Jewish delegates to the upcoming fourth U.N. World Conference on Women are anticipating many challenges – but being buffered by anti-Zionism and anti- Semitism is not one of them.
The conference of U.N. member states will take place Sept. 4-15 in Beijing. Jewish delegates also will attend the Non-Governmental Organizations’ Forum ’95, which will run Aug. 30-Sept. 8 in Huairou, a town 30 miles north of the capital.
Delegates have been warned by the U.S. State Department, as well as human rights groups and feminist organizations, to use caution when talking to Chinese delegates attending the conference and forum and to not say anything that could be viewed as critical of the Chinese government.
But for the first time in the history of the U.N. conferences on women, it is anticipated that Palestinian and Arab friction with Israelis and Diaspora Jews will take a back seat to attention to violations of women’s and human rights in the host country itself.
“In all of the governmental preparatory meetings for the conference during the past year there was no overt anti-Semitism and no resolutions attacking Israel,” said Jessica Lieberman, assistant director for international concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
The changed climate stems largely from the Arab-Israeli peace process and the repeal by the United Nations of its infamous “Zionism Equals Racism” resolution, Lieberman said.
This time around, American Jewish delegates said that their goals for the meetings are networking with other women from around the world and supporting issues that are not specifically Jewish, such as women’s health, education and economic status.
It was at the first. Conference on Women, held in 1975 in Mexico City, that Zionism was equated with racism for the first time in any UN. forum. .TX- Palestinians “hijacked” the proceedings, according to Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a co-founder of Ms. magazine.
She will attend the events in China as a representative of the Ms. Foundation and the NJCRAC.
A few months after Mexico City, equating Zionism with racism was validated by the U.N. General Assembly, where it remained in place until the resolution was rescinded in 1991.
At the second conference on women, in Copenhagen in 1980, anti-Semitism was “very, very strong in the air,” said Harris Schoenberg, director for U.N. affairs for B’nai B’rith International.
“Every workshop was a horror in Copenhagen,” said Shirley Joseph, a veteran Jewish lay leader who attended that conference and will be in China representing the NJCRAC.
The official “plan of action” that came out of Copenhagen included the Zionism equals racism equation. As a result, the United States, Canada and Australia refused to sign onto the document, Joseph said.
At the last conference on women, in Nairobi in 1985, anti-Zionism almost forced its collapse.
“Groups of Palestinian Arabs would run from one meeting to another, disrupt it totally, raise their issue and run to the next meeting” at the Nairobi forum for non-governmental observers, said Schoenberg, who was at the gathering.
At the diplomatic gathering in Nairobi, attended by official representatives of U.N. member governments, delegates from the Soviet Union and Iran were trying to include condemnations of Zionism in the official conference document, he said.
A walkout by American, Canadian and European delegations was narrowly averted, and the conference’s final document was free from anti-Zionist sentiment.
No one expects the same deep divisiveness in China, said the delegates interviewed.
“All forecasts are that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism won’t be such a real threat at this conference, so we have a chance to make some real progress,” Lieberman said.
Still, American Jewish delegates are doing their best to prepare in case they find anti-Jewish bias at the meetings.
They met several times in recent months.
At one meeting convened by the NJCRAC and Hadassah in June, two professional trainers taught 30 delegates conflict resolution techniques.
In March, American Jewish delegates met with members of the Israeli delegation in New York to discuss their common concerns.
In addition to the NJCRAC, more than 100 American Jewish delegates to the Beijing conference, most of them women, are representing Jewish communal organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith, Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, Women’s American ORT, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism.
Other Jewish women are going to China with university groups, human rights organizations and feminist groups.
Many of the Jewish groups hope to run workshops. A total of 3,000 workshop held each day at the Non-Governmental Organizations’ forum, said Lieberman.
Some 37,000 women and men from around the world are expected in Huairou, where the Beijing government moved the NGO forum just months before the start of the meetings.
The Jewish presence in Huairou will extend beyond the communal establishment. A group of about 35 Jewish women affiliated with No Limits for Women, a project of Re-evaluation Counseling, a network of peer counselors, are coordinating their own effort of support groups and some 50 workshops.
“We want to welcome Jewish women who don’t necessarily have involvement in mainstream organizations,” said Cherie Brown, a coordinator of the No Limits for Women project.
The daily support groups “will be a chance to celebrate the good things about being there as well as looking at the struggles of being there, isolated as Jewish women,” Brown said.
She is director of the National Coalition Building Institute, a Washington organization that trains community leaders in prejudice reduction and intergroup conflict resolution.
Her group’s workshops will be devoted to working class Jewish women; women of color and Jewish women working together to address racism and anti-Semitism, and Israeli-Jewish women working with Palestinian women to build unity in the Middle East.
The Jewish participants in No Limits for Women also assembled an introductory document about Jewish women covering topics including “What distinguishes Jewish women from non-Jewish women?” “What is excellent about Jewish women?” and “What is anti-Semitism?”
“It’s meant as an opening for dialogue with women from African and Asian countries who jay never have been exposed to issues of anti-Semitism,” Brown said.
American Jewish delegates plan to organize Jewish attendees from around the world into a Jewish caucus in Huairou. Blue and white buttons saying `Jewish caucus’ will be distributed.
“When we get there we plan to have a meeting to which we will invite all the Jewish women who we have made contact with so that we can see each other,” the NJCRAC’s Joseph said.
There will also be efforts to organize Shabbat evening services.
“After having been with 35,000 women and hearing different languages and faces it will be nice to get together with Jewish women from all over the world,” Liberman said.
“In an international setting it will be good to come together as Jews.”