The up-and-coming (and intermarried) leader of the Independence faction on the social protest movement, the Arab Spring, the Palestinians’ UN statehood bid and navigating a long-distance marriage.
Just 40 and a relative newcomer to Israeli politics, Einat Wilf is quickly becoming one of the most visible members of the Knesset: she chairs the left-centrist Independence faction (formed as a breakaway from the Labor party last January) and is the incoming chair of the Knesset’s Immigration and Absorption Committee; after Passover she is slated to take over as chair of the Education Committee.
Wilf, who speaks flawless, accent-less English — enhanced no doubt while pursuing degrees in government and political science at Harvard and Cambridge — is frequently quoted in The New York Times, and this summer the French newspaper Le Figaro, in a series of articles predicting how the world might look in 2031, even envisioned Wilf as Israel’s prime minister. (Her ambition, held since adolescence, is actually not the PM-ship, but to be Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.)
On top of the high-power career (she authored two books and served in various senior positions in business and nonprofit worlds before entering politics) she also has an 8-month-old son and an international commuter marriage that entails flying to Europe once a month.
Perhaps more intriguing: she is intermarried and is believed to be the only intermarried Jewish Knesset member.
Husband Richard Gutjahr, who describes himself on his Google Plus profile as “Journalist. Blogger. Mensch,” is not just gentile: he is a German, perhaps (with the exception of Arab) the most emotionally and historically laden type of non-Jew a Jew can marry. The two met on a reconciliation program for the grandchildren of Germans and Jews who had been through World War II; they married in 2007, at a Valentine’s Day wedding chapel set up on the 75th floor of Manhattan’s Empire State Building.
Last week, while on a 10-day United States tour sponsored by The Israel Project, an international nonprofit that provides “accurate information about the Middle East” to journalists and leaders, Wilf sat down with The Jewish Week at her Midtown hotel. Her son Jonathan, a cherubic, smiling blond, joined the interview as well, moving (mostly contentedly) back and forth from Wilf’s lap to those of her aides.
While she is completely open and unapologetic about her husband’s non-Jewish status, and outspoken in her belief that intermarriage should be considered a “plus one, rather than a minus one” for the Jewish people, it would be a mistake to see Wilf as a poster child or champion for the intermarried. Asked about Israeli attitudes toward intermarriage and the Jewish state’s lack of civil marriage options (forcing interfaith couples to wed abroad), she answers politely, but with little passion. By contrast, her bright blue eyes (a striking contrast to her jet-black hair) sparkle animatedly when she discusses the various big-issue challenges facing Israel, from the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians and Arab world, to the need for improved education and a more diversified economy.
Jewish Week: Months before this summer’s “tent city” protests, you submitted a position paper arguing that “economic concentration is out of control.” What do you think about the protests?
Wilf: I’m really hoping the protests and the whole mood around the protests will actually provide the opportunity to really push this issue in a serious way, which might otherwise have been more difficult.
The issue of particular concern is not just concentration of wealth, but the concentration of financial control. Israelis have tremendous respect for wealth that has been accumulated as a result of industry, entrepreneurship and innovation. That’s not where we see the problem. The problem is in the structure of the Israeli economy, which is something often seen in developing countries, and that’s the pyramid of companies, where you have a company that holds daughter companies and granddaughter companies and great-granddaughter companies. So at the top, with very little capital, you can actually control a huge amount of the economy. You control the entire chain, but at the bottom of the chain you’ve only effectively invested 6 percent. We have 10-15 families that control huge chunks of the Israeli economy, but they did not create anything or build anything and they did not innovate. It’s not productive entry into the economy, and they stifle competition.
What does the Arab spring mean for Israel, particularly the peace treaty with Egypt?
