Reconfigured Challenges: Israel, Zionism and the Beijing Women's World Conference

CSW59 Closing Session
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CSW59 Closing Session - Israel was the only country to be explicitly mentioned within the nine official documents produced by the CSW as an 'ongoing violator of woman rights'

Once again, on the final day of the 59th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York, a political resolution condemning Israel on its treatment of Palestinian women was adopted. Two delegations opposed (Israel and the United States), 13 absented and a majority of 27 delegations voted 'yes'. Despite many indications for lack of compliance by many other member states, Israel was the only country to be explicitly mentioned within the nine official documents produced by the CSW as an 'ongoing violator of woman rights'.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the current global feminist politics

The 2015 session was not a regular one. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the UN Women's World Conference in Beijing, it was a moment of self-examination for states and international organizations, as well as an opportunity to stop and think about the progress in global gender equality and the challenges ahead. Nonetheless, in the final Political Declaration adopted in New York, there is a vague recognition of emerging 'new challenges' for women, which the document does not state explicitly. Given this ambiguity, the exceptional status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which is one of the longstanding issues on the UN agenda) is one of the intriguing puzzles of current global feminist politics. Could it be that the situation of Palestinian women and girls under Israeli occupation is the most extreme breach of the Beijing Platform of Action? It has been correctly argued that the ongoing obstruction of Palestinian women's basic rights to safety, education, health services, movement and family by Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza is, indeed, a matter of gravest concern for the international community. Alternatively, the recent condemnation could be also understood as a remnant or a reconfiguration of a longstanding ritual that has changed meaning and appearance since the first condemnation of Zionism at the Women's World Conference in Mexico (1975).

1975-1985 Cold War animosities and the early women's world conferences

Israel was initially signaled at the three world conferences held during the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985). A little known fact in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is that the first mention of 'Zionism as a form of racism', a stand which was pushed by the Soviet Union and officially adopted by the General Assembly in November 1975 (Resolution 3379), appeared in the Declaration of Mexico earlier that year stating that "International cooperation and peace require the achievement of national liberation and independence, the elimination of colonialism and neo-colonialism, foreign occupation, Zionism, Apartheid and racial discrimination in all its forms" (Par. 24). This text, which could be read in several ways (as a genuine call for justice or as political rhetoric), offers an example of how the early women's world conferences were completely overshadowed by international politics and Cold War animosities, and how women's rights were perceived as interlinked with broader issues such as foreign military intervention, post-colonialism and global inequality.

Given that the grouping of Zionism together with Apartheid, neo-colonialism and racism reappeared throughout the decade to follow, it is no surprise that the Israeli government and the major Jewish women's organization the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW), were suspicious about cooperating with the UN on the issue of gender equality (as well as on other issues) and were slow to respond to global expectations in this realm. Most importantly, this separatist stance was reinforced by a particular version of Zionist state feminism which developed in Israel, where Jewish women's political rights and economic provisions were tied to national projects through their mandatory military service or maternal roles.  

In 1991 Israel ratified CEDAW

By the end of the Cold War, things have changed. In 1991, the UN stand on Zionism was revoked (Res. 4686). At the same year, Israel ratified the CEDAW convention which was a first sign of willingness to engage with the new global feminist agenda on issues relating to violence against women and their political equality. With the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords in 1993, it seemed that the conflicting issue of Zionism which dominated previous conferences was no longer a dividing issue.

In 1995 women's NGOs became most visible as valuable global actors

In 1995, after a long preparation process that was coordinated by the Prime Minister's Office, an impressive delegation of 80 women from Israel arrived in Beijing. Similar to other participating states there were two components to the delegation: the 'official' delegation headed by the Minister of Labor, Ora Namir: and the NGO delegation that stayed in the parallel forum in Huairou, 35 miles from the city. The contrast between the younger Israeli feminist activists who came from newly established grassroots organizations, and the established, state-sponsored Zionist women's groups was evident from the early preparation stages all through the actual meeting. In memories and conversations, many of these women stressed the intensified alienation between the two groups, seen as a symbol of an important stage in the creation of an independent women's movement in Israel that did not see itself as subjected to state-centered priorities and national ideology. Most importantly, for these women, Beijing became a symbol of a transitional phase in which particularistic, or 'Zionist' values were squared into a universal equation of priorities and shared goals. It was a moment when women's NGOs became most visible as valuable global actors.

