Michal Cotler-Wunsh called Israel’s release of images of victims slain by Hamas an “Emmett Till” moment for the Jewish state
By Jacob Kornbluh
October 27, 2023
As it did for many Israelis, the Oct. 7 attack on Israel’s southern border, in which Hamas terrorists killed more than 1,400 people, had a personal impact on Michal Cotler-Wunsh, the newly-appointed Israeli envoy to combat antisemitism.
Her three sons serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. All three are mobilized, and have joined the fight against Hamas. The son of her best friend Debbie Ziering was among the first Israeli soldiers killed on the day of the attack.
Cotler-Wunsh is far from Israel now, in the midst of a whirlwind speaking tour across the U.S. In countless appearances on college campuses, local gatherings and on television, Cotler-Wunsh — in unaccented English — is urging her audiences to stand up for Israel in what she calls a battle for “our shared civilization.”
“It is imperative that we bring that message that this was an assault not only on Jews and not only on the Jewish nation state,” Cotler-Wunsh said in a recent interview, “but that this is an assault on civilization by genocidal terror.”
Struggling to hold back tears, she said she draws inspiration for her work from Mordechai’s words to Queen Esther: “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”
She said she came to the U.S. because she wants to tell American Jews that “each one of us has Esther’s ability and responsibility to combat the lies and defamation of Jews in wake of the worst mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust.”
Like her American counterpart, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, who last year became the State Department’s first special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, Cotler-Wunsh, 52, has brought decades of experience to a newly created job. Her unpaid position in Israel’s foreign ministry was established just last year.
Cotler-Wunsch is the daughter of Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister who recently stepped down from his job as his country’s antisemitism envoy. Her mother, Ariela Ze’evi, was secretary of the Likud Party when it was headed by Menachem Begin.
Their daughter in 2020 was elected to the Knesset as a member of the Blue and White Party. In her one year as a lawmaker, Cotler-Wunsh made headlines when she challenged a Twitter spokesperson during a Knesset hearing. It was over the company’s refusal to delete or flag a post by Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that she described as “calling for genocide.” She also co-founded a global inter-parliamentary task force to combat digital antisemitism, which launched in late 2020.
The initiative included a series of hearings in Israel’s Knesset, the U.S. Congress and the European parliament with representatives of major social media platforms. It launched at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when antisemitism spiked online. The task force initially included legislators from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia and Israel, but soon expanded to include lawmakers from New Zealand, South Africa, and other countries. The initiative helped to show that antisemitism is not limited by geographic boundaries, and that combatting it requires global collaboration.
This is Cotler-Wunsh’s first trip to the U.S. since her appointment last month. She tells Americans that the antisemitism that fueled Hamas’ atrocities in Israel is also driving the international response to the attacks, some of which has not been sympathetic to Israel.
“That is, to me, a waking moment for the entire world,” she said in an interview which was briefly interrupted by a phone call from one of her sons in the military. “The understanding that the world before Oct. 7 is nothing like the world after Oct. 7.”
Cotler-Wunsh described her U.S. tour as the “most urgent visit” she has undertaken in her public career. She said her key message is that Israel’s tragedy is not just about Israel or Jews. “We may be the canary in the mineshaft and we may die first, but the mineshaft will collapse,” Cotler-Wunsh said. “And in the modern mainstream form of antisemitism, what starts with the Jewish nation state will not end with the Jewish nation state.”
A job for American Jews
She is also telling American Jews that — collectively and individually — they have an important role to play in support of Israel. She calls on them to hold the U.S. government and the United Nations accountable. And she said she wants them to speak out when others try to draw a moral equivalence between a democratic Jewish nation defending its borders and a genocidal terrorist organization whose barbarity is evident to the world.
She is also urging federal, state and local governments to adopt the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism, as the singular tool to counter anti-Jewish bigotry.
“We have to wake up,” she said. “Every single person has a role in this war — to be deployed to the front — and the front of this war is for public opinion.”
As part of its efforts to shape public opinion, Israel recently decided to share disturbing images of Hamas’ attack. Its military earlier this week presented a 43-minute compilation of footage obtained from body cameras worn by Hamas militants, vehicle dashboard cameras, and victims’ mobile phones. Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Gilad Erdan, played a clip for the body’s General Assembly on Thursday of a Hamas fighter attempting to decapitate a man using a garden tool.
Cotler-Wunsh likened the release of these images — which is highly unusual for Israeli authorities — to the decision of Emmett Till’s mother to show the body of her slain 14-year-old in 1955. The Black child, beaten and killed by white men who thought he had teased a white woman, forced many to confront racial violence in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement.
Her voice breaking up, Cotler-Wunsh said she hopes that American and Israeli Jews can come together in this “defining moment.”
“That will be the deserving memory of all those who paid with their lives in such tragic ways,” she said.
This article was originally published on the Forward.