Jewish, Arab women meet in China

NEW YORK — 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 gathering.

In fact, there has been more dialogue between Jews and Palestinians at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing than Jewish delegates expected, some said this week in telephone interviews from Beijing.

The U.N. conference began Monday and will run 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 including those from Burma, Jewish attendees said that they were left alone.

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

"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 caucus organizer.

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 Kuwaiti woman 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 others 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 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.

Anti-Semitism permeated the air in Mexico City in 1975, where Zionism was equated with racism for the first time at any international forum, as well as in 1980 in Copenhagen and 1985 in Nairobi, said Jewish women veterans of 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 and discuss such issues as youth, aging and health care, Lieberman said.

Jewish delegates met again two days later to report on workshops, and later were joined by 15 Jewish residents of the Chinese capital — all of them American and European expatriates in the business community — who hosted Shabbat services and dinner for caucus members.

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.

The shift from being the focus of international conflict at past conferences also requires a shift in internal focus, they said.

"There are so many other issues out there that we're no longer that interesting," said Hadassah's Post.

Naomi Chazan, a member of Israel's Knesset and part of that 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."