Israel's Special Envoy for Combating Antisemitism Michal Cotler-Wunsh discusses the rise in anti-Jewish threats following the Israel-Hamas war, as well as the role of U.S. foreign policy in combatting antisemitism globally.
FROMAN: Well, good afternoon, everybody. It’s good to see everybody, even on a short notice and on a difficult subject. I’m Mike Froman. I’m president of the Council. You have our speaker’s bio, but it is a great honor to have Michal Cotler-Wunsh with us. We caught her on a rare day, passing through New York City on the way—are you on your way back to Israel?
COTLER-WUNSH: Yes. On my way back to hug my own kids, and then right back to North America next.
FROMAN: I see. OK. Well, you’ve seen her background, long record as a human rights lawyer and advocate, a Canadian. (Laughter.) Well, an Israeli Canadian.
COTLER-WUNSH: So I say sorry a lot.
FROMAN: That’s it. Great to have you. Thank you for being here.
Let’s—we’re going to get to the issue of anti-Semitism and your role and what you’ve been doing in your travels. But let’s start with what’s just going on, on the ground in Israel and in Gaza. What’s the status? Is there going to be a ground assault? When do you expect that to happen? What’s the talk within Israel about that? And how do you think about the hostages, the humanitarian issues, and the security issues, from Israel’s perspective?
COTLER-WUNSH: So maybe I’ll start with a little bit of a personal perspective, if I may. I hope that that’s OK. On Saturday morning, just a little under three weeks ago, at 6:30 in the morning, Israel was bombarded with a barrage of rockets. And in typical Israeli fashion, we usually shirk those off. But I want to be very clear, as an international lawyer, each one of those rockets is a double war crime. Over 7,500, double war crimes have been committed. And it is a double war crime because it targets Israeli civilians indiscriminately from heavily populated areas in Gaza. That makes it a double war crime. Of course, it endangers civilians on both sides.
That was just cover, at 6:30 in the morning, in our case for a ground infiltration of which the barbaric savagery, and forgive me if this is triggering to anybody, we have not seen the likes of since the Holocaust. Babies were burned. Women were raped so badly that their legs could not be straightened for burial. Entire families were burned. There was reference to Holocaust conjuring up of our memory in the burning and in the ashes that cannot yet all be identified, and in use of what we know, and Israel’s president showed, in terms of cyanide. There were clear instructions to commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the makings, according to international law experts, of genocide. We have to be very, very clear on what happened on October 7.
In my own home, three of my four kids are soldiers—my two sons and my daughter. We, in typical Israeli fashion, shirked off the red alert siren that woke us up, made a couple of jokes, and went to synagogue because it was Shabbat morning and the morning of Simchat Torah, really a holiday that by the time it got around the world and Jews were celebrating, all Jews had was actually a book. For thousands of years, we had no sovereignty, no independence, certainly no army, no Jerusalem. We just had a book, the Torah scroll, which we celebrate on Simchat Torah.
As we were on the second day of the holiday—the first night, I’ll share with you, my best friend’s son, who was killed shortly after going in on Saturday morning, had all the little kids dancing in this joyous celebration of what kept the Jewish people as an indigenous people alive for thousands of years with shared identity, heritage, and history. A book. It was all we had. And in this understanding that on the Saturday morning, our kids, one by one, spouses, husbands and wives, came to say goodbye. So of families to parents, young wives, young husbands parted. And I want to make it very clear, it was fifty years to the Yom Kippur War. It resonated in our space.
And we still did not know what had happened, the magnitude of the atrocities and the infiltration into bases, into communities that were decimated, that are less than half of what they were, with families—entire families burned, with entire families murdered, with children beheaded in front of their parents, with parents raped in front of their children. I know this is hard to hear, but I’m saying it because I want it to be very clear. The world is not the same as it was before October 7.
Part of the reason that I got on a plane after we buried our best friend’s children and our children’s best friends in a twenty-four-hour rotation on Mount Herzl, if any of you are familiar with the national cemetery for Israel’s soldiers, in order to be able to bury everybody. So we participated in funerals at 3:00 a.m., with an hour and a half apportioned to each family so that there would be time to bury everybody. I got on a plane so I could have opportunities like this, to convey to you the urgency of this affront, of this existential war, to our shared humanity. Indeed, to civilization as we know it.
Israel, to answer your question, is completely deployed. Not just my three kids. And there is no difference—I want to make this clear—between the frontlines and the home front command. There is no one that isn’t at the moment deployed. Rockets continue—including today’s barrages—rockets continue to be launched at Israelis. There is a war raging. And I know how hard it is to feel, as I walk around the streets, that there is a war raging. But there is a war raging on our shared civilization right now, as we sit here. And whereas Israel may be on the frontlines of this war and Jews may be its target, and in the genocidal terror organization Hamas charter, like Mein Kampf, is the annihilation of the state of Israel and the murder of Jews. And Hamas is but one proxy of a genocidal terror regime, Iran, that calls, including on the U.N. floor as we speak, consistently tweeting by the supreme leader on social media platforms, for the removal of the cancerous Zionist regime and the murder of Jews.
And that is what I came to be able to impart on you. And I’m sorry, I’m usually a much funner person. (Laughter.) I really am. But there is a war. And that’s why I’m here.
FROMAN: So let’s deconstruct this a bit, if we can. So, first of all, you have a fascinating title, Israeli special envoy for combating anti-Semitism. What does that mean? What is your role? How do you view your job? How do you measure whether you’re successful or not?
COTLER-WUNSH: Somebody actually, when I was first appointed, said to me: Congratulations and condolences. Look, I hope to be out of a job. That’s how I would measure success, right? I’d love to be unemployed. But here’s the sad reality. I am a member of a coalition of thirty-plus special envoys for combating anti-Semitism. We are a response to rising anti-Semitism around the world.
FROMAN: These are from other countries.
