The Aug. 2 Washington Post editorial ("Copenhagen and the PLO") about the U.N. mid-decade conference on women is already remarkable for its underlying assumption that a women's conference should concern itself only with "non-political" issues. (A modern version of "a women's place is in the home"?)
A closer reading, however, reveals even more disturbing aspects. Consider the striking similarity between the account of an important conference vote on assistance to Palestinian women as given in The Washington Post and in an earlier article in the Jerusalem Post, an influential Israeli newspaper.
The Washington Post describes the voting: "The Russian delegate shouted 'da' for the Ukrainian delegate. When the Pakistani woman, confused, voted on the other side, the assembly howled with laughter and she switched. Third World delegates exulted as the tally mounted. Once the vote was over, delegates apologized for their votes, some Western delegates -- who mostly abstained -- to the Arabs, and non-aligned delegates to the West."
Jerusalem Post correspondent Joan Borsten reported on July 27: "The Russian delegate actually yelled out 'Da' when the Ukrainian vote came, and then a 'Da' for her own country. When Pakistan, confused, voted with the West, the assembly howled with laughter and the delegate had to change her vote. Half of the Arab delegations didn't recognize their country's name and had to be prompted. Everyone was having a great time watching the anti-West vote add up. To make matters worse, once the voting was over delegates began apologizing publicly for their vote -- the West to the Arabs, the non-aligned to the West."
A charitable reader might be concerned that The Washington Post had developed a sudden dearth of editorial writers. Even so, an Israeli reporter describing a crucial vote on Palestinian women can hardly be considered an objective source.
The veracity of events described in the two accounts is also questionable. For example, a conference observer I questioned noted that the Pakistani delegate did not, in fact, change her vote, but instead replaced a proxy vote with the delegation's own abstention. But more important is the use of pejorative language like "howled with laughter" to create an impression of the delegate's irrationality.
Indeed, a more pointed example of "confusion" and politicization is the U.S. delegation's retraction of its own resolution against racism, because of proposed amendments defending the right of Palestinian women and criticizing discriminatory policies of the Israeli state. In a briefing for non-governmental American representatives, many of whom had worked very hard for an anti-racism resolution (the first such resolution endorsed by the United States), presidential adviser and U.S. delegation co-chair Sarah Weddington affirmed that the U.S. delegation "has been instructed" to withdraw the resolution "if nations unfriendly to us" amend it. In other words, the retraction was certainly not the result of a democratic consensus among American women at the conference, let alone representative of the sentiments of American women. Instead, it was dictated by U.S. policy considerations, a policy of maintaining a "special relationship" with Israel, whatever Israel's aggressive action or violation of human rights, at the high cost of U.S. isolation in the international community.
The Washington Post editorial ended with a series of Israeli claims about the "benefits" the military occupation had given to Palestinian women on the West Bank and noted that these claims and the Palestinian claim that "women have developed a keen political consciousness in the struggle against Israel" are both right. It is useful to examine these claims, despite the Orwellian double-think involved in a military occupation touting the benefits of its rule.
It is true, for example, that there is an increase in the number of Palestinian girls and women attending secondary and post-secondary schools in the West Bank, mirroring an upsurge in the educational level of Palestinian communities, wherever they might be. (It should be noted that two post-secondary institutions, Al Najah National University and Bethlehem University, were founded by Palestinians since 1967, without the encouragement of and often with obstruction from the military government.)
This increase is also due to the persistent effort of Palestinian institutions like Bir Feit University, the Ramallah Women's Training Center and others to educate a new generation under the harsh conditions of the occupation. These gains are even more remarkable given the frequent closure of these schools by the Israeli military authorities and the restrictions placed upon them. An August 1980 edict from the military government expanded the power of the military authority to include the right to bar university teachers from their posts and censor university texts.
A favorite example also cited by The Post is the Israeli enfranchisement of Palestinian women in 1976, which is indisputable, although not, as The Post claims, "among the first in the Arab world." The Israeli decision to allow women to vote in the 1976 mayoral elections in the West Bank, the first and seemingly the last of such elections under the occupation, is commonly believed to have been part of an Israeli strategy to elect conservative, pro-Jordanian leaders who might be groomed to oppose the PLO. Instead, women, like men, voted overwhelmingly for pro-PLO candidates. Mayoral elections slated for 1980 in the West Bank (Gaza is not permitted elections) were canceled by the military authorities, an action that makes the Israeli claim, and The Post's recitation of it without comment, ring even more hollow.
Why make such a fuss, however, over a few possible errors in judgment by an editorial writer? First, because a conference that The Washington Post says took "the energies of thousands and the hopes of millions" deserves more serious and objective coverage.
Second, let me suggest that in the 1980s, the United States must decide whether it will pursue a policy of confrontation or cooperation with the developing nations of the Third World, a decision that in the strategic Middle East will surely mean the difference between war and peace. American's disastrous Palestine policy, if continued into the next decade, is one sure path to such a confrontation.
There are ominous signs that some U.S. politicians already favor confrontation with the "troublesome" Third World. If the American media follow this drift toward an anti-Third-World position and influence the public in this regard, they will be doing a grave disservice to the American people they are suppposed to serve.