Israelis are looking to their neighbors with a combination of hope, admiration and being inspired but also with a sense of fear and concern. The fear and concern come because the problems in Egypt are huge. The fact that they got rid of a dictator is not going to solve those problems, and in the short term it’s making them worse: tourism down, the amount of capital invested there is down. We’re not sure if the Egyptian people will say we’re in it for long haul, or instead say if we don’t get what we want right away we’re going to deflect our anger toward Israel ...
Sinai has become lawless territory. There are a lot of extremist organizations, al Qaeda among them, who view it as prime real estate now, because it’s a great place from which to work against both Egypt, Israel and against the Egypt-Israel treaty ... It’s a huge concern.
We’re sitting on 57th Street, and in just a few weeks, just a few blocks away, the UN’s General Assembly could be recognizing Palestinian statehood. How do you think this issue is going to play out?
A lot could happen between now and the next three weeks. There are internal divisions in the Palestinian leadership: as the issue is being explored more in depth, Palestinians are beginning to realize it could also work against them, especially on the whole issue of the so-called refugees. If they have a state, it will be more difficult to claim the Palestinians are homeless ...
Because of these internal divisions, it could very well be that as it comes closer the Palestinians will realize that perhaps more general wording is better for them, something so watered down that it ultimately would not change anything. They might be more willing to go back to negotiations just to fend off that thing. …
I think many people have been very impressed that the Palestinian leadership, at least part of it, has said it is forgoing terrorism and choosing nonviolent methods. I think there’s a tendency, a very dangerous one, to confuse nonviolent means with the fact that the purpose, the end is positive. But one has nothing to do with the other. We sometimes have violent battles for noble ends and nonviolent battles for ignoble ends. They have forgone violence not because they have reached a moral sense that it’s wrong, but they realized that it doesn’t work, that it hurts them more than it serves them. They think by going to the UN they can undermine and isolate Israel, so it’s merely the continuation of the conflict by different means and in a new arena.
So what should Israel be doing?
Israel can do two main things in addition to allowing the internal divisions among the Palestinians to play themselves out. First, if the vote goes through, Israel has to use the advantages it has, for example to pursue the question of the so-called refugees. To demand that if the UN says it’s a state and meets all the criteria of a state, then an organization like [the UN Relief Works Agency for Palestine Refugees] needs to be dismantled. … Israel should go for that in a big way, because that is a huge Achilles heel of what the Palestinians are doing and it actually serves the cause of resolving the conflict, by addressing the perpetuation of the refugee problem. The Palestinians are the only people who get carryover refugee status — who get to be third-, fourth-, fifth-generation refugees. No other people have that ... The UN has accepted the outrageous fact that the Arab countries have refused to resettle the refugees and that they keep them as people with no rights in their midst ... Also, we need to make it clear this is a terrible abuse of the UN. The UN has already spent substantial resources in dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict in a way entirely disproportionate to the way it deals with other problems in the world.
You started your political career in Labor, but you recently hosted Glenn Beck, during his visit to Israel. Do you still consider yourself a leftist?
First, I didn’t host Glenn Beck; I spoke at his event. When he came to the Knesset I attended the meeting ... I use this term which I call the skeptical left, which I think is beginning to look very much like the right. I certainly came from your classic Labor Zionist household. I was a huge believer in the Oslo Accords, in peace. I always believed the day the Palestinians get a state in the West Bank and Gaza would be the day we’d have peace, that this is really just about a territorial conflict and ending Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza ... But the last decade, with the failure of Camp David, the intifada, the disengagement, the repeated failures of the Palestinian leadership to take advantage of opportunities to have a state has made me very skeptical. I began to question whether the Palestinians want a state more than they want the Jews not to have a state. They may want a state, but it’s second or third priority after making sure the Jews don’t have their state … I’ve become increasingly convinced that the conflict is not about simple territorial claims that can be resolved by finding where exactly the border should go. At the core, the entire Palestinian identity is wrapped in the battle against Zionism. It emerged as a separate identity only through this battle, and for them justice was always more important than statehood. … Given the opportunity to have a state but not perfect justice they’ve always tried to pursue their version of justice and given up on having a state…
I felt the self-flagellation that has become a mark of the left — we don’t have peace because Israel didn’t do enough, in Camp David Barak should have been nicer to Arafat, should have let him go first through the door — it was getting to the point of just being ridiculous...