COTLER-WUNSH: From the United States of America, you have your own Deborah Lipstadt. From Canada, Deborah Lyons. Katharina von Schnurbein from the European Parliament. Felix Klein from Germany. The list goes on and on and on. Thirty-plus special envoys that thirty-plus countries have decided to appoint to a role as a response to the increase and the rise of anti-Semitism around the world. And I will say, on every front we can imagine—online, on campuses, on the streets, in parliaments around the world.
I was appointed to this role. And I’ll say for Israel, I am only the second special envoy for combating anti-Semitism. I view my role is extremely critical, not only as Israel’s special envoy for combating anti-Semitism, but, as Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, as the Jewish people’s special envoy for combating anti-Semitism. That is my role. It is another reason that I came here, because about half of us are in Israel. And about half of us are right here in the United States. And if I am the Jewish people’s special envoy for combating anti-Semitism, then I will not leave any community behind. But this was the most urgent to visit.
It is very important that we recognize that October 7 did something which we couldn’t have imagined. It pulled off many masks all at once that are a call to action to begin to connect the dots in the many spaces that when I come to this role I come with. So, as an international lawyer, I come with the understanding that this mutation of anti-Semitism, as the secretary-general said, didn’t begin in a vacuum. This mutation of anti-Semitism, after a series of wars waged on Israel—conventional wars, from 1948 to 1973—actually began with the 1975 Soviet propaganda U.N. resolution, Zionism is racism.
We’re talking decades. 1975, Zionism is racism. Except that fast-forward to 2023. That is the reality on most university campuses. Zionism is racism. When I come to speak about anti-Semitism, I am met with anti-Zionism. That’s what faces me when I come to speak.
FROMAN: So I want to—I want to—again, I want to break that down a little bit.
FROMAN: Because I think a lot of people are trying to figure out how to express their views on what’s going on in the Middle East. And they don’t—without being accused of and without being antisemitic. So it’s not antisemitic to be critical of Israel’s policies.
COTLER-WUNSH: No, absolutely not.
FROMAN: Many Israelis are. Many American Jews are. You can be critical of policies in the West Bank and Gaza. You can be critical of the treatment of Palestinians. You can—so you agree with that.
COTLER-WUNSH: I agree with all of it. In fact, you don’t need me. If I were to fast forward from 1975 to 2001, the Durban Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, surprise, that actually turned into an antisemitic hate fest. And in the wake of the 2001 Durban Conference Against Racism, the Israel is apartheid—we have Zionism is racism, 1975. 2001, Israel as apartheid begins Israel apartheid weeks on every campus throughout North America. So Zionism is racism. Israel is apartheid. And, as a result of that, actually begins the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance process to define anti-Semitism.
But to do so comprehensively. To be able to track the mutation, if you will, of a toxic hatred that has survived over thousands of years by latching on to the guiding social construct of the time—religion, science, and, I’ll say, proudly in many ways, the secular religion of our times, human rights. Latching on to whatever guiding social construct enabling to transition from the dehumanization, the delegitimization, and the double standards against the individual Jew—barring him or her from an equal place in society—to the dehumanization, the delegitimization, and the double standards against the proverbial Jew among the nations, the Jewish nation-state that is Israel.
And the IHRA, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance—and if there’s anything you remember from what I say today, please read the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. It is a working definition. Critically, it is a working definition, and it is not legally binding. What it enables is a comprehensive identification of all forms of anti-Semitism. Now we’re all experts. We all understand how viruses mutate, because we had COVID. And we all understand that if we inoculate only against the original virus strain, we’ve done nothing for the mutated strains. That if they’re allowed to fester and permeate our societies, well, they can infect everybody.
The current mutated form of anti-Semitism is that form of anti-Zionism. And the IHRA clearly stipulates—everybody’s going to read it, so they’re going to find out—not just what’s in the neat the little box, by the way, the whole page. Clearly stipulates exactly what you’ve just said, there is a huge difference between criticism—and it literally says that—of the state of Israel, like criticism of any other country, and delegitimization. I criticize my husband a lot. I do not delegitimize his very right to exist. (Laughter.) There is—don’t tell him I said that.
FROMAN: The foundation of a strong marriage right there. (Laughter.)
COTLER-WUNSH: The foundations are strong. It’s that Wunsh, I told him.
FROMAN: The Wunsh.
COTLER-WUNSH: It’s the Wunsh.
There is no country in the world whose very right to exist, which translates to its very right to defend itself because if a country doesn’t have a right to defend itself it ceases to exist when it’s under attack. There is no country in the world—not Iran, not Cuba, not Venezuela, not the United States, not France—whose very right to exist is called into question. Let’s put that right out there and call that a big, double standard. There is no country who has been—
FROMAN: But now you’re talking about countries.
COTLER-WUNSH: Oh, because Israel is a country.
FROMAN: I know.
COTLER-WUNSH: It’s a member state in the family of nations.
FROMAN: But is there a difference—is there a difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism?
COTLER-WUNSH: So I will say the following: I think that October 7 did something very important. It clarified that the current mutation—modern mainstream mutation of anti-Semitism—is anti-Zionism. We cannot deny that any longer. And I want to say, Zionism is integral to the identity of many Jews. I’ll say most Jews I know, last research, shows self-identify as Zionists. And many non-Jews who believe in the right of the state of Israel to exist. Zionism, a progressive national liberation movement, by the way, 140 years old—preceding the state of Israel—a progressive national liberation movement that returned an indigenous people—and we are a prototypical indigenous people.
I am not white. And I am certainly not colonialist, because I am an indigenous—member of an indigenous people that traverses the same land, that speaks the same language, that reads that same book that we have been celebrating for thousands of years on that Shabbat morning, that practices the same rituals and customs for thousands of years. That is the definition of indigeneity. That is my identity. And at an age where everybody gets to self-define, stripping my right of self-defining as a Zionist is a double standard.
