JERUSALEM — “I’ve been coming to Israel every year since 1983,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, “and every time, people say, ‘You’ve come at an interesting time.’”
That was never truer than this year. Ackerman came here last week to take part in the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians, a loose association of Jewish lawmakers from around the world who gather periodically to trade ideas and share experiences. The group’s arrival here usually attracts considerable attention, given its high-power membership.
This time, though, the eyes of Israel — and the world — were riveted on Hadassah Hospital, a few miles west of their downtown hotel, where Israel’s prime minister lay fighting for his life after a massive stroke he had suffered two days earlier.
Sharon’s medical emergency added drama to the parliamentarians’ assembly, but it didn’t derail it. Instead, it helped strengthen “a terrific sense of unity” among the attendees, said British Labour lawmaker Louise Ellman, one of four attendees from the United Kingdom.
Participants said the conference’s program proceeded as planned, except for a scheduled meeting with Sharon. They were briefed on Israeli and Middle East security issues, discussed strategies for cooperation on global antisemitism, interfaith dialogue and humanitarian assistance, and agreed to create a permanent structure for their group. Ackerman, the New Yorker, was elected president.
Members also held an impromptu prayer vigil outside Sharon’s hospital, where hospital director Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef briefed them.
However, the hospital visit proved controversial. Some participants worried that it had turned into a “media circus,” and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts chose to stay away altogether. “I don’t want to be getting publicity over somebody’s grave illness,” Frank told the Forward. “I thought the whole thing was in poor taste. If God can hear our prayers at the hospital, He can hear them at the David Citadel Hotel, too.”
Some 50 parliament members from 30 countries attended the three-day conference, including Lord Greville Janner of the British House of Lords, South African opposition leader Tony Leon and lawmakers from Azerbaijan, Costa Rica and Tunisia. American attendees, in addition to Ackerman and Frank, included Californians Tom Lantos and Henry Waxman and New Yorker Eliot Engel. All are Democrats.
“We are all from different countries, different civilizations and different cultures,” said Joseph Bismouth, the lone Jewish member of the Tunisian senate. “Each brings something else to the other.”
The parliamentarians’ council, formed in 2002 as a loose network of lawmakers, was adopted this year as a project of the World Jewish Congress, which intends to turn it into an ongoing association with a governing body and continuing activities. Last week’s conference was the first formal meeting of the reconstituted council.
World Jewish Congress staffer Shai Franklin, the main organizer of the event, said that the purpose of the new structure is to turn the international council “from a periodic gathering of parliamentarians who share common interests and concerns to an active and ongoing network that will not only represent Jewish interests and Jewish goals, but will also work together and share ideas for advancing Jewish values.”
Not surprisingly for a gathering of lawmakers, the conference spent a good part of its time adopting nonbinding resolutions. One of the most controversial was a draft calling for the “outlawing of antisemitism and Holocaust denial.” It was withdrawn after some of the more liberal members, including the Americans, argued that it smacked of censorship. Instead it called on governments to “fight antisemitism within their own constitutional traditions.”
Members interviewed by the Forward dismissed possible concerns that the group’s formation might foster conspiracy theories. “We are not a group that legislates,” Ackerman said, “and not a group that expresses loyalty — because we are all loyal to our own countries. We simply have a keen interest in the problems of the Jews as a people.”
“One feels less alone,” said Costa Rican congresswoman Aida Fishman, a daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors. “There is a feeling of how close we are and how much we can do together.”