Her Father Fought for Mandela, Now She’s Fighting to Become an Israeli Lawmaker

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who spent her formative years in Montreal, is cautiously optimistic about being one of the few Canadians ever to be elected to the Knesset

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Michal Cotler-Wunsh in her Tel Aviv office
Michal Cotler-Wunsh in her Tel Aviv office.Credit: Moti Milrod
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Her father was Canada’s justice minister. Her mother was Likud’s parliamentary secretary. As things look today, with just over a month to Election Day, Michal Cotler-Wunsh has a decent shot at becoming the first bona fide Canadian to serve in the Israeli Knesset.

Kahol Lavan recently announced that Cotler-Wunsh had been moved up its slate for the March 2 election, from 46th to 36th place. That was after Gadi Yevarkan – like her, a member of the Telem faction headed by former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alondefected to Likud, clearing the way for others to advance.

Recent polls have given Kahol Lavan 34 to 35 seats in the next Knesset – more than any other party. But in both elections held last year (on April 9 and September 17), the centrist party headed by Benny Gantz ended up winning more seats than had been projected. That could explain why Cotler-Wunsh, speaking to Haaretz in her Tel Aviv office, says she is “cautiously optimistic” about her prospects.

For the record, she would not be the first Israeli with Canadian roots to serve as a lawmaker in Jerusalem. Montreal-born Dov Yosef moved to British Mandatory Palestine in 1918 and served as a minister in various roles between 1948 and 1966. Likud lawmaker Sharren Haskel, meanwhile, was born in Toronto. But whereas Cotler-Wunsh grew up in Montreal and spent a good part of her adult life there too – evidenced by her very Canadian-sounding English – Haskel moved to Israel with her parents when she was barely a year old.

A lawyer by training, Cotler-Wunsh, 49, has served as a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, and as a board member at Tzav Piyus – an organization set up after the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with the aim of mending the rift between religious and secular Israelis.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh's father, Irwin Cotler, photographed at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, in 2010. He served as Canada's justice minister from 2003 to 2006.Credit: Moti Milrod

In recent years, she has been part of the legal team advising the family of Lt. Hadar Goldin, the Israeli soldier killed in the 2014 Gaza War whose remains are being held by Hamas. She is currently completing her doctorate in law at the Hebrew University.

She is married to Rafi Wunsh, a former kibbutznik whose parents immigrated to Israel from South Africa. He is vice president of overseas real estate for the Azrieli Group, a company founded by a prominent Canadian Jew, the late David Azrieli. The couple live with their four children in Ra’anana, a city north of Tel Aviv that is home to many English-speaking and French-speaking immigrants.

If elected, says Cotler-Wunsh, she hopes to become a voice for “audiences that include English speakers or French speakers, new and old olim [immigrants], those who feel comfortable both with their Jewish identity and with democratic values.”

‘Jewish values’

Cotler-Wunsh was born in Jerusalem, and her mother Ariela Ze’evi was a confidante of legendary Likud leader Menachem Begin during the years when he headed the political opposition in the 1970s. She says she does not remember her biological father. Among her most vivid childhood recollections, though, was sitting in the Knesset cafeteria in May 1977, on the historic night when Likud defeated Labor for the first time ever. She recalls sitting between two prominent members of the party as the results were announced on television. “It was a very formative moment,” she says.

Soon afterward, her mother married Canadian human-rights lawyer Irwin Cotler and the family moved to his hometown of Montreal. There, Cotler and his Israeli wife had three children. Among the most distinguished Canadian Jews of his generation, Cotler has advocated for renowned political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela and Russian dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky. A member of the Liberal Party of Canada, he served in the Canadian parliament from 1999 to 2015 (and as justice minister and attorney general from 2003 to 2006). Before venturing into politics, he taught law at McGill University.

