Assessment of the Nairobi Conference: Dialogue Between Israeli and Palestinian Women at Ngo Workshop

The scene in Nairobi could have been taking place on two different planets. While one room at the official United Nations End of the Decade Women’s Conference resounded with an unruly shouting match, a concurrent workshop during the unofficial Non-Governmental Organizations Forum ’85 offered a civilized public dialogue where women could pose questions and present statements about their own conditions and beliefs.

This situation was depicted here by Reena Bernards, executive director of the New Jewish Agenda (NJA), which co-sponsored the workshop. She said, upon her return to New York, that two women, one an Israeli and the other a Palestinian, chaired the dialogue which Bernards described as designed “to encourage informal contacts between Arabs and Jews.”

Lisa Blum, a member of the secretariat of the Citizens Rights Movement, the Israeli political party headed by Shulamit Aloni, and Mary Khass, the director of a pre-school program in the Gaza Strip, spoke about the status of women in their respective communities at the workshop “Israeli and Palestinian Women in Dialogue: A Search for Peace.” It was attended by 500 women from dozens of countries.

DIVISIONS IN EACH CAMP CITED

“The two tried to give a perspective that there are divisions between each of the camps … that there’s lots of debate about Israel’s policies within Israel and there are lots of debates within the Palestinian community about their policies,” Bernards explained in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Khass stated, “I am a student of Jewish history. I know that the Jewish people have suffered a great deal and that they feel a need for a homeland as a safe refuge. At the same time I do not think that we Palestinians should be denied our own needs for self-determination.”

Blum said, “We must agree that there be mutual recognition between both peoples. We must agree on equality for women of both sides.”

For the first three hours of the workshop, Blum and Khass fielded questions from the participants on topics such as Israel’s relationship with South Africa, the equation of Zionism with racism, and whether the Palestinian leadership is really willing to negotiate with Israel.

“After three hours, women were feeling the emotion of the issues and women wanted to make statements,” Bernards said. “Once the agenda was changed to making statements, the atmosphere was much more acrimonious and hence anti-Zionist and anti-Israel.”

While Bernards found that it was difficult for Israeli women to come “face-to-face” with the anti-Zionist sentiment, “it was encouraging to see Mary (Khass) and her supporters speaking out on the need to recognize Israel.”

Bernards considers the Forum a success because “We encouraged Jewish women to counter the anti-Zionist sentiment, which was often very strong at this Conference, with accurate information about the State of Israel, as well as proposals for resolving the conflict that persists between Israelis and Palestinians. We found that many Jewish women saw the wisdom in this approach.”

This informal meeting also provided an opportunity “for women to talk to each other and for people to be taking all kinds of different positions as opposed to things being polarized,” according to Bernards. She added that “women separate from the positions of their government are much more ready to talk to each other and to work toward creative solutions.”

While NGO groups were openly sharing their varied perspectives and views, the official UN Conference was in session. One goal of the Israeli women at this Conference was to strike Zionism off the list of “obstacles” that impede women’s progress. “There was a great deal of tension about taking Zionism off the list, ” Bernards explained. “When the head of the Israeli delegation spoke, there was a demonstration of Arab women outside.”

But Bernards judged that the Nairobi UN conference was an improvement over Conferences in Copenhagen in 1980 and in Mexico City in 1975 at which divisions over the Middle East overshadowed the programs.

“We wanted to see the issues of the Middle East discussed in a way that would be constructive,” Bernards declared. “It made sense for women to discuss it in a way that would lead towards mutual satisfactory proposals for peace.” In Nairobi, Bernards said she sensed that people listened to each other, while in Copenhagen women shouted each other down on the Middle East issue and didn’t allow each other to speak.

U.S. APOLITICAL STAND CAUSED TENSION

Bernards also felt that the “apolitical” stand espoused by the American delegation caused tension going into the Conference. “It made no sense to many feminists, including myself, because we believe feminist issues are political. To a Black woman living under apartheid the situation of apartheid affects her life as a woman and there’s no way those issues should be pushed out.”

JEWISH WOMEN DISCUSSED UNIVERSAL ISSUES

Aside from the workshop co-sponsored by the NJA and the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that is critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinians, 300-400 Jewish women also participated in a caucus where they spoke on universal issues such as battered women, women and sexuality in religion, and child care. There were several informal meetings as well that involved Jewish and Arab women in which they could get to know each other and exchange ideas and thoughts on a personal level.

“I’ve learned that there are feminists all over the world and issues that affect their life — like health, shelter, feeding their families–they see as women’s issues,” said Bernards. “I think we reached some people,” Bernards continued as she was especially proud to have handed out 4,000 brochures containing the NJA’s peace proposals to women from around the world.

“From both sides women had an instinctive understanding of the need to approach the problem in a nonviolent way,” Bernards noted, “and because of that we as women have something to contribute to (resolving) the (Mideast) conflict.” At a time when there is tentative progress in Middle East negotiations, Bernards firmly believes that “we need to support those talks. It is an important time for us to be speaking out about dialogue and negotiations.”

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