“That Friday evening I walked down the bill to the synagogue. Women from the U. N. Forum were still arriving, dripping wet from a fierce thunderstorm. After services we waded through the mud to a generous oneg Shabbat. It was amazing to be in Africa — singing Hebrew songs, sharing a blessing over wine with other Jewish women and seeing, in the midst of it all, Bella Abzug swaying with the music, half-drenched but indefatigable.”
notes from my Nairobi journal, July 12. 1985
It’s often difficult to believe that ten years have passed since 1985 when I attended the United Nations Women’s Conference & Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. I was energized and inspired by what I found that summer in Nairobi— the sheer power of 14,000 women, the pain and promise in women’s stories, and the political and emotional challenges of breaking down national boundaries.
As a Jewish woman of 29, I had been unprepared for the anti-U.S. sentiment and anti-Semitism I encountered. I was equally unprepared for the joy I felt in connecting with other women for those ten days in Nairobi.
Since then I have waited expectantly for another international gathering of women and now it is just around the corner. The Fourth U.N. World Conference on Women will be held September 4-15 in Beijing, China. The U.N. Women’s World Forum (for non-governmental organizations— NGOs) will be held August 30 to September 8, also in Beijing. 30,000 women are expected; I, and a group of women I’m bringing with me from Portland, Oregon, will be among them.
At the Conference, official delegates from U.N. members countries and representatives of non-governmental organizations will debate and adopt a Platform of Action to address the status of women worldwide. At the more grassroots-oriented Forum, women will gather to influence the development of the Platform of Action and highlight their vision for the 21st century. Forum delegates will participate in hundreds of workshops, cultural activities, political organizing and rich opportunities for networking.
For me. Beijing will be different from Nairobi. In the past ten years my views of myself as a U.S. citizen, as a woman and as a Jew have shifted significantly. Among other changes, over the past decade I made the decision to be fully visible as a Jew in the world.
What issues, fears, concerns and hopes will Jewish women bring to Beijing?
In Mexico City in 1975. U.N. Decade for Women opening conference—with the themes of equality, development and peace—turned into a nightmare for many Jewish delegates targeted by vicious anti- Zionism and anti-Semitism, formalized in a U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism.
Intent on averting a repeat of Mexico City, Jewish women organized prior to and during subsequent international women’s conferences—1980 in Copenhagen and 1985 in Nairobi (both covered in LILITH). In Nairobi. Jewish leaders caucused and lobbied members of the official delegation to ensure that the Conference and Forum remained focused on issues of concern to women; as a result of their efforts, the final document of the Decade for Women did not contain odious anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist statements.
Despite the strides made by Jewish women at the official Conference, anti- Semitism was evident to many who attended the non-governmental Nairobi Forum. While participating on a panel discussing domestic violence, I was shocked when a Palestinian woman attacked an Israeli as she spoke about shelters for abused women in Israel. Sally Greenberg, Civil Rights Counsel for the New England Region of the Anti- Defamation League, recalls, “I’d go into workshops and whole roomfuls of people were shouting against Israel in their own languages. It sounded a lot like ‘Down with the Jews!’ and it was scary.”
Conference conveners have given assurances that Beijing will not be used as a platform for anti-Semitism. Initially, officials and women’s organizations suggested that, because of the Israeli peace process, conflict would not erupt between Palestinians and Israelis; now, the uncertainty of where the peace process will be at the end of August casts some doubt on these assurances. In New York, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Committee (NJCRAC), which is acting as an umbrella for Jewish women interested in Beijing, is offering training in conflict resolution for all interested women, including those who are not going to Beijing.
One key aspect of preparations for Beijing began more than a decade ago when Jewish and Palestinian women established dialogue groups in Israel and North America. At a recent conference in Vienna, Austria, a Palestinian woman and an Israeli Jewish woman gave clues about how they handle their differences when something upsetting happens: “We get on the phone and we listen to each other. We avoid being used as tools of others.”
On a larger scale, organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women, Haddassah and the American Jewish Committee have participated in prepatory meetings to influence the focus of the draft Platform of Action. Beyond their concerns with anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, to a large extent the issues of importance to Jewish women are the very same issues other women will bring to the table in Beijing: violence, economic independence, rape as a military problem, environmental concerns, under-representation of women in decision-making, health care, and the education of girls.
Jewish organizations such as Women’s American ORT and the American Jewish Congress are among those preparing Forum workshops on these and other issues. Some non-Jewish organizations are planning workshops on building alliances between Jewish women and others [for example, Asians.]
A mid growing concern about the Chinese government’s human rights policy and its potential impact on the Conference and Forum, Jewish women have attended State Department briefings and have advocated for stronger human rights language in the Platform of Action. They are also strategizing to respond to any attempts on the part of the Chinese government to limit access to or restrict freedom of speech at the Forum and Conference.
A series of meetings in Israel has involved Israeli women in the “Beijing Process” of raising women’s consciousness and activating them to demand those elements of the Platform of Action that are relevant to Israel. The Israel Women’s Network and the Democratic Women’s Movement organized their own NGO Forum last summer. Demands for equal representation in decision-making and greater economic empowerment are two of the many issues Israeli women will be addressing at home and in Beijing.
Alice Shalvi of the Israel Women’s Network emphasizes that, “Only a very small number of women will be going to Beijing. I’m concerned about the status of all women. We want to use Beijing as a catalyst for action.”