His daughter describes the home she grew up in as “very pluralistic, universalist, humanistic, Zionist and based on Jewish values.” Although her father belonged to a party identified with the Canadian left and her mother to a party identified with the Israeli right (in which she remained active for many years after leaving Israel), she says her parents shared many “foundational values” that more than compensated for whatever political differences they had.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh in her Tel Aviv office, with a banner featuring Kahol Lavan's number three, Moshe Ya'alon, in the background, January 20, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

After graduating from high school, Cotler-Wunsh took off for Israel, where she spent a year at Hebrew University before joining the army. She served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, training recruits from disadvantaged backgrounds. After completing her law degree at the Hebrew University, she took a job at the Justice Ministry.

Thirteen years after moving to Israel, she headed back to Canada. By then, she was married with a husband and a second child on the way. The move was not meant to be permanent, she says, but rather to allow her and her husband to pursue professional and academic opportunities.

Back in Montreal, she completed a master’s degree at McGill, where she also held a teaching position. Ten years later, she and her husband returned to Israel with four children in tow.

Cotler-Wunsh became acquainted with Ya’alon when he was still defense minister – he served between March 2013 and June 2016 – and she had begun advocating for the Goldin family. Ya’alon was removed from his position by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appointed Avigdor Lieberman in his place as part of a political deal that was meant to bolster Likud’s governing coalition. After resigning from the party in protest, the former defense minister set up a nonprofit that would serve as a launching pad for his new political party. Cotler-Wunsh was recruited as part of a team involved in writing its platform.

When Telem was launched at the start of 2019, Ya’alon offered her a spot on the slate. She didn’t hesitate for a moment. “I see this as a shlichut [calling],” she says. “The Knesset is where policy is being made and this, for me, is a way to make a real difference and change reality.”

Of the three factions within Kahol Lavan (Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid are the others), Telem is the most politically hard-line. Some of its most prominent members, like Ya’alon, began their political careers in Likud.

Many different identities

Cotler-Wunsh observes Shabbat and keeps kosher, but says she has many different identities “that coexist well together” and prefers not to assign too much weight to her religious identity. Neither does she understand why what she does in the privacy of her home should be of interest to the public. “Maybe this is part of me being a Canadian,” she reflects.

Like other religious members of Kahol Lavan, she tends to embrace a “live and let live” attitude when it comes to matters of religion and state: She supports civil marriage “100 percent” and limited bus service on Shabbat, although is quick to add that “a balance must be struck so it doesn’t for a moment undermine the significance of Shabbat in a Jewish country.”

On the question of the future of the West Bank – whether it will serve as the territory for a future Palestinian state or ultimately be annexed to Israel – she refers to the Kahol Lavan platform (while wondering why there is so much “misunderstanding” about it).

“We support construction in the large settlement blocs to enable normal life,” she says. “People have children, they have grandchildren, and those settlement blocs will inevitably have to be part of a larger solution. The Jordan Valley – the eastern border of the State of Israel – is in the largest and widest sense of the word an inherent part of the State of Israel, and there will be no unilateral moves – in other words, no repetition of the [Gaza] disengagement. Any historical change in the geography of the State of Israel has to come through a referendum or a special majority in the Knesset.”

Lest there be any confusion on the matter, she insists: “Everybody in Kahol Lavan is in agreement about this.”

Like other members of the Telem faction, she believes the Oslo Accords – signed in the early 1990s and meant to pave the way for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state – were a mistake. “To quote [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak, it was Swiss cheese, with more holes in it than cheese,” she says. “As a lawyer, I would never sign a contract with so many holes in it.”

Cotler-Wunsh will not say which party she voted for before joining Kahol Lavan, dismissing the question as “irrelevant.”

As she braces to enter the roughshod world of Israeli politics, this polite, soft-mannered woman acknowledges she still has difficulties with some aspects of life in what is both her birthplace and adopted country.

“Whenever my kids are standing in line and start getting fidgety,” she relays, “I still tell them, ‘Remember, you’re Canadian, don’t push in line.’”

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