So anti-Zionism—just to finish this thought—anti-Zionism is the new mutated form of anti-Semitism. It gives us a very important, critical resource if we are actually committed to combating anti-Semitism. And that doesn’t mean that all Jews have to self-define as Zionists, by the way. It’s enough that one Jews self-defines as a Zionist. If diversity, equity, and inclusion principles apply to all except for David or Margaret, then we have a problem with diversity, equity, and inclusion principles. Let’s agree that a double standard in applying any principle actually collapses the entire principle. If you do not apply consistently every principle that you are committed to, the principle is not worth the paper that it’s written on. That includes the infrastructure that has been created in workplaces and university campuses, those DEI principles.
FROMAN: But there are a number of people who don’t necessarily believe in the inherent right of the state of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, I don’t believe necessarily in the Zionist vision, but who don’t view themselves as antisemitic. They’re not—
COTLER-WUNSH: I don’t actually care how they view themselves. I have to be very honest, post October 7.
FROMAN: OK, but let’s— anti-Semitism—
COTLER-WUNSH: If anybody doesn’t believe in the right of the state of Israel—
FROMAN: anti-Semitism existed before October 7, so—
COTLER-WUNSH: You’re 100 percent right. I’ve actually been told that anti-Semitism exists because the state of Israel exists by very world-renowned professors and historians.
FROMAN: A little ahistorical.
COTLER-WUNSH: Yeah, well, so, right. So if I’m having a conversation with somebody who does not believe in the right of the state of Israel to exist, well, then I know that they support Hamas or the genocidal regime of Iran that calls for its annihilation. In fact, I know that they applaud it right now. Glory to our martyrs on the Library of George Washington University. I understand that. Except that I am committed to saying that never again for the Jewish people—I don’t know what it means for the rest of the world right now—but whereas the paradigm has been so Orwellianly—or if that’s a word—in an Orwellian manner usurped, that has actually drilled into the minds of young generations that the state of Israel exists because the Holocaust happened, a little reparation prize for six million Jews that were murdered, it is precisely the opposite. And October 7, has made that loud and clear.
The state of Israel does not exist because the Holocaust occurred. Rather the Holocaust could not have occurred had the state of Israel existed. At the very least, we would have defended ourselves. And we may die doing so. And as I said, there are people dying right now doing so. Except that we know, and the understanding is, that never again is right now. It is precisely a historic intersection which I really came here to convey the urgency of. To say, if never again means anything, if never again stipulates that we have the responsibility to ensure that we are not silent or standing by as Elie Wiesel you know exactly what he said, where you fall if you are silent or standing by with an action. and that silence is complicity.
Never again is right now, because the calls to annihilate the state of Israel and to murder Jews in the process, well, you know, they’re very explicit, as I said. Not only in the Hamas genocidal terror organization’s charter, but in the regime that supports it and all the other proxies right now in Israel’s borders, that are actually targeting the United States. And I believe that the foreign minister of Iran just threatened the United States of America from the podium of the U.N., as he is here in New York City. Makes total sense. That if the United States shall engage in this war, then it too will be destroyed.
So in this intersection in time, you know, I don’t doubt the right of the state of the United States to exist. I do not. And I expect as a member—equal member with equal responsibilities and equal rights—the very same recognition that I afford all other countries in the family of nations. If I don’t have that, then that’s a good old double standard.
FROMAN: You recognize that Palestinians have legitimate rights too?
COTLER-WUNSH: I want to say something. Anybody who cares for Palestinian rights should be the first to condemn the atrocities of October 7. The conflation of Hamas, a genocidal terror organization that has taken over Gaza—and Israel has not been in Gaza, let us remind ourselves, since 2005. Hamas took over Gaza in 2007. Israel has no legal obligations vis-à-vis Gaza. Gaza has another border with Egypt. I want to remind us that anybody who cares for Palestinian rights, who Hamas uses as human shields, there is a much bigger hospital than the one that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad errant rocket hit the other week, a much bigger hospital, Al-Shifa, under which Hamas headquarters has been built. And all the humanitarian aid that has been transferred to Gaza all of these years, Hamas built a web of tunnels in which they are holding 218 or maybe more hostages as we speak, in violation of law and of morality.
Hamas is not, I would hope, representing Palestinian hopes for peace. And if any Palestinian leadership fails, and it has, to condemn the atrocities—and I’ll say worse, to not support and justify the atrocities of October 7—then they have exposed that they too are not committed, not to peace, and not to a two-state solution. The annihilation of the state of Israel—and let it be very clear. When I am speaking on campuses and the chats that the students chant, the same one that was on George Washington University’s library two nights ago, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” I implore after the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, please look at a map of Israel. From the river to the sea is the entire thing. There is no two-state solution after you have called from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free. That is an annihilationist call for the complete erasure, destruction of the state of Israel.
And so, and I’ll repeat this very carefully, anybody who supports the Palestinians’ plight—and I’m going to differentiate the Palestinian people as I do the Iranian people from the genocidal regime that is holding them hostage, that is barring their ability to get to the humanitarian corridor created for them. And I want to add that tens of thousands of Israelis have been moved from their homes right now as we speak so that they are not hurt. They’re our civilians. But the only entity responsible for civilian casualties, the only one, is Hamas’ genocidal terror. And so if Palestinian leadership cannot call that out clearly and say, not in our name, then that is not Palestinian leadership that is working for the sake of their people, much like the genocidal regime of Iran is not working to advance the rights of the people of Iran.
FROMAN: So what is your message for the students on campus and others on the streets who wants to support Palestinian rights, who have great sympathy, as we all do, for the humanitarian crisis that Palestinians have undergone and will continue to undergo get worse over the coming weeks, most likely, in a way that does not spill over to anti-Semitism? It’s not to support Hamas. It’s not to articulate anti-Zionism. What’s the language that you think they should be using to differentiate between their support for Palestinian rights—for legitimate Palestinian rights—and without spilling over into the anti-Semitism that you’re there to combat?
