Knesset member Michal Cotler-Wunsh was born in Israel but raised in Canada. Newly installed this year as an MK from the Blue and White party, the attorney and activist says the sort of outsider’s thinking that new immigrants can offer is just what Israel needs at this time of unprecedented crisis.
In a wide-ranging conversation with this writer for The Times of Israel’s Behind the Headlines series, screened exclusively for the ToI Community, Cotler-Wunsh, 49, pushed back against a widespread sense of a frozen and feckless political system, and insisted that, to borrow former Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s catchphrase, a crisis like COVID is a terrible thing to waste.
Cotler-Wunsh is closely identified with efforts in the Knesset to tackle anti-Semitism online, especially on major social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The key, she said, was to get away from the free speech discussion to one focused on education.
The Knesset has held three committee hearings on online anti-Semitism in recent months.
“The point of the discussions was to say that in order to address the problem we first have to define it,” she said.
Twitter, Google, Facebook, and for the third hearing, TikTok, joined the discussions, and heard from lawmakers a demand not to censor and erase, but to teach.
Defining the problem, Cotler-Wunsh says, begins with the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, “that’s been adopted by about 30 countries around the world that serves as the point from which to begin to create policy, policy that is transparent, that is then enforced transparently. Those are the discussions that we had with the platforms.”
Having a clear-cut definition of anti-Semitism “is a very useful tool. Instead of going to that binary discussion of ‘censorship vs. free speech,’ you say, ‘What is the responsibility of the digital platforms?’ They hold all this power, and with that power comes tremendous responsibility, and we have to hold them to account.”
When politicians posted outright lies during the recent American election, Twitter appended to their tweets links to correct information.
That’s not censorship, but “education,” she says.
“If that resource is available, that flipping through, or the ‘tagging’ [of posts containing misinformation] as you called it, then we can refer out, we can say, ‘This consists of a violation of the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, and here it is.’ We can refer you out to IHRA and enable you to know what is anti-Semitism. We would be able to use this tool as an educational tool, rather than remain in the very easy, ‘Was it censorship?’ or ‘What’s freedom of speech?’” she says.
The manipulative dishonesty on social media affects politics around the world, and reaches issues far beyond the scope of anti-Semitism. But anti-Semitism, she says, “is really the canary in the mineshaft” that lets lawmakers in Israel and elsewhere “look at the challenge with regards to the digital platforms generally.”
“There’s a tremendous sense of lack of responsibility and lack of accountability. What is our role? Governments also have to take an active role, because the truth is I don’t want Facebook deciding what free speech should look like, or an algorithm, worse yet,” she says.
“Their business model works for now. Until they’re held to account there’s no reason for them to jump through the hoops to regulate this.”
Cotler-Wunsh is one of the most active MKs on the issues she has focused on, from coordinating Knesset discussions of the International Criminal Court’s possible investigation of Israeli soldiers and officials from the 2014 Gaza war, to her chairmanship of the Knesset’s special committee on drug and alcohol addiction.
She’s an island of activism in a Knesset strait-jacketed by the two-year political crisis.
Her issues aren’t “going away,” she notes, despite the pandemic and the political dysfunction. These urgent problems can’t wait for Israel to find the political bandwidth to deal with them.
The Behind the Headlines conversation includes a call from Cotler-Wunsh for immigrants to engage with Israeli politics: “COVID-19 has created additional challenges for olim [immigrants]. I’m very aware of them.”
But, she says, olim are also part of the solution. “I believe we have an important voice, an important viewpoint, and a very important ability for hybrid identities or multiple identities or mediated identities that we bring to the fore and that Israel really needs.”
Then, too, there’s the exciting prospect – really – that the pandemic isn’t just a time of tragedy, but of opportunity for real change.
“Everybody talks about going back to routine. God forbid we should go back to routine and not create a new routine,” she says.
COVID, she says, is forcing Israel down paths it should have traveled on its own.
“When you look at the education system — I’m Canadian, I miss Sundays — it’s clear Israel should be going to a five-day school week aligned with the workweek so that both parents can work. A longer day where you incorporate what we consider ‘afterschool activities’ into the workday, whether it’s sports or music or arts, and improve and reform an educational system [so that it] actually fits 2020 and isn’t a remnant of some former understanding of what education should be.”
That’s already happening “in many ways,” Cotler-Wunsh enthuses. “You look at these capsules, five days of schooling, challenging teachers to utilize technology.
“I’m not saying we’re nearly there. I’m saying we have the opportunities to shine the spotlight on everything we should be changing. Same with healthcare, same with everything that requires long-term plans,” she says.
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