As a Canadian, Israeli, attorney, mother and mediator, I cherish each of these identities and treasure the mosaic comprising Israeli society and Jewish communities worldwide. The benefits and implications of their intersection are inextricably linked with my own legal, academic and social undertakings and research. The significant junctions between law, ethics and politics, and their implications for society, are reflected in my work and publications on various platforms. They have guided me in identifying and constructing relevant bridges regarding Israeli society internally, Israel’s standing in the international arena from a human rights perspective and Israel-Diaspora relations.
We are all products of our upbringing and environment. As the daughter of Canadian human rights activist Irwin Cotler and Ariela (Ze’evi), who served as an assistant to Menachem Begin, my personal story has undoubtedly had considerable influence on my professional path, including the recent decision to effect change in the political arena. Growing up in our Montreal home, dinner table conversations were seeped in local and global matters and the individuals, communities and countries which they affected. One step ahead of news reports and global outcry, we were keenly aware of and involved in the dire human rights conditions around the world – from Rwanda to Darfur, from Saudi Arabia to China. We were imprinted with the “responsibility to protect” doctrine long before it was adopted, alongside the awesome obligation to actively uphold and pursue justice.
Witnessing a historic milestone for the State of Israel, namely Begin’s victory in May of 1977, also affected me deeply. Beyond the personal, there were extensive national implications. The dramatic overturning of a government, which had held unmitigated power from the moment of Israel’s inception, embodied not only a critical political transformation, but also had extensive economic, ideological and social ramifications. Above and beyond ideology and values, it was the leadership style, integrity and humility of the newly elected leader and those around him that enabled and empowered necessary change.
Considering my upbringing and environment, the growing gap between Israel and Jews worldwide is deeply troubling. Addressing it requires challenging the current relationship paradigm, creating and advancing one that enables and empowers authentic, respectful dialogue, while acknowledging both the differences and the shared values. A partnership, encouraging engagement on all matters, including religion and state, can create a renewed sense of kinship and trust. This reconciliatory process requires honesty, moral clarity and lucidity regarding the difference between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. It entails exposure of hypocritical double standards that enable the delegitimization of the State of Israel and empower the dehumanization, which fuels antisemitism globally. This crucial differentiation is not a Jewish or Israeli priority, as it undermines the basic tenets of human rights and international law around the world.
Recognizing the power of human rights, and the pity when they are cynically used and abused, elucidates the imperative for Israel to get out of the docket of the accused, and utilize the lingua franca of rights in order to communicate. It motivates my commitment to diagnosing various symptoms of the underlying challenges, identifying the connections between them, and recognizing their implications from a bird’s-eye view.
The upcoming elections harbor the potential of becoming a historic moment of significant magnitude for the 71-year-old miracle that is the State of Israel. A renewal of the societal covenant among people, and between people and their elected leaders, enabling the restoration of trust, requires elected leaders’ profound commitment to integrity, respect and dignity, not regardless of but because of difference. It requires reconciliatory, transparent processes and accountability; an uncompromising commitment to social justice; and an innate respect for democratic apparatuses and the rule of law. Such a renewed covenant will enable constructive conversation regarding thus far unresolved, significant issues, be they religion and state in a Jewish democracy, or the suitable separation of powers and appropriate relationship between them.
The external challenges Israel faces should not be underestimated. However, the transformative potential of this election requires that we gaze inwards to the internal challenges ailing Israeli society in education, transportation, health, socioeconomic gaps, housing, infrastructure, absorption of new immigrants, etc. Having received insufficient attention thus far and having been resolved in a random, reactive manner have had extensive, negative ramifications. Beyond the recognition and framing as strategic and national resiliency issues, addressing these challenges requires social cohesion that must be created by responsible, uniting and collaborative leadership.
Herein lies the potential. This historical junction presents an opportunity to challenge paradigms and emerge from respective echo chambers, in order to evolve and improve, collectively and nationally. It enables the reconstruction of vital societal foundations, focusing on the public interest and good. It requires that the rule of law be upheld, protected, and applied to all, consistently and indiscriminately because Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people, founded on democratic values, aspiring to be a light unto the nations. It entails addressing current challenges ailing the State of Israel with holistic, long-term strategies, rather than extinguishing fires with reactive policies.
A product of my upbringing and environment, it is the recognition of this potential, and the concern for the alternative, which motivated me to join Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon’s Telem party, ultimately banding together with two additional parties, to form Blue and White. The joint platform serves as a testament to the deep sense of responsibility and urgency, reaching historical consensus regarding issues presumed or portrayed as insurmountably divisive. Motivated and inspired by obligation to the past, the present and the future of the State of Israel, Blue and White offers leadership that is representative and transparent, serving and collaborative, connected and connecting.
Driven by an unyielding commitment to partake in the democratic process with perseverance and dignity, I am committed to the fundamental values of our Jewish heritage, to human rights and the rule of law, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and the ethics of our prophets. ■
Michal Cotler-Wunsh is a PhD candidate in law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, researching the topic of free speech.