JERUSALEM, Jan. 8 (JTA) — Put some 60 Jewish politicians from 23 different countries in the Knesset, and there´s generally bound to be some debate. But when the issue at hand is security, terrorism and its recent effects on Israel and the United States, there tends to be more agreement than discord, even among seasoned politicians. "We in the U.S. now have a better idea of what terrorism is and what Israel has gone through all these years," Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said. "I´m not here to tell Israelis what to do but, as part of the U.S. partnership, to offer any kind of assistance or work with them in helping Israel in its time of need." The legislators were attending the Sixth International Conference of Jewish Ministers and Members of Parliament. The event is sponsored by the Israeli Forum, a nonprofit organization that works to increase contacts between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. During the five-day event, participants heard from their own numbers as well as Israeli Knesset members, writers, academics and security officials. They discussed Jewish education, immigration to Israel and the status of women in Israel. They heard about contemporary anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and the formation of an international commission, created by Israel´s Foreign Ministry, to combat the former. Most of the time, however, the participants discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the security situation and — the most popular topic — terrorism. "I´m one of the few Jewish politicians in Austria," said Elizabeth Pittermann, a member of the Vienna City Council and a former member of Austria´s Parliament. "There are so few Jews in Austria that no one really knows about Israel and what it is to live with terrorism," she said. "So I need to make them understand these kinds of issues back home." While 27 of the participants live in North America, which has a vibrant and secure Jewish life, some legislators have had very different experiences as Jews — and as Jewish elected officials. "It´s not an easy time to come to Israel, because the situation is very difficult," said Matyas Eorsi, a Hungarian Parliament member. "But I´m Jewish, and it´s important for me to show that by coming here." Eorsi, 47, who grew up in an assimilated Jewish home, first visited Israel for the Forum´s 1991 conference. Following the establishment of Hungary´s independence, that first visit created a solid connection to the Jewish state and Judaism. "This trip is as much about solidarity as it is for me to learn more about Israel and the situation in the Middle East," he said. For many participants, the conference was a solidarity mission to Israel, like dozens of other organized trips that have brought Jews to Israel in the past 15 months. For others, it was an opportunity to gain insider information about the security situation, and consider how to apply the lessons back home. The American politicians — particularly the New Yorkers — repeatedly referred to the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which they said have sharpened their attitudes about importance of terrorism, national security and the U.S.- Israel relationship. Most of them have supported Israel unequivocally during their years in government, particularly since the Palestinian intifada began 16 months ago. Several reiterated their belief that no one, including the State Department and the White House, should tell Israel how to handle its security threats. Some took it a step further, commenting that the United States can learn from Israel´s experience. "Sept. 11 proved that we all live in the same lousy neighborhood," Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) said. "We must learn a common language in order to learn how to respond." The terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a rude awakening for Americans, Engel added. "Now the U.S. has a better idea of what terrorism is and what Israel has gone through," he said. "That creates a shared experience." So too for Argentina´s deputy minister of justice, Agustin Zbar, who talked about the two terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires in the 1990s that targeted Jewish institutions and killed more than 100 Argentines. "You can recognize any Jewish institution in Buenos Aires because of the huge barricades in front of them," Zbar told the group. "They protect against the ‘third bomb´ that everyone is expecting to happen at any time." Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose district includes where the World Trade Center once stood, said governments should think long and hard about how to deal with terrorism sensibly and intelligently. Besides rebuilding and helping constituents directly affected by the Trade Center attacks, he wants to make sure that people don´t "go off the deep end" disregarding democratic values or civil liberties. "It´s an important time, especially now, to talk to parliamentarians from other countries," Nadler said. "It provides an important context for what we have to deal with in the states." On Monday, a range of Israeli Knesset members and Jewish lawmakers presented their perspectives on the war against terrorism From the Israeli side, there was a range of politicians from the right and left, including Israeli Arab legislator Ahmed Tibi, Minister Without Portfolio Dan Meridor and legislator Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, a member of the secular Shinui Party. Tibi talked about differences in defining terrorism; Meridor looked at the support terrorists receive from Iran and Iraq; Lapid paralleled the fanaticism of the Nazis to that of Muslim terrorists. As a group, they discussed the ramifications of the intifada, whether Israel can leave its West Bank settlements and how military action — including targeted assassinations of suspected Palestinian terrorists — affects the overall security situation. Nevertheless, none of the politicians pretended to know how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Nobody from the outside can tell Israel how to handle this," said Pittermann, the Austrian council member. "That can only be solved by the Israeli government and its people and considering what´s best for the country." What she does want is to be able to explain to her Austrian colleagues and constituents the types of problems the Jewish people faces. "I want them to understand what a pity it is that no Jewish population can live in peace," she said. In many ways, the conference is about public relations, and what message these politicians will bring home. "I plead to the Israelis to pay more attention to international public attention, because it´s a tool to change government," said Eorsi, the Hungarian lawmaker. "I want the Arab countries to understand that Israel isn´t alone, and to make the world understand that Israel will never, ever, be sacrificed."
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Jessica Steinberg is a contributing writer to JTA.
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