Is anti-Zionism dead at U.N. womens confab

Mexico City was bad for the Jews in 1975. So was Copenhagen in 1980, and Nairobi in 1985. But Jewish women expect Beijing will be better this year.

Jewish delegates to the fourth U.N. World Conference on Women, slated Sept. 4-15 in the Chinese capital, anticipate many challenges as they probe living conditions for women around the globe. For a change, being buffeted by anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism from other delegates isn't among those challenges.

For the first time, Palestinian and Arab friction with Israelis and diaspora Jews may not flare. Even if such friction does exist, it is likely to be overshadowed by violations of women's and human rights in the host country.

"Our role is quite different this time; it is to support those areas where women do not have the same freedoms — rights to an education, to vote — as American women," says Rita Semel, former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

In the past, notes Semel, who attended the 1980 and 1985 conferences and will travel to Beijing, "Israel was powerless in its relations with other countries. After 1967, a lot of countries broke off relations. The Jewish women [at the conferences] were very…helpful in keeping Israel from being bashed completely."

The situation is less troublesome now.

The Jewish state has established relations with nearly 100 U.N. member nations. The U.N. "Zionism equals racism" resolution was struck down in 1991. The Middle East peace accords are moving ahead.

This time around, the 100 American Jewish delegates plan to support issues that are not specifically Jewish: women's health, education and economic status.

"We feel it's important for us to be there, if not to directly support Israel, to support the causes of women," says Semel.

First-time delegate Judy Bloom of Hillsborough, who will represent Women's American ORT at the conference, hopes to "break down some stereotypes" of Jews.

"I belong to about a dozen of the organizations represented, but I feel especially well served by my affiliation with ORT. It's something I can share with people, what [the ORT does] in their countries."

In addition to Women's American ORT, Jewish communal organizations being represented are the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, B'nai B'rith, Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, Women's League for Conservative Judaism and Women of Reform Judaism.

Those delegates plan to attend, besides the overall conference of U.N. member states, the Non-Governmental Organizations' Forum '95, which will run Aug. 30-Sept. 8 in Huairou, a town 30 miles north of Beijing.

But American 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 in both places, and not to say anything that could be viewed as critical of the Chinese government — including any mention of Henry Wu, the Hoover Institution scholar being held captive.

Controversy is nothing new for the U.N. Conference on Women. It was at the first one, in 1975 in Mexico City, that Zionism was equated with racism for the first time in any U.N. forum.

A few months later, that dictum was validated by members of 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," remembers Harris Schoenberg, director for U.N. affairs for B'nai B'rith International.

Semel also recalls that well.

"We were setting the direction for the women's agenda for the coming year. We were talking about empowerment, education, elections, all the things most American women take for granted. It was important we [Jewish women] be there to support those efforts. But the zinger was Israel was being held up as an example [of colonialism and oppression.]"

In Nairobi in 1985, anti-Zionism almost scuttled the entire conference. "Groups of Palestinian Arabs would run from one meeting to another, disrupt it totally, raise their issue and run to the next meeting," says Schoenberg.

Meanwhile, at a nearby diplomatic gathering, delegates from the Soviet Union and Iran were trying to include condemnations of Zionism in the official conference document.

A walkout by American, Canadian and European delegations was narrowly averted, and the conference's final document was free from anti-Zionist sentiment.

"I believe our lobbying helped get that clause knocked out," Semel says.

This year's conference, however, should not require specific pro-Jewish political action.

"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," says Jessica Lieberman, assistant director for international concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

But just in case they encounter anti-Jewish bias at the meetings, American Jewish delegates are doing their best to prepare: learning conflict resolution techniques and discussing their concerns.

They have met several times in recent months.

Some 37,000 women and men from around the world are expected in Huairou, where American Jewish delegates plan to organize a Jewish caucus.

There also will 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," Lieberman says.