COTLER-WUNSH: So let it be clear, you know, a part of what we have seen is a war on the prospect of a paradigmal shift that would have enabled the Palestinians too to benefit from the Abraham Accords. We have to remember, a part of what has happened—and, I believe, a big part of what has happened—is the potential end to what we know of the Arab-Israeli conflict that would have enabled a two-state solution. Not just because Israel has tried so many times before to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians. And time and time again it has exploded—
FROMAN: There is a sense that the current Israeli government is not the most enthusiastic supporter of a two-state solution. (Laughter.)
COTLER-WUNSH: I’ll say the following. First of all, the current Israeli government is a unity government. And right now—
FROMAN: All right, the one before October 7, since you’re using that date.
COTLER-WUNSH: Yeah, no, no, but it’s a very important differentiation. As we speak, there is war raging on the ground. There is a unity government in which right and left, religious and secular, young and old, Jew and non-Jew—we have a demography of 20 percent Muslim, Christian, Bedouin, Druze—fighting on the frontlines and fighting in home front command in hospitals, in morgues, for the survival of our country. Because, guess what? Israel is not an apartheid state. And that is something that is critical to be understood. Right now, any talk of politics—by the way, among them are pro-judicial reform and against judicial reform.
This is not a relevant conversation as war is raging. And this has nothing to do with the current government, because precisely for that reason there is a unity government so that we can win this existential war and survive to continue our very rambunctious debates. And I have no doubt they will continue if we will survive this war. I want to make this clear. It is an existential moment. We do not have the luxury right now to talk about judicial reform or not. We don’t. There is no one talking about this on the front lines.
FROMAN: Look, I recognize—I recognize that. That it’s in a crisis, you have a unity government. Having said that, I think there’s a view that, as the Abraham Accords were being negotiated, the Palestinian issues were continuously being put on the backburner, right? And that there was a concerted strategy to say, rather than resolving the Palestinian issues first as a precondition for normalization, we’re now going to do it in the context of normalization. A lot of progress was made with the Arab countries—with some Arab countries as a result. The Saudi agreement was intended to have Palestinian issues as one of their—one of the—one of the pillars. With a debate over how significant that pillar might be.
Looking ahead, one, do you see that the Saudi-Israeli negotiation is dead forever, or simply on hold? Can you envisage a situation where that would be back? And, again, looking ahead, there have been lots of instances—a number of instances in Israeli history where war has then opened up the prospect of negotiations and further progress towards peace and resolution of outstanding issues—’73 and the resolution with Egypt, even the Intifada in 2001, I suppose. And some of the work that was done a few years later to build relationships with the Palestinian Authority in Israel.
Do you see a positive potential outcome here where once the current crisis is resolved, whatever that means, that there could be a turn to a real peace negotiation and a two-state solution?
COTLER-WUNSH: I want to say the following. I have a bit of a different analysis than you on the Abraham Accords. I was actually a member of Knesset. I’ll put on my other hat now. I’m a former member of Knesset and I was a member of Knesset at the time of the signing of Abraham Accords. And I had the great pleasure of welcoming the first delegation of what was called influencers, journalists, and the like, into Israel’s Knesset, in fully dressed garb from the UAE and from—at the time, it was Sudan. Actually, there were some Egyptian journalists that joined.
The Abraham Accords actually presented a paradigm shift that I believe is historic in nature, a paradigm shift that instead of the three noes of Khartoum—no to recognition of Israel. I’m reminding us back in, you know, post 1973 war. No to recognition of Israel, no to negotiation with Israel, and no to peace with Israel. Actually presented a complete paradigmal shift, three yeses. Yes to recognition, enabling yes to negotiation, paving the past yes to peace. And what was paradigmally shifting about it was that it was in that order. We will recognize each other’s right to exist as who we are. That will enable us to negotiate the terms of our coexistence. And that can really pave the path to peace.
Now, that is almost the opposite of what Israel had tried to do time and time again, which was: We’re going to negotiate peace, including in 2001, which you, you know, remind us all, after which, I remember well, the buses exploding all over. We’re going to negotiate—no, excuse me. We’re going to make peace. We’re going to make peace. After the peace, we’re going to negotiate the terms of the peace. And at the end of the road, we’ll see if we recognize your right to exist.
That doesn’t work so well in any, you know, relationships, I don’t think. And that has exploded over and over again, literally, in our faces. Now, the Abraham Accords did this incredible thing. And I shared that I, you know, welcomed this group into Knesset. When I shared with them—it was Hanukkah—and I shared with them that I felt that, you know, after thousands of years of this celebrating this miraculous moment, I was marking this miraculous moment with them. And it was like my own private miracle. That paradigm shift that enables from the three no’s of Khartoum to get to the three yeses of the Abraham Accords—obviously, their names speaking to the fact that what binds us together as far greater than what sets us apart—recognition, enabling negotiation, paving paths to peace. One of them yelled out, we don’t just recognize you; we look forward to continuing our relationships with you.
And that paved the path, if you would have asked me—then and I wrote an article about it—for peace with the Palestinians, that would have leadership that would say not from the river to the sea Palestine will be free, two states, all right? We recognize each other’s right to exist. You are an indigenous people. And by the way, it doesn’t preclude others claiming indigeneity. They’re welcome to. But they don’t need to do it by annihilating me, or severing my connection to the land of Israel. Mahmoud Abbas’ speech—excuse me, President Abbas’ speech at the U.N. podium just weeks ago not only iterated the very same anti-Semitism of Holocaust denial on which he wrote for a Soviet university his doctoral thesis about, but it iterated the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, other forms of anti-Semitism, other strains of anti-Semitism.
