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Montrealer Michal Cotler-Wunsh brings Canadian values to Israeli politics at a time when it’s needed

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The daughter of famed Canadian politician Irwin, newly-elected MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh has already made her mark on Israeli politics.

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Notwithstanding Justin Trudeau’s desire to join his “family business,” not many children follow their parents into politics these days. Rarer still is a father, who served in one country’s parliament – and the daughter, who now serves in another, ten-thousand kilometers away. Nevertheless, that unique situation was celebrated earlier this month, when Michal Cotler-Wunsh, the daughter of the former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, gave her maiden speech in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Characteristically, Cotler-Wunsh not only honored both her parents, but celebrated the Canadian values and delightfully Montreal-like sensibilities she hopes to import to Israel – and its often-unruly Parliament.

Cotler-Wunsh’s meteoric rise to power reflects Israel’s democratic yet chaotic politics. The 49-year-old, Israeli-born lawyer only returned to Israel from Montreal in 2010 – and only entered electoral politics in January 2019 when she joined former Defense Minister’s Boogie Ya’alon’s Telem Party. A month later, Telem joined two other centrist parties attempting to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu to form Blue-and-White. The result was proof of how much Israelis love democracy: holding three elections in one year.

Ultimately, the electorate was so stalemated – and the Corona-crisis so intense, that after a third inconclusive election in March, 2020, Blue-and-White’s leader Benny Gantz agreed to form a National Emergency Government with Netanyahu. With Ya’alon’s Telem and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid refusing to enter any government with Netanyahu, the opposition alliance fragmented. Cotler-Wunsh, number 36 in a bigger bloc that only won 33 seats, accepted the voters’ verdict. She prepared to return to her rich “real life” as a human rights advocate, legal scholar, and busy mother, with a businessman husband, Rafi Wunsh, and four children.

But two more twists of fate – and one courageous, controversial decision by Cotler-Wunsh — intervened. The government was top heavy, with 12 ministers from Gantz’s party – even though the defections left it with only 14 MKs. Second, pulling a 34-person cabinet from a 120-person Knesset did not leave enough full-time legislators to represent the majority party adequately and conduct parliamentary business properly. The solution was Israel’s “Norwegian Law” allowing five Blue and White cabinet members to resign from Knesset.

The law left Cotler-Wunsh with a tough call. She could stay in opposition with Ya’alon – or join the already-squabbling coalition.

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With the grace of an adopted Canadian who adjusted beautifully when she came to Montreal as an eight-year-old, and the grit of an Israeli who returned home to serve as a lone soldier then study, she joined the coalition. (She returned to Canada for another ten-year jaunt from 2000 to 2010, for family reasons and to pursue law at McGill).  Her rationale was clear – the Israeli people needed unity and leadership. Beyond the pandemic and economic crash, the year-long stalemate, following years of crisis-oriented management, risked generating chaos. Who better than someone who understands “peace, order, and good government” to walk the halls of power as an insider?

In her campaign and subsequently, Cotler-Wunsh spoke Canadian in Hebrew, talking about governing responsibly, speaking with civility, and even, occasionally, establishing protocols for government planning.

She will succeed in the coming years by offering that lighter, more restrained, Canadian touch while mastering the hurly-burly of Israeli politics. That’s who Michal Cotler-Wunsh is – and that’s what shined through in her Knesset debut.

A campaign banner for Michal Cotler Wunsh representing the Blue and White party in Israel

Honoring both her parents, she began by quoting former prime minister Menachem Begin – and recalling that her mother, Ariela Ze’evi, was such a valued staffer that seven-year-old Michal attended Begin’s intimate victory party when he finally won power in 1977, after 29 years spent mostly in opposition. 

But the line she quoted, which talked about justice and enlightenment for all – sounded like her father, who, in addition to serving in the Canadian parliament from 1999 to 2015, is the legendary human rights activist and McGill law professor who represented Natan Sharansky, Nelson Mandela, and many other dissidents worldwide.

Our increasingly polarized world imposes reductive narratives, either-ors, all-or-nothings. To see a centrist, balancing commitments to liberalism and nationalism, choosing to live in Israel while embracing her Canadian heritage, illuminates a different path.

And it reminds us that there might occasionally be policy differences between the Israeli and Canadian governments. Nevertheless, both democracies – and their respective peoples – share a common commitment, rare in this world, to what Canadians call “peace, order, and good government,” as well as to what Israelis call “being a free nation in our homeland.” Liberal-democrats across the globe are lucky to have Michael Cotler-Wunsh as a living bridge, synthesizing, leading, and helping us heal.

Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University, and the author of ten books on American History, his next book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and  My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky will be published in September.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

But we can’t do it alone. We need your HELP!

Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

Monthly support is a great way to help us sustain our operations. We greatly appreciate any contributions you can make to support Jewish Journalism.

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