NEW YORK (Aug. 30)
Representatives of Israel and a handful of Jewish groups will be among the 20,000 people from 180 countries convening in Cairo on Sept. 5 for the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development.
Israel, like all U.N. member states, has submitted an official report and statement on the subject to the United Nations. But that report has been criticized by a major Israeli women’s group for excluding relevant issues, including reproductive rights and reproductive health.
Separately, three Jewish groups at the United Nations with the status of non-governmental organizations — the International Conference of Jewish Women, B’nai B’rith International and the Women’s International Zionist Organization — plan to have a voice at the meeting.
The goal of the conference, scheduled to run through Sept. 13, is to create a 20-year plan for controlling a population explosion that the Earth may not be able to sustain.
The world’s current population is estimated at 5.66 billion, and by the year 2050 may more than double, to 12.5 billion.
The agenda of the conference, which has generated worldwide controversy, is slated to include topics such as family planning, abortion and teen-age sexuality.
In an effort to head off approval of abortion rights or sexual freedom, the Vatican has led opposition to the conference’s agenda and has acknowledged reaching out to radical Islamic governments, including Iran and Libya, seeking support for its position.
At the same time, militant Muslim groups in Egypt have been threatening violence against conference participants as part of their campaign to overthrow the country’s secular government.
Some Egyptian preachers are delivering fiery sermons denouncing the meeting as “an American and Israeli attempt to dominate the Islamic world by spreading Western immorality,” according to reports.
Security concerns are running high among all participants, but particularly among Jewish groups.
“We have a very big security problem,” said Harris Schoenberg, director of U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith and chair of the Jewish NGO caucus at the United nations. “Certain Islamic militant elements want people to stay away, and as Jews in particular we are worried. What they have been saying is exactly like crying fire in a crowded theater.”
B’nai B’rith will have a representative at the conference, although Schoenberg would not say who it will be or even what country the representative is from because of security concerns.
According to Barbara Leslie, U.N. representative of the International Council of Jewish Women, the threat of violence has convinced representatives of some Jewish groups not to make the trip.
ICJW represents some 1.5 million Jewish women in 40 countries, including the United States, Hong Kong, Serbia and Zimbabwe.
Jewish participants say it is important that Jewish voices be heard among the thousands of ethnic and religious perspectives that will be represented at the conference.
Schoenberg cited the new acceptance of Jews and Israel at the United Nations as an important motivator for attending the conference.
“Jews are part of the world scene, and we need to have our perspective made clear along with everyone’s. For too long they negated or derided the Jewish perspective at the U.N.,” Schoenberg said.
According to the ICJW’s Leslie, the reasons for being represented in Cairo are as ideological as they are pragmatic.
FAMILY PLANNING ‘IS AN IMPORTANT HUMAN RIGHT’
“Sound family planning contributes to the stability and welfare of the home. It’s an important human right, and women’s rights are human rights. We’ve been fighting for this for years” as a Jewish organization, said Leslie.
ICJW will not have anyone at the meeting itself because the representative selected is ill. But ICJW’s president sent a letter to Dr. Nafis Sadik, secretary-general of the Cairo conference, supporting the draft agenda of the meeting.
WIZO, the Women’s International Zionist Organization, is expected to have a representative in Cairo. Their U.N. representative, Evelyn Sommer, was unavailable for comment.
The Israeli government is working on security issues with the Egyptian government and U.N. administration, according to Zvi Cohen, of the Israeli mission to the United Nations.
“We are not expecting to be singled out for attack, but have taken special precautions,” he said.
The original Israeli delegation to the conference included only one woman. But because of protests by the influential Israel Women’s Network, the composition of the group was changed to include more women.
The official delegation is now composed of eight men and six women.
The women’s group also developed an alternative paper to the official Israeli report, which made “virtually no reference to women’s reproductive rights or reproductive health,” according to the network.