The denial of Jewish peoplehood—meaning Israel is just a concoction of European colonialists enterprise, post-World War Two, where white people were sent to colonize Palestine. Not my history. I don’t know whose history that is. The denial of Jewish indigeneity and any connection to the land—by the way, weeks before UNESCO recognized Jericho as a Palestinian heritage site, severing the connection between Jewish history in our Bible. Doesn’t mean I have to live in Jericho. It can mean that Jericho is a part of whatever it is, according to the Oslo Accords, that we resolve in this two-state solution. But it demands the recognition of each other’s right to exist.
There can be nothing if you call for my annihilation and I keep telling you, but I recognize your right to exist. It means nothing. And so I’ll just go back to the question you’ve asked me before. If there is anybody that cannot unequivocally condemn the atrocities and the war crimes of October 7, they are not looking out for Palestinian rights. They are not actively seeking peace. And moral clarity is going to be needed here, with the boots on the ground here that I’m looking at right now, in your circles of influence. Because moral equivalence is already being drawn. Days, not years, not decades after the Holocaust, there was denial, and justification, and excuse of the atrocities of October 7.
And the moral clarity or the war, the unconventional war for public opinion, it’s happening here in international institutions, in university spaces, in online spaces, in workplaces, in Congress. And I am looking not just at the other half of my people, boots on the ground right here in this war, where we’re losing friends. And all of us are going to have to be willing to lose friends. But I’m looking at all of the people that I recognize that we can reach out to, because at this moment in time there is almost nobody that I’ve spoken to that does not recognize in this assault on civilization, on humanity, which side they would like to be on. Humanity and civilization as we know it, or genocidal terror—not just proxies, Hamas, but the regime of Iran that calls for the annihilation not only of the state of Israel, the small devil, but the United States of America, the big one.
So we are at this intersection where I believe that October 7, as I said, has exposed so many masks in so many directions. They involve the universities and many institutions having to come to a recognition—
FROMAN: So let’s go to the—let’s go to the universities. And you’ve spent some time touring universities and law schools. We’ve seen in the newspapers, many of our members are involved with various universities, just how many challenges university leadership seems to have had and figuring out what to say and how to position themselves on this issue. What is your advice to them? It’s a little late, because it’s three weeks in now. But what is your advice to them, on to how to position the issues, given, again, the multiple stakeholders they have and the wide range of views. And universities as a place of freedom of speech, where, including anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, and you know, sometimes even antisemitic speech is evident?
COTLER-WUNSH: So I’ll say the following. You know, actually, I think, because they’re committed to multiplicity of identities, and as I said, in those spaces—including diversity, equity, and inclusion principles have been created with an entire infrastructure, officers. And not just on campuses, workplaces, on social media, there are protected characteristics. Because I’m very, very clear on the fact that all identities, self-defined identities, receive the kind of safety and protection and safe spaces on all of those university campuses, all I actually ask for is that there not be a double standard. That those principles not be selectively, and inconsistently, applied. And that they include not just Jews, but Zionists—imagine. Not that all Jews are Zionists, and not all Zionists are Jews, but Zionist do not deserve less diversity, equity, and inclusion protection than any other definition or self-defined identity, including on university campuses.
And, you know, I really—I have—I struggle with the free speech argument, because I don’t know of any other country or community whose very right to exist is allowed, especially at a time of, you know, diversity, equity, and inclusion—is allowed to be dehumanized, and delegitimized, and singled out in the way that Jews/Zionists/supporters of Israel have been on campus, including literal being bombarded with physical threats to their lives, not just by professors but by peers.
FROMAN: So, just to be clear, you’re equating Zionism with a religion, race, gender?
COTLER-WUNSH: I’m equating it with an identity. Everybody in our—you know, when I speak to younger adults, identity has become something that everybody is very, very busy, self-defining. And all identities are legitimate. And I am saying that anybody who self-defines as a Zionist or supporter of Israel deserves the exact same protection as anybody who’s self-defines as anything else. And if we think that Zionist is a political statement, then we understand that there has been a creeping of an understanding that strips away the right to self-define as a Zionist, because I am a Zionist, and I—
FROMAN: All right, last question before we open up.
COTLER-WUNSH: I just want to say one last thing. And I have—I’ve actually—I’ve actually, in every way that I can, make accessible to the university presidents and chancellors that I know are committed to being able to identify and combat anti-Semitism on their campuses, because they are committed to the inclusion of Jewish students, Zionist students, or supporters of Israel on their campuses. There is one resource. It’s a critical resource. And it’s just a working definition. It’s not legally binding. Nobody can go to jail. Nobody can be suspended. Nobody can be expelled. But in order to be able to identify and combat something, we first have to define it. Call me a lawyer. Every law starts with definitions. We cannot identify anything without first defining it.
And we certainly can’t combat it without having a definition. And we have the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition. It is a resource. It is a working definition and not legally binding precisely because it recognizes that anti-Semitism mutates over time. And I sadly say that I’m not going to be out of a job. I’m in a growth industry. It will likely mutate again. It will have another strain, which we will have to identify and combat. But the IHRA enables us to not only identify the previous strains of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and so on and so on, but the current strain, the modern mainstream strain. And so if university campuses just utilize that resource to educate—to educate all of their students in order to be able to know that they are engaging in what is today’s anti-Semitism, the modern mainstream form of anti-Semitism, then we will actually be doing what universities are supposed to be doing, which is teaching people how to think rather than what to think.
FROMAN: All right. Let’s open it up. Woman right on the aisle, please. The microphone’s coming to you. If you could just identify yourself.
Q: Yeah. Felice Faer, the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Human Rights. Thank you for your comments and the like.
I wanted to pick up on this question of the IHRA definition, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition. You mentioned that there are thirty other envoys. I’m wondering—and I know one of them is your father, with whom I’ve worked. And thank you. You’re a great chip off the old block. I’m wondering if the thirty envoys, or any segment of them, have spoken out specifically on the—not only the October 7 events, but the broader issue you’ve raised that is anti-Zionism can be anti-Semitism. Has that happened yet, or will it?