"We were part of a historical momentum: in the rain and the mud of Huairou we crafted the female globe. Huairou became a symbol of the feminine alternative to the 'new global order'".[1] This is how two well-known Israeli feminist activists who participated at the NGO Forum described the event. The multiple voices, stories and faces they encountered in Beijing were in stark contrast with the closed, militaristic, and collectivist national state. In this transnational space where women could create their own vision of society, a new imagination of the Middle-East was also born. For people from the region, which was long associated with war, patriarchy, fundamentalism and authoritarianism, the mid-1990s were a point of hope for change under the neo-liberal framing of a 'new Middle-East'. The Israeli delegation was involved in side events, workshops and panels that highlighted new civil society activities concerning politics, human rights and particularly in the field of peace and Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. For many Israeli women it was an opportunity to establish and strengthen personal connections with Palestinian women who, in the spirit of bi-lateral cooperation and dialogue of the early Oslo period, were keen of keeping contact.

Despite the prevalence of euphoric sentiments, the conference was a strategic meeting point. The Beijing Platform of Action was not based on a messianic view of feminine solidarity and similarity. Rather, it introduced a practical tool for joint action. As such, although the word 'Zionism' was not mentioned, the Global Framework drafted in Beijing recognized that the 'effects of armed or other kinds of conflict on women, including those living under foreign occupation' is a critical area of concern to the international community.

Since 1995 the women's struggle for equality in Israel is overshadowed by escalating cycles of armed violence, continued military occupation, rampant militarization

In the twenty years that followed the world conference, Israel has seen the growth of a vibrant feminist movement that, despite its neo-liberal design and growing fragmentation, was able to embrace novel ideas about gender-based violence, social justice, diversity, equality and security. These developments, as well as broader state-led institutional reforms, happened in and despite of a period of a deep regression in democratic values and prerogatives. In official UN gatherings, the State of Israel takes pride in these achievements and sees them as an indication that "Israel stands out as place where gender equality is a fundamental goal of government" (59 CSE/2015). Such rhetoric is a form of "gender-washing", meant to gain international legitimacy by using selective successes in promoting women's right. In reality, women's struggle for equality in Israel is overshadowed by escalating cycles of armed violence, continued military occupation, rampant militarization, privatization and Jewish religious fundamentalism.[2] This is why the dull representation of Israeli feminist NGO's and government officials in the 2015 session may be linked to two parallel processes: isolation of Israeli feminists and lack of governmental trust in international mechanisms.

The limits of transnational feminism

Overall, the Israel puzzle is interesting not only due to its uniqueness, but also because it serves as an example for the limitations and benefits of the politicization of women's rights issues in an era of backlash against transnational feminism. Is the strategy of signaling one country for violating women's human rights an effective and legitimate tool, or is it a hopeless, naïve and politically biased act? Given the multiple threats and challenges facing women worldwide, the answer, in my opinion is clear—accountability should be applied equally and clearly across the board. One lesson that could be learned from this puzzle is that international women's conferences attitudes towards the question of Israel-Palestine had little impact on the actual lives of Palestinian women. For Israeli women, who still navigate between national sentiments, militaristic realities and aspirations to be part of a global community, this may also be true.

[1] Esther Eilam and Sylvia Fogel-Bijaoui, Back from Huairou: Conclusions and challenges, internal memo [Hebrew], 1995.

[2]  More information about this could be found in Shadow Reports submitted to the CSW by Israeli NGOs on previous discussions over the implementation of the Beijing Platform. See: Isha l'Isha Shadow Report, Beijing +10 (2005):; and the Israel women's Network Shadow Report, Beijing +15 (2010):