Special to the JTA Views on the Mideast Exchanged at International Women’s Meeting
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Special to the JTA Views on the Mideast Exchanged at International Women’s Meeting

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More than 500 women crammed into an oversized striped Peace Tent on the campus of the University of Nairobi to hear a Palestinian sociologist, an Israeli professor of women’s studies, an American Jewish freelance journalist, and a British Jewish Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) delegate sympathetic to the Palestinian cause exchange their views on the Middle East.

The program was one of hundreds planned for the NGO Forum ’85 on women which began here last Wednesday and ends tomorrow. The meetings of the NGOs, which include many Jewish organizations, are meeting in conjunction with the 12-day world conference ending the United Nations Decade for Women.

After each panelist delivered a 10-minute speech, dozens crowded the podium to comment. Many spoke in familiar terms about the horrors of apartheid, racism, and Zionism. Yhan Melou, a representative of the General Union of Palestinian Women, noted to the approval of the meeting, that “Zionism is racism. We do not say this because we like to condemn Zionism, but it is a fact.”

Despite the jingoistic cant, distressing as it was to the Jewish and Israeli delegates, this meeting was noteworthy for its orderliness and self-control.

Thus, Charlotte Ettlinger, a Swedish-born Jew who found refuge in Norway during World War II, was able to ask: “Why aren’t PLO people as nice to Arabs as the Norwegians were to the Swedes?” The audience began to hiss at this observation, but was quickly hushed, as Ettlinger continued:

“If someone comes to Sweden, after five years he is a citizen, unlike Palestinian refugees who left Israel in 1948 and have been denied citizenship by other Arab countries.”

During the 1975 women’s meeting in Mexico City and the 1980 mid-decade conference in Copenhagen, discussions of Zionism, apartheid, and racism dissolved into ugly free-for-alls. Supporters of the U.S. as well as Israel were prevented from speaking or were so severely heckled, that many left the podium in tears. Parliamentarian rules of order completely broke down then and chaos ruled.

At the meeting here, however, the women running the program maintained discipline through the often emotional, often bitter statements.


Barbara Bick, the moderator, strictly enforced time limits on all speakers. Sonia Johnson took names of those wishing to speak, attempting to include as many women from as many countries as possible. Applause, booing, and hissing were forbidden. Instead the women were told to wave their hands in approval or to turn their thumbs down for disapproval. After every fifth speaker, the group sang songs of peace and sisterhood.

Both Bick and Johnson are volunteer staff workers at the Peace Tent, which was the host for this event, and which has become a focal point for the NGO Forum ’85.

According to Edith Ballantyn, she and a small group of women had organized the Peace Tent as a place where women can come and speak in complete freedom.

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