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Assessment of the Nairobi Conference: Deletion of the Word Zionism Induced a Small Spark of Enthusia

August 7, 1985
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Whether repercussions from the United Nations End of the Decade Women’s Conference in Nairobi will include the liberation of women on a worldwide scale is undetermined, but for Bernice Tannenbaum, chairperson of the World Zionist Organization-American Section, the consensus to strike the word “Zionism” from the final document listing the obstacles to the advance of women was enough to induce a small spark of enthusiasm.

Tannenbaum, who recently returned from the Conference in Nairobi, reflected here that “the constant pressure to insert the word ‘Zionism’ into the document … went on relentlessly — late into each night. At the eleventh hour, Kenya made the plea to substitute for ‘Zionism’ in Paragraph 95 (of the document) the words ‘and all other forms of racial discrimination’.”

The proposal, Tannenbaum stressed, was a product of a WZO year-long campaign challenging the Zionism-Racism resolution of 1975 in the UN General Assembly. A resolution “condemning and repudiating” the Zionism-is-racism equation, recently passed in the U.S. Senate, was presented by Tannenbaum to Ambassador Alan Keyes, the chief adviser to the U.S. delegation, who referred to it in his statements at the Conference.

“The United States was remarkably firm in their support for their goals,” remarked Tannenbaum. “Maureen Reagan (the head of the delegation), deserves a great deal of credit. Ambassador Keyes was a source of strength … like a rock …. On the issue of Zionism, he was absolutely unyielding. It was absolutely unacceptable for the U.S. government that that word should be used.”


Once the U.S. declared its position on the issue, “it fell upon parliaments of other governments to follow the example of the U.S.,” Tannenbaum said. “It was very heartening,” she added, as she witnessed the “Soviet Union cave in and accept the compromise proposal.”

She was also present when “the PLO delegate rose to deafening applause and said ‘my delegation and Palestinian women are under Zionist occupation. We are in a country which suffered apartheid just as my country suffers under Zionism. But there is blackmail in this hall, so we accept the Kenyan amendment’.”

With the resolution being adopted by consensus, “each country, whether they came reluctantly or not, accepted a document which, if it’s implemented properly by the various governments of the world, can mean a lot for the women of the world,” Tannenbaum noted.


While the Conference culminated on a positive note for Israel, days of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist rhetoric tainted hopes for a less politicized agenda.

“At every opportunity, both in Committee One and on the plenary floor, invective flowed, usually initiated by the delegate from Iran who each time piously began her statement with, ‘In The Name Of The Most Compassionate Allah’. This was invariably followed by a denunciation of Israel as an occupying force and a call to add the word ‘Zionism'” to the document, recalled Tannenbaum.

The incessant verbal attacks on Israel, the U.S., and Zionism were similar to the strident remarks at the Conference in Copenhagen in 1980, but according to Tannenbaum, who attended both, this time “we had developed strategies together to make people more aware of the problems.” Tannenbaum recalled that on the way home from Copenhagen, “I felt absolutely devastated coming out without any document because of the word Zionism.”


Aside from the overpowering emphasis on the Zionism controversy, the Women’s Conference focused on raising the conscience of women on a global plane as to their roles in society. First, the Non-Governmental Organizations held Forum ’85, which Tannenbaum declared “at least made an attempt to discuss women’s issues,” including the topics of battered women and rape, lesbianism, public health, and female circumcision.

At the 1,200-1, 500 workshops during the Forum, Tannenbaum observed that there was less infighting than at the official UN Conference and “more of a desire to avoid confrontations.”

“I think, on the whole, the Forum, while it doesn’t have any teeth in it — it doesn’t have any implementation powers — was more exciting and was more pleasant than the Conference,” Tannenbaum continued. Women began “networking” and by the end of the Forum, “there was a feeling of sadness as women who did not know each other a week before walked arm-in-arm, holding each other close as they bid farewell and promised to keep in touch, share progress and problems.”

Since the Conference was located in Africa, many more representatives from underprivileged countries were there as compared to Copenhagen, and some of the problems they exposed at the Forum, such as women simply disappearing in countries such as Iran and the Soviet Union, “made my hair stand up,” commented Tannenbaum.

But she realized that “the problem of a woman, whether she is black, white, purple or yellow is in many cases not really that different.”


Tannenbaum found that the official UN Conference, however, was more tense and less productive. “The machinery is very worn out,” said Tannenbaum,” as each paragraph and live word of the bulky official document to be adopted was analyzed.” The “political infrastructure,” she said, impeded the progress of the Conference as “paragraph after paragraph had to be referred to a special negotiating committee because no consensus could be reached.”

Two press conferences also pleased Tannenbaum: one held by the PLO, where many questions posed could not be answered; and another where Iraqi women invited Iranian women to attend. While no Iranian showed up, Jews who had press passes asked “disturbing” questions, she said.

While there are no definite plans for future universal conferences, there was a proposal that another conference would be held before the year 2000 and that in the interim, there is a possibility for setting up regional conferences.

“In retrospective,” Tannenbaum said,” there were some positives … some major issues affecting women were put on the table … some thousands of women had a chance to dialogue with each other … some forward steps toward equalizing women’s status were achieved.

“But the Conference’s goals were subverted by the continuous injection of political non sequiturs, and the ugly specter of anti-Israelism, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism hung over everything… but we won.”

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