Women return from China excited about global goals

Rita Semel and Judy Bloom boarded a bus each morning at 7:30, rode 50 miles from Beijing to Huairou, slogged through another mile or two of muddy fields — only to find canceled workshops and plenary sessions in rooms with too little space for participants.

"The rest of us stood with our noses pressed to the window like the little match girl," Semel said. "It wasn't so pleasant."

Nevertheless, both Bay Area participants of the fourth U.N. World Conference on Women returned from China excited about what they had learned and ready to work toward the conference's global goals — peace, social equality, and economic and political development.

About 35,000 women attended the conference from 189 countries. Nearly 4,000 workshops were offered in Huairou, where the Non-Governmental Organizations' Forum met.

It was a far cry from past conferences when Semel, former executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, spent almost the entire time defending Israel from attacks.

"The difference between now and past years is so clear-cut it just hits you in the face," she said, recalling having to fight "Zionism equals Racism" resolutions in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1980 and Nairobi, Kenya in 1985.

This year, Israeli women conducted workshops on the importance of electing women as governmental leaders; Jewish delegates of both the official conference and the NGO events joined for Shabbat services with the small Jewish community of Beijing; and Jews, Asians and African Americans met to discuss the importance of breaking down stereotypes.

Palestinian women also held a workshop on political and domestic violence in the West Bank and Gaza and on living under a military occupation. Semel said the Palestinian women did not directly blame Israel as much as point to the incendiary atmosphere of political occupations.

For Bloom, a first-time delegate from Hillsborough representing Women's American ORT, the shift in emphasis away from Israel allowed her to focus on "making things better for women all over the world," she said.

"The most significant part of the conference, for me, is realizing how different we all are and yet knowing we all basically want the same things: safety in our homes, equal opportunities for education, economic self-sufficiency, peace."

The conference was not completely free of anti-Israel sentiment though.

Among the many demonstrations at the Sept. 4 -15 conference was a gathering of about 50 Palestinian women calling for an end to Israeli control of the territories.

"Some of the women were bemoaning this, but compared to what we had seen in the past, this was nothing," Semel said. "Very few people paid attention [to the demonstration].

"Israeli participation has gone from minding its flag to being part and parcel of all the big issues."

With Israel in the background, the challenge now is figuring out the best way to achieve the conference goals at home, Semel said.

"The question is how will we be able to move a plan for action forward," she said. "It will happen in different ways in different countries. We have the same ambitions and desires, but a lot depends on the circumstances in each country."

Bloom anticipates continuing her work on domestic violence, sexual harassment, poverty and discrimination.

Inspired by the conference, Semel plans to forge ahead with interfaith coalition-building in the Bay Area. While she realizes she "can't tell women in Sudan how to set up an interfaith council like here," she acknowledges conference-goers "can share benefits and results of working together."

She recalled the story of women of all religions coming together to better their situation in a Sudanese refugee camp. "It was humbling. It makes you wonder why we don't do more."

Although Israel finally took a back seat to issues concerning greater numbers of women, Judaism was never too far from the minds of Jewish women in China.

"We participated with Jews from around the world, not just the United States and Israel," Bloom said. "As a religion and as a people we came together in our duty to mend the entire world, tikkun olam."