off,” she said, referring to deep-seated hatred of Jews that has resurfaced since Oct. 7.

“It’s so outrageous, preposterous, including the accusation of genocide by South Africa at the ICJ,” she added. And that is just one example of theinversion of fact and of law, that leaves Jewish communities around the world not only afraid for their safety and the security of their children,” she said, “but at a loss as to what it is that we are seeing, and how we can connect as a people in this moment in time in order to identify and combat this strain of antisemitism together.”

Asked whether she ever experienced antisemitism herself growing up in Canada, she said no. She is of the “lucky generation” that escaped the open antisemitism of previous ones. That gives her a sense of urgency and duty to respond to today’s virulent upsurge, she said.

“I wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night with that sense of tremendous responsibility,” she said. “I think there is a call to action for our generation to take much more of a front seat in guiding our kids or grandchildren through this very difficult and choppy time. It requires courage and moral clarity, for sure. I think that Oct. 7 … is not just an attack on the nation-state of the Jewish people, or on Jews. It really is an attack on our shared humanity, on our shared values of life and of liberty.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].