COTLER-WUNSH: Yes. So I’ll just share with you that Deborah Lipstadt and I issued a joint statement. I can forward it, and you’re welcome to read it. And it absolutely is a joint statement issued by the two of us. We are working with all of the special envoys. And I will share that the special envoys coalition uses the IHRA as its benchmark definition, as the gold-standard definition, if you will, in all of their consultations with their governments. Each one is sort of placed a little bit differently. Some advising prime ministers and presidents, some out of the foreign ministry, like myself. But each one absolutely endorsing the IRA in whatever capacity that they have. And a joint statement, I very much hope will—you know, it has to be—obviously go through everybody’s state departments and the like—but will be issued with that endorsement officially of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
FROMAN: Great. This gentleman here in the second row.
Q: Hi. I’m Richard Hurowitz. I’m a writer with Octavian. Thank you for your great work.
I’m curious who you view right now as your audience. Because you said within one day people were, you know, denying. It was really within hours you had people. So those people, to me, are actually—if you’re so morally bankrupt that you are defending the butchering of babies, you can’t really have a conversation with those people. And then on the campuses, there’s just—it I don’t know whether you view it as ignorance or—but your point about the double standard is very real. And it’s it kind of there’s an irrationality at the basis of anti-Semitism. So I’m curious, who is it that you think either can be persuaded, and how? And, like, what percentage of the population are we aiming for to do that, to try to, you know, change the terms? Because there’s obviously a very organized group behind what’s now, you know, the kind of mass ignorance and kind of frightening violence that’s out there.
COTLER-WUNSH: So, first of all, I agree with you 100 percent that this has been a long time in the making. This is decades, as I said, of a very creeping sort of reality in which the atrocities of the Holocaust, horrors too terrible to believe but not too terrible to have happened, happen very much in the same sort of slow process, right? It didn’t just happen overnight. And, by the way, every genocide that we’ve seen—in Rwanda and so on—it’s a slow process of dehumanization and delegitimization, and double standards. Those three Ds. Nutan Sharansky’s, I have to say, three Ds that are in the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, are critical to understanding.
I will say, I do believe that a part of the call to action with urgency that you can hear in my voice is that this is a moment of reckoning, but also an opportunity in that so many masks have been pulled off on October 7 that it forces a lot of us that perhaps found some sort of logic the day before October 7 to say, all right, we are going to have to reexamine not just what happens vis-à-vis Israel, I would say, what happens in university campuses, generally. What does this mean for a generation that’s been educated and, some will say, indoctrinated with not just the issue of anti-Semitism raging on campuses, way beyond—because, again, as you’ve said, anybody who can’t condemn the bludgeoning and the burning of babies right here in the United States of America is not just a threat to Jews or to the state of Israel.
And I do think that this is—you know, I guess I’m still a hopeful person. And that message of hope being action and courage, according to the late Rabbi Sacks, demanding action and courage, it is what gives me energy these last few weeks, I have to say. But I do think that this is an opportunity to take back, forgive me for lack of a better word, but to take back intersectionality. To transcend and reach across differences, real or perceived, of religion, of politics, of geography. So we are holding on for dear life to the differentiations between us—Republicans and Democrats, and religious and secular, and Jew and non-Jew. Whatever it is, that differentiations that we might be holding on to.
And I would like to suggest that October 7 in our global reality has drawn a line in the quicksand that we better be quick to identify between extremist radical ideology that plans to build the caliphate on the rubble of our civilization, and between our civilization and those of us that believe in the shared values of life and of liberty. And if we fail to transcend the real or perceived differences, then it stands a chance to continue in this raging war. But I deeply believe that if we succeed, then we are more. And we are capable of winning this war. It’s just that we have the responsibility to reach across real and perceived differences.
And I have to share with you that in the last couple of, you know, weeks that I’ve been here. I can’t even remember how long I’ve been here, ten days. I have had incredible exchanges with people of every religion and of every ethnic origin. Because there is a deep understanding—it doesn’t matter if it’s taxi drivers that hear what I’m doing in the backseat and say, please, don’t pay me. It doesn’t matter if they’re wearing a turban or not. It doesn’t matter if it’s people who approached me and said, you know, I’m embarrassed I took off my hijab when I walked by the demonstration that said, “we are Hamas,” because that is not in my name. It doesn’t matter if it’s a makeup artists before my interviews that begin to cry, of every faith that you can imagine, who recognize that this is an assault on our shared humanity, on civilization.
And while the bloody canary in the mineshaft right now—and Israel is on the front lines right now—it is just on the front lines for civilization as a whole. And that actually gives me hope in a crazy kind of way.
FROMAN: The gentleman in the back.
Q: Thanks very much. Adam Wolfensohn. Thank you for all you’re doing.
What actually works in combating anti-Semitism? Like, we’ve been working on anti-racism a lot over the past few years in this country, with mixed results, right? Facts—I feel like there’s a great emphasis on facts, but it’s so insufficient, right? If people knew the facts there would be change is not a true statement, right? So what if—you’re looking to enlist all of us as ambassadors, what actually does work? What has worked in other contexts? Thank you.
COTLER-WUNSH: So I’m sorry that I’m repeating this, but I think when you say anti-Semitism, my first question is? What is that? And if you don’t define something, then your commitment, as honest and authentic as it is, can actually not be fulfilled. You have to first define it. We have a definition. It’s the result of a long democratic process. It’s been adopted by more than forty countries, including the United States of America. It’s been adopted by more than a thousand entities. It has to continue to be adopted and implemented by those that have already adopted it and by those that have not.
FROMAN: But what’s the action to get it implemented?
COTLER-WUNSH: Because the action is the adoption and implementation of a definition. You have to begin with something. What are you combating? What are you committed to combat? You can define racism, right? You can define Islamophobia. By the way, the IHRA has that too. It does. It has resources that are resources that are critical for fighting all sorts of hate. If you just give the sort of, you know, umbrella, we are fighting all sorts of hate, without drilling down on what each kind of hate looks like, you’re not combating anything.
