In the rarified universe that constitutes the Knesset, Einat Wilf – the Labor Party MK who joined former chairman Ehud Barak in forming the Independence faction in January – has become an eye-catching comet.
Barely known in the public sphere before joining the Knesset last year (following the resignation of Labor’s Ophir Paz-Pines), Wilf made waves in January when she left with Barak to create Independence. Today she chairs the faction, and serves on the Foreign Affairs and Defense, Education, Finance and House committees. In a few months, Wilf is slated to take over as chairwoman of the Immigration and Absorption Committee and the Education Committee.
All of this, after giving birth to her first child, Jonathan, in December.
“I feel blessed to live at a time and a place when it is taken for granted that women can have it all,” said Wilf. “Not that one should mistake having it all with having it easy. Being a new mother and a member of Knesset, I naturally have to engage in a lot of careful planning to ensure that I get the most out of both – but I could not see myself not having both full family and professional lives.”
Born and raised in Jerusalem, Wilf, now 40, is the daughter of two educators. Her father taught physical chemistry at Hebrew University; her mother taught high school history, civics, and later cinema in Jerusalem.
Growing up in what she calls a “classic Zionist, secular home,” Wilf displayed precocious intellectual promise and ambition as a student at Hebrew University Secondary School. After serving four years in the IDF as an intelligence officer, she went on to attend Harvard University, where she received a BA in government and fine arts. In relatively short order, Wilf subsequently earned an MBA at INSEAD in France, and a PhD in political science at the University of Cambridge.
“I certainly think that my years at Harvard had a big influence on just kind of opening me to a lot of classic thinkers, and helping me to develop far more critical thinking,” she said. “It actually made life in Israel far better and far easier for me. Because the one thing I think we’re lacking here is a true comparative international perspective. We tend to think that everything here is just so bad, and so much worse – and elsewhere in the world, everything gets managed so much better.
“And sure, when you visit as a tourist you might have that impression… but when you actually stay in countries for a long time, you understand that every region has its problems. And there are actually greater similarities in the problems than [there are] differences. So it is possible for me to be here in a way that is very complete and full, and never say, ‘Oh, somewhere else is so much better.’”
After returning to Israel, Wilf began notching up a dizzying array of professional achievements, impressive in their depth and scope: senior fellow with the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute; weekly columnist for a daily newspaper; social entrepreneurship teacher at Sapir College; strategic consultant with McKinsey & Company in New York City; general partner with Koor Corporate Venture Capital in Israel; member of the President’s Conference Steering Committee; and foreign policy adviser to then-vice premier Shimon Peres. Somewhere in between, she authored two well-received books about Israeli society.
Wilf, who speaks English with no discernible accent and is conversational in French and German, has already represented Israel at the highest diplomatic levels internationally.
At once erudite, worldly, polished, hyper-ambitious and articulate, Wilf – who cuts a striking figure with her thick, jet-black hair and piercing blue eyes – appears to be more than qualified to lead Israel through its endless morass of unparalleled, and seemingly unsolvable, geopolitical challenges.A strong female voice
An outspoken feminist, Wilf has the distinction of serving in a faction with the Knesset’s closest female-to-male ratio: two women to three men. (Orit Noked also left Labor to join the Independence faction.)
Asked if she thinks a higher number of women in Israeli politics will have any substantive effects on policy and negotiations (currently there is roughly one woman for every four men in the Knesset), Wilf cited the success of other countries with more women involved in government.
“In general, countries with high representations of women in parliaments are also countries that tend to be more equal – with better welfare and better social services,” she said. “For example, the Northern European countries certainly all have very high representations of women and are very egalitarian – countries with good social networks… We have about the same as France, the UK and US – which is not great, but not completely shameful.”
While she says she would like more women involved in the parliament, she believes a major obstacle is presented by religious parties that refuse to elect women as representatives. However, she is sanguine about the reversal of this historic pattern.
“Over the next few years, I think we’re likely to see pressure on religious parties to have women,” she said. “I think that it’s going to be harder and harder for them to sustain a position where they only bring male members of parliament.”
In terms of her new faction’s notorious split with Labor, Wilf says Independence will engender a far more central position, compared to Labor’s increasingly leftist stances – particularly with respect to the peace process.
“It all came down to the peace process with the Palestinians, and our being in a government that supposedly doesn’t do enough to promote it,” she said, explaining why she decided to join Barak in leaving Labor. “And there were those who felt that we needed to leave the government immediately – or put an ultimatum to Netanyahu that if the peace process doesn’t resume immediately, that we will be out of the government.”
Wilf says Labor, which she describes as becoming increasingly socialist, may be more adept at dealing with domestic policy, but not foreign policy and peace negotiations.
“I think that the distinction from Labor is already quite clear, because that is what led to the split,” she said. “Labor is now in a position where they need to define themselves – but if you think about it, we [Independence] took a lot of the foreignpolicy- centrist thinking. And I think that means that the Labor Party is likely to go in a more socialist, left-leaning opposition – a little more militant. I think it’s going to be a much more coherent opposition: leftist, with greater emphasis on social issues and less so on foreign policy and peace-process policies.”
Despite recent polls showing Independence would not pass the voting threshold to gain any Knesset seats in the next elections, Wilf went on to say the Independence faction would offer “new, original thinking” that would clearly set it apart from Labor.
