Joseph Bismouth is the only Jewish lawmaker in Tunisia — and, as he likes to point out, the only Jewish lawmaker anywhere in the Arab world. A member of Tunisia’s newly formed Senate, Bismouth was among Jewish lawmakers from 30 nations — from Costa Rica and Gibraltar to the United States and Australia — who gathered in Jerusalem for a three-day conference that ended Tuesday.
“We are all from different countries, different civilizations and different cultures,” Bismouth said. “Each brings something else to the other.”
The International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians was formed in 2002 as a platform for Jewish lawmakers to cooperate on issues of common concern such as battling anti-Semitism, forging strong interfaith relationships and working toward social reform.
Being in Israel while Prime Minister Ariel Sharon battled for his life after his Jan. 4 stroke gave the parliamentarians an unusual window into Israeli society.
“It is a reaffirmation of democracy in Israel that when something this traumatic happens, people are sad but not disorganized,” said U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
“There is a terrific sense of unity here,” said Louise Ellman, a Labor legislator from the United Kingdom.
The lawmakers went to Hadassah-University Medical Center at Ein Kerem, where Sharon is being treated, to meet with hospital director Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, who gave them an overview of the prime minister’s condition.
Sharon was among those scheduled to speak to the gathering. His deputy, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, met with the lawmakers at his offices Tuesday after canceling a planned speech to them earlier that day.
The parliamentarians also heard from former prime ministers Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as Labor Party head Amir Peretz.
Bobby Brown, Israel director of the World Jewish Congress, which organized the event, said the gathering was not just a place to network but to see what Jewish parliamentarians could do to further humanitarian and Jewish issues.
“The problems facing the Jewish people today are more and more global,” said Brown, citing the Iranian nuclear threat as an example. “It’s time to act together.”
He compared the group to the Black or Hispanic caucuses in the U.S. Congress — bodies of individuals from similar backgrounds who work together for common causes.
Yevda Abramov traveled to Israel from Azerbaijan to take part in the conference. Abramov is the only Jewish member of Azerbaijan’s parliament, representing a northern district that borders Russia.
The silver-haired Abramov has been busy lately speaking out against recent anti-Israel comments by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“I am trying to be a bridge between Azerbaijan and Israel,” Abramov said.
Three of Abramov’s four children live in Israel. Recently he has been trying to facilitate agricultural business contacts between the two countries.
Ellman said that being briefed on Israel’s security situation, including growing unrest in Gaza and the new types of explosives and weapons reportedly being made there, together with information about the Iranian nuclear threat, will help her work as a lawmaker.
“I will be particularly vigilant on all of these,” said Ellman, who is vice chairman of the British Parliament’s commission against anti-Semitism. She said there were assertive voices on both sides of the British Parliament that were quick to “condemn Israel without realizing the shortcomings of the Palestinians.”
Ellman, one of four British legislators attending the conference, said there were 20 Jewish members of Parliament in the United Kingdom with a range of attitudes toward Israel.
She said the conference also shed light on different ways anti-Semitism is manifesting itself around the world, including through the Internet and satellite television.
“I will go back with new information to do even more,” she said.
Canadian Senator Jerry Grafstein, who has played a leading role in pushing international resolutions against anti-Semitism, said the conference was a good place to trade information about “issues that effect all of us as Jews and parliamentarians.”
For Aida Fishman, a daughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland who became a member of Costa Rica’s Parliament, seeing Jewish lawmakers from around the globe was a revelation.
“One feels less alone,” she said. “There is a feeling of how close we are and how much we can do together.”