And I’ll add one more piece that I think is critical, and we would be remiss if we didn’t touch up on it. And maybe we’ll have another conversation about it. And that is that this is happening in digital reality, where the proliferation of information is faster. Somebody once told me the—you know, the time between apple and Apple, right? So there was the apple of Adam and Eve, and then there was the apple, that Newton, you know, whatever, and then there was Steve Jobs’ Apple. But the time between the three apples has become so increasingly, you know, far less in terms of time, and the intensity with which we meet the challenges are that much greater.
I will argue, and I’m trying to publish a book about this which I’ll never get to ever again. I will argue on that, and we can talk about it a little bit more another time, that the way that we consume information as a society has completely changed. And that we have to take responsibility as individuals, right, to be—to dare to think, if you will, because the way that we consume information—and it’s not the first time humanity has been here. With the advent of the print press we were here before, right? The way that we consume information in a digital age has to change.
And the social media platforms—I founded an interparliamentary task force to combat on online anti-Semitism. We haven’t even begun to hold them to account using, you know, principles that we know of from the previous time. Let’s say of free speech, there is no free speech on digital platforms. There’s an algorithm, and my feed looks different than your feed. That’s not free speech. It’s very expensive. Somebody’s making a lot of money. So the whole understanding that in order to engage these issues, it’s not just anti-Semitism, we have to be able to engage the real questions and ask the right questions about the way that we consume information definitely intersects with this issue. The urgency with which I speak to it now, including as Israel’s special envoy for combating anti-Semitism, is definitely a looking glass and, I would even argue, a predictive example for what we can learn about the way that we consume information and how it has to change. But it is definitely an issue that we have to drill down on and—
FROMAN: Stay tuned for an upcoming Council event on misinformation. You’ll be hearing about it soon.
COTLER-WUNSH: It was a plug for the next event.
FROMAN: Thank you.
Q: I’m Betsy Cohen.
And I know you sort of touched on this earlier, so I put my hand down. But could you comment on the role of Russia in disinformation and the mutation of anti-Semitism?
COTLER-WUNSH: Yeah. So, first of all, it actually astounds me over the last few days. First of all, we already know—officially, actually, by IDF sources—that there was Russian involvement including in the atrocities of October 7 in all kinds of ways. In training, in inspiration, other ways. But what actually over and over again in the last few weeks, I have to say, hits me like a ton of bricks, is the understanding that the same Soviet propaganda Zionism is racism resolution, the U.N., has actually become a reality on university campus in the name of progress. So the Orwellian inversion in what I just said, first of all, doesn’t cease to amaze me. And here’s the incredible thing. You know, I’ve been talking to Iranian dissidents and Russian dissidents, including of Evgenia Kara-Murza. I don’t know if any of you are familiar with Vladimir Kara-Murza, recently thrown in jail by Putin for twenty-five years. His wife, Evgenia, is, is petitioning for, you know, global leaders to be more involved in his incarceration.
The understanding of former—or, of dissidents that left countries in which disinformation was a tool, as it is for genocidal terror organizations, right? And using the fact that that’s what terror does. It sows fear, distrust, and despair. That’s what it does. And those Iranian dissidents, dissidents from the former Soviet Union and Russia, Venezuela, Cuba, that understand that state-sanctioned propaganda was used. So they don’t believe facts. For example, the fact that the New York Times slapped on its front page, evidence given it by Hamas, a genocidal terror organization, about a rocket that hit a hospital, that is akin to the New York Times, posting the information given to it by al-Qaida eleven days after 9/11. That’s preposterous.
And those readers of those—doesn’t matter if it’s mainstream media or digital spaces—they consume information completely differently. I find that fascinating and important, because it’s our—this is the sad piece of it, actually, the Orwellian piece of it—it is our foundational principles of democracy that are strengths that have been co-opted and weaponized and used to weaken the foundations of all of our democracies. And that is another moment of reckoning that I think is very important.
FROMAN: Michael. And then we’ll go—and then I’ll get to you. I promise.
Q: Michael Skol of Skol and Serna.
Very good presentation. Thank you. I noted that you use the word “Iran” more times than President Biden used it in both of his presentations. I note that the Secretary Blinken warned Iran not to attack U.S. installations. When do you think Israel and perhaps the United States will point their guns at the real culprits of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, Iran, not to just Hamas?
COTLER-WUNSH: Well, Iran just sort of made it clear from the podium of the U.N., as I said, in threatening the United States. And it can’t be denied, right, because we know that actually American soldiers were targeted by Iranian proxies just last week. And the understanding that all of those proxies, funded by and inspired by and trained by Iran—be at Hamas, be at the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, be it many of the other—Houthis—be it many of the other proxies that are right now on Israel’s borders, in fact we can’t allow to deny.
And when I call for moral clarity, and courage, and when I look at this audience and any of the audiences that I’ve spoken to, I think that the call for clarity, for moral clarity, and for courage is relevant to each and every person in this room. Calling, including, you know, your own Congress and your own representatives and your own government and your own media, let’s be honest, on the imperative to connect the dots, that’s going to have to be the call for the boots on the ground here in our shared war on our shared humanity. Because in that sense, Israel is now fighting, as I said, an existential war—from air, from land, from sea. I don’t think that Israel alone will be able to fight the war that you are referring.
COTLER-WUNSH: This gentleman here on the aisle that’s been very patient.
Q: Thank you very much.
You’ve talked a bunch of times about civilization versus barbarity. And you haven’t mentioned the actual fact that the war on terror, as we used to call it under W Bush, has not gone away. And in fact, if you look at a map of where it is, Israel is right in the middle of it right now, on the front line. So I just wanted to note that you didn’t talk about that. You also didn’t fully address Michael’s question, OK?
