Behind the Headlines: Jewish Women Meet with Arabs in Spirit of Cooperation in Beijing

For the first time in the history of United Nations women’s conferences, tension between Muslims and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, has not overshadowed the rest of the gathering at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

In fact, there has been more cooperation and dialogue between Jews and Palestinians than Jewish delegates expected, some said in telephone interviews from Beijing.

The U.N. conference began Sept. 4 and will through Sept. 15, while a larger gathering of representatives from nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, ran Aug. 30 to Sept. 8.

While the Chinese government has been harassing delegates, Jewish attendees said that they were left alone.

The first time Jewish delegates gathers in their causes, on the opening day of the NGO forum, two Palestinian women, both Israeli citizens, joined the 80 Jewish women.

“That never would have happened in the past. People were excited that they were there because it was the first indication that it was going to be a different kind of conference,” said Jessica Lieberman, assistant director for international concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, and a organizer of the caucus.

“Jews and Palestinians are talking to each other about working together in Israel on Jerusalem Link,” a group that works on issues surrounding the peace process, said Lieberman.

Reva Price, a lobbyist for B’nai B’rith International, said she had “really good conversations with women from all over the Arab world while wearing my Jewish Women’s Caucus button and Jewish star necklace.”

“I’ve had great conversations with women from Tunisia and had a great debate with a Kuwait women over reproductive rights. We had great discussions with Jordanian women. Some at the Arab tent didn’t want to talk to us, but that’s the exception, not the rule,” said Price.

She and other cited movement in the Middle East peace process as the foundation for the relatively comfortable dynamic between Arab and Jewish delegates.

Although there was criticism of Israel at some of the 300 workshops held each day at the NGO forum, held in Huairou, a town 30 miles north of Beijing, “it certainly isn’t the issue it was before,” said Marlene Post, national president of Hadassah.

“We were prepared to defend Israel on a variety of issues but the rhetoric has been limited,” she said.

In one workshop in which Israel was attacked the moderator repeatedly urged the Palestinian panelist to “have civility here” and succeeded in preventing the rehtoric from exploding into the torrent that fueled the anger at earlier conferences, said Price.

“There have been negative this said about almost every country, including the U.S.,” said Price. “This is a dramatically different atmosphere” from conferences past.

“In addition, “the Palestinian women aren’t a united front” with a coordinated strategy for enlisting other Arab and Muslim delegates’ help to consistently attack Israel, as they did at each of the previous three conferences, said Price.

Anti-Semitism permeated the air in Mexico City in 1975, where Zionism was equated with racism for the first time in any international forum, as well as in 1980 in Copenhagen and 1985 in Nairobi, said representatives of Jewish groups who had attended those gatherings.

Jewish delegates gathered to caucus several times in Huairou and Beijing during the NGO forum, Lieberman said.

Some 80 Jewish women from North America, Israel, Europe, South America, South Africa and Australia met on the opening day of the conference to introduce themselves to each other and talk about the issues they consider a priority at the conference.

Topics they raised included youth, aging and health care, Lieberman said.

Jewish delegates meet again to days later to report back on what they had heard at workshops, and later were joined by 15 Jewish residents of the Chinese capital – all of the them American and European ex-patriates who are in the business community – who hosted shabbat services and dinner for members of the caucus.

On Tuesday, a smaller group of Jewish delegates to the NGO forum and the official government conference met to discuss what had transpired in the workshops about the Middle East. “People who had been at Nairobi said they didn’t think it was anything like it was in the past,” said Lieberman.

Jewish attendees, who may total as many as 200, according to delegates, are a tiny fraction of the estimated 40,000 people attending one or both of the international gatherings.

But Jewish women have particular experience and expertise to contribute to the women at the conference, the majority of whom are from developing nations, said Beth Wohlgelernter, Hadassah’s executive director. “We have a lot of experience organizing at the grass-roots level and on issues of education and health care,” she said.

And though unanimously greeted with relief by the Jewish delegates, the shift from the extreme stress of being the focus of international conflict at past conferences requires a shift in internal focus, they said.

“They are so many other issues out there that we’re no longer that interesting,” said Hadassah’s Post.

“Do we miss the spotlight? No, no,” she said, laughing.

Naomi Chazan, a member of Israel’s Knesset and part of the country’s delegation to the U.N. conference, told Jewish delegates that what is happening in Beijing between Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian and Muslim women “is a revolution.”

“We have to get used to not being in the center of attention,” she said.

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