“The current changes sweeping through the Middle East represent a ‘Ben-Gurion’- type moment that might present Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people with new opportunities. It is a moment that requires us to rethink many of our basic assumptions about the conflict and possible solutions.
“In terms of original thought, I think certainly putting energy and oil at the center of Israeli foreign policy, and how to make oil less of a geopolitical issue – as well as looking much more to China and India [is important]. How Israel can establish itself in the world, not just looking west, but also looking east,” she said.Winning “the intellectual battle”
Another central initiative for the Independence faction is aggressively – and effectively – fighting against the ongoing delegitimization of Israel, propagated by hostile governments and the international media. Wilf calls harmful distortions of Israel in the media “the intellectual battle,” and emphasized that it must be given similar priority to the IDF if Israel is to successfully defend its narrative.
Still, she acknowledges that the intellectual battle presents a major challenge for Israel.
“The problem is that for a leadership that was forged mostly in battle… the arena is no longer the Sinai Desert or international terrorism, but has moved to international forums: courts and the new media,” she explained. “These are not tanks or planes, but [the media] is incredibly powerful, and I think that it is incredibly powerful because what makes Israel special is that it was an idea long before it was a country.
And if you begin to undermine the ‘idea,’ I think that you begin to undermine something very important about the essence of Israel – and something that is critical to its standing and strength.
“So we need to defend that idea, and the idea is very basic: The Jewish people, as a people, have a right to their own state in the only region in which they were ever sovereign.”
Wilf said she had given much thought to disarming Israel’s detractors by creating an “Israeli Intellectual Defense Force,” charged with focusing solely on defending Israel in the international media. This, she says, must be done by actively responding to all manipulations and distortions about Israel generated in any given news cycle.
“I think that we need to put the same kind of effort and strategic thinking into our intellectual defense as we put into our physical defense,” she said. “In terms of our physical defense, we always talk about how Israel’s first priority is to move the battle to the enemy’s territory. We have been for too long defensive, and I think we have not gone sufficiently on the offense in terms of [the intellectual] agenda. We always defend… but we don’t come up with our own initiatives.”A modern, egalitarian Jew
An unapologetically secular Israeli, Wilf is married to a non-Jewish German journalist – which has naturally become a lightning rod for criticism among the religious establishment, some of whom have gone so far as to classify her as a heretic.
She responds to personal attacks by calmly emphasizing the inclusive, pluralistic nature of the Zionist Doctrine – and by dispelling the notion that religious Jews are somehow superior to secular Jews.
“The big part of Zionism was the Jewish secular identity – to give a modern response to what a Jewish identity is,” she explained.
“So for me, the Jewish identity of Israel doesn’t have to do with religion, or with faith, or with keeping certain religious duties – but more relating to the people, to the history, to the culture. That is incredibly important to me.”
Indeed, she takes exception to prevailing beliefs that a person’s degree of traditional Jewish observance is directly related to their value in Jewish society.
“I think the reason that I present a challenge to some of the more religious parties is that they find that even secular Jews often view the more religious ones as being ‘better Jews.’ They still defer to them – even if subconsciously,” she said. “Typically, somehow it is considered that if you are secular, you care less about Jewish life. And if you’re more religious, you care more about the public sphere. I think that what I embody is someone who is deeply committed to the future of the Jewish people, and cares very much about the public sphere.”
Not surprisingly, she firmly believes that degrees of religiosity – and secularism – should in no way increase or marginalize one’s voice and rights as a Jew. She is particularly adamant about this point with respect to solving important Israeli political and social issues.
“The fact that I believe that I, as a Jewish person – and certainly as an elected person in the Knesset – have an equal right to shape the future of the Jewish people, to shape who belongs… as much as rabbis, is something that is a far greater challenge than someone who may be secular, but does not have a clear worldview about their equal rights to shape the future of the Jewish people,” she said.
Wilf strongly maintains that secularism and Judaism should not be viewed as mutually exclusive, and finds no rational argument against the two concepts peacefully coexisting.
“I think there are many people who are both secular and deeply committed to shaping Jewish life,” she said. “One of the most amazing developments in Judaism in the last 200-300 years is exactly in response to modernism: the beginning of separation between faith, religious duty, and... call it ‘tribal belonging’ – or the belonging to the Jewish people.
“With respect to the Jewish world, I think it’s time for Israel to have a new, more egalitarian contract. The old contract between Israel and the Jewish people that was based on Israel being a ‘poor, suffering country’ is no longer relevant. As chair of the Aliya, Absorption and Diaspora Committee, I plan to devote substantial committee time to the question of creating this new contract.”
Wilf describes her “contract” as being based on the principle of pluralistic inclusion of all Jews as equals – particularly those in the Diaspora.
“My vision has do with the future of Israel for all Jews,” she said. “I very much care deeply that Israel should continue to exist – should continue to exist as an open, successful country – where Israelis wish to have a future here, and where Jews from all over the world see themselves as being a part of it. That it is a part of them.
“I believe that if Israel is not the first home of all Jews, it should be their second home – a country with which they have a strong, lifelong connection. A place that is at once very much like the best countries in the world, and at once incredibly unique. A place that is like no other.”