The elephant in the room here is if we talk about humanity and civilization, I’m sure there are people in the room who are wondering, well, what about these poor civilians in Gaza that are losing their lives? I mean, I’ve had phone calls from dozens of people talking about genocide perpetrated by Israel against Gazans. Forget about their arithmetic, which is controlled by Hamas. The question—and there’s been linkages made here between this war and the status of the Palestinians. Michael asked about that as well. These are two completely separate matters, I think, but how would you address a non-Jewish audience, which this is. It’s a mixed audience. As to the conduct by Israel, the IDF, its targeting, its deliberations, and the consequences of war under international law?
FROMAN: Let me get—let me have the last question in, and then you can answer both. I think Jim Zirin, behind you, had it.
Q: Well, perhaps my question is related to that of the last speaker. But, number one, I wondered what your views were of what Israel can accomplish militarily in Gaza and elsewhere in the current war? And secondly, how do you answer the fact that so much of this rhetoric in the United States about Israel is an apartheid state, Zionism is racism, is coming from American Jews of liberal persuasion, who feel somehow or other they have an obligation to humanity as a whole, rather than to Jews who are being butchered? And we talk about a double standard, that exemplifies the double standard to me much more than the odd Palestinian saying, I’m for Hamas.
COTLER-WUNSH: So I’ll try to answer both. I’ll say, and I thought that I was quite clear on this, but appeasement of terror is never going to work. (Laughs.) Terror cannot be appeased. So the fact that there are proxies of a genocidal terror regime in Iran that has waged this war on Israel via proxies after assumptions that if we just appease Hamas, that has been in control of Gaza since 2007 when it took over in an overthrow of the Palestinian Authority, and that Israel has continued to enable everything humanitarian that we can think of, including 2,000 workers traveling across the border every single day to work in Israel, and including humanitarian aid. And, by the way, some of those workers were the ones that knocked on the doors of the people that were butchered in their homes, let it be clear, that had been working in Israel since the fact—since Israel withdrew from Gaza.
The attempted, I guess I wasn’t clear enough, understanding that Palestinians right now who are innocent and are held hostage by that Hamas genocidal terror organization, they too need the world to be very clear that freeing Gaza is freeing Gaza from Hamas. And they too need the understanding that there is no equivocation or coalescing of what Hamas did on October 7 and what—their wish to live in peace, if there is such a leadership, or there are such people, represents right now in Gaza.
And the only thing that I will say, as an Israeli, is that I am devastated at any loss of human life. What I cannot accept, because I’m sure that there were loss of human life in the United States’ war against al-Qaida, and in the United States’ war against ISIS, and in the Allies war against the Nazis. What I cannot accept is the moral equivalency that holds Israel responsible. Israel has no choice. And I will share that I have no doubt that Israel could actually prevent loss of life, including to my own children, who will be endangered so that we can minimize the loss of Palestinian lives.
Israel over and over again takes great lengths, though it’s told over and over that it has to—only by the foundations of international law. Israel is at the forefront of protecting civilian life. It warns Gaza civilians. It creates the humanitarian corridors for them. But there is a place that holds Israel—and that’s also a double standard—to a higher level, or to a higher expectation, than anybody would be expected to when they are defending their own life. You cannot be expected to commit suicide or to die in order to protect somebody else’s life. And I would think that that double standard has been blatant right through, and as blatant right now.
I’m not sure if I answered your question, but I want to say that—and I know that we have to come to a close—that when I speak of the masks being off, look, I am committed to liberal values. It is my liberal values that were co-opted and weaponized. It is my liberal values and my commitment to life and to liberty that have been weaponized in a way that actually compromises, if not endangers, my very existence and, I believe, your very existence. So when the masks are off that means we have to allow people and give them access to process quickly and get over their shock quickly, and understand that if never again has meant anything ever it means something right now.
Never again was created for those liberal values, to uphold, promote, and protect them equally and consistently. And those are key words. If they are selectively applied, and they are only upheld for those of us who are not Jews/Zionists/supporters of Israel/supporters have the right of state of Israel to defend itself against genocidal terror, then they are not worth the paper that those liberal values were written on. And I think that more and more people—and I actually have many friends in this sort of constituency—have seen the mask be pulled off. And I think we have to reach out to those people precisely because they are left homeless. This is not progress. This is regress, that takes the world back, that takes humanity back.
This is not humanity’s progress. And the fact that those words were used in that way and weaponized but October 7 pulled the mask off and shows that in the name of progress humanity is going way back to atrocities that have not been seen since the days so terrible in our history, of the Holocaust. That is a moment for humanity.
And maybe I’ll end with one final sort of thought. You know, I started with the celebration of the book that all Jews had as an indigenous people returned to an ancestral homeland after a millennia of exile and persecution, which means we cannot be white, colonialist, or an apartheid state, or any of the accusations have been waged against us, including the Orwellian accusation of genocide, even as genocide is being perpetuated—the makings of a genocide were perpetuated on October 7. We are at a moment, at an intersection in time, a historic moment, where Israel does exist, where we do have sovereignty, where we do have independence, where we do have the ability to defend ourselves.
And, simultaneously, we have not only Jews but many others that cherish those foundational principles. For the first time in history for the Jewish people, we have both that sovereignty, that independence, and relative safety in the rest of the world. So we are at a historic moment, if you will, not just, I believe, for the Jewish people or for the Jewish nation-state of Israel, but for humanity at large. And it challenges each of us in each of our different spaces and places and previous thoughts before October 7, and those that we have after it. But it is a call to action and to courage. It is a call for leadership and for moral clarity. And I’ll say that the war or the unconventional war for public opinion relies on false moral equivalence. And so those of us that have a responsibility and an ability to call out false moral equivalence have an added one in this unconventional war for public opinion. Thank you.
FROMAN: Michal, thank you very much for joining us. Appreciate it. (Applause.)