I’m still in the left in the sense that if by some miracle tomorrow there were an agreement with the Palestinians and it came to a vote in Knesset and we had to get out of the West Bank, I’d vote for it. I don’t have an emotional problem or attachment or messianic views that would make that difficult for me … But I’ve become skeptical that this is what the conflict is about and that it is possible to reach an agreement …
How has your marriage to a non-Jew affected your views on intermarriage, and do you think it could be an obstacle to you advancing further in your political career?
I certainly hope it’s not an obstacle. I’m afraid my views on this issue have been longstanding and entirely independent of my personal life, long before it affected me personally. I’ve always felt Jewish leadership was making a grave error in looking at the issue of intermarriage as a minus one, rather than a plus one. I’m not talking about conversion, but about extended families, about extending the number of people who feel a sense of kinship with the Jewish people ... Certainly my husband is like that. He’s very supportive of all the work I do for Israel and the Jewish people, and he comes with me for many of my meetings and presentations
Have you gotten a lot of flak from your colleagues in the Knesset about being married to a German?
I’ve always believed that people treat you the way you treat yourself. If you make a big deal out of something they will make a big deal of something, and if you don’t, they won’t. We recently had a kind of weekend of all the members of the [governing] coalition and their spouses. He was there. And everyone loved him.
How do you manage living in different countries?
We’ve become very good at it. He comes to Israel once a month, and I go to Munich once a month, so we see each other every two weeks. And when we travel, we find ways to coordinate our travel schedules ... As with everything, if the attitude is let’s make it works, then it works. It also works really well for the modern life. When we’re apart each one of us focuses on our work, and can work from morning to night, and then when we’re together we’re 24 hours a day together…
And what about the baby? Does he have Israeli and German citizenship?
The baby lives in Israel. Whenever I go to Munich I travel with him. He has many passport stamps by now! … He’s not a dual citizen and neither am I.
What language do you and your husband speak together?
I’m learning German, and he’s learning Hebrew. We want to make sure there’s no possibility for one parent to talk to the kid in a language the other parent will not understand. And with each other we speak English.
Is it hard to be in an interfaith relationship in Israel?
We have the same faith: atheism. If he were some religious person and I were an atheist, it would be very difficult. … We’re both completely devout atheists. We don’t see ourselves as being an interfaith couple. If anything it’s like an international couple: we come from two different nations, two different people, but not two different faiths.
Has your family been welcoming of your husband?
Oh, absolutely. At the end of the day you marry a person. You don’t marry symbols or ideas. My family was very impressed with how supportive he is of my dedication and devotion to Israel and the Jewish people and how deeply he cares about it.
Do you have ambitions beyond the Knesset?
I want to stay in politics for as long as they’ll let me … And if not in the Knesset and not in government, anything that will allow me to stand at the crossroads of Israel, the Jewish people and the world at large would always be interesting for me. This is what I want my life to be. I made that decision a while ago. I love everything I do. The issues I care about in Israel are of course foreign affairs, but also education and the economy. Any way I can serve, I’d really be privileged and honored…We often forget to take a step back and realize what a remarkable creation Israel is and what a remarkable opportunity it still is to be part of it.
I feel a little sexist asking this, since no one ever asks men this, but how do you manage to balance career and parenthood, especially with your spouse living abroad?
First of all, when my husband is here, he’s with the baby and he helps a lot. But also, you know the classic phrase, “Behind every successful man is a woman”? I recently heard, “Behind every successful woman is her mother.” My mother [a retired teacher] helps a lot. I have [hired] help. And I make it work ... I work from home when I can, and the baby joins me for many meetings ...
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