Telling Israel’s Story

With Charged Discussion and Hints of new Forgiveness, Women Zionists Meet in Vienna

News | Isabella Fischli | February 2007

EU Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, WIZO‘s Hava Bugajer and Brenda Katten (Photo: W. Simlinger)

Translated and adapted 

by Dardis McNamee


The Dec. 3 conference of the European Council of WIZO Federations (ECWF) ran into controversy before it had even begun. The motto "Equal opportunities for all" didn’t sit well with the ECWF Helsinki delegates.  The Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) was about the empowerment of women, they insisted at a pre-conference gathering in the Finnish capital, and shouldn’t fragment its efforts.

But chair Rita Dauber was determined to be inclusive, reflecting the organization’s broadened 1992 mandate, and managed in the end not only to widen the discussion but to include men as participants at this annual event, held in Vienna this year for the first time, hosted by local chapter president Hava Bugajer at the elegant "Studio 44" conference rooms of the Austrian Lotteries.

However, it wasn’t an idle controversy. It reflected a fundamental problem of the European WIZO Federation, and not the only one. This is an evolving organization, with members from now 22 European countries, far more complicated than the group of four or five women from England, France and Holland who founded the organization one evening during the worldwide conference a decade and a half ago in Tel Aviv.

Some participants had, in fact, been reluctant to come to Vienna at all. Gathering at a Heuriger in Heiligenstadt the night before, some visiting members had said they were "very uncomfortable being in a city where ‘Nazis, denunciators and slaughterers’ had once walked."

But this was only the beginning. As time went on, a number of unexpected situations emerged, both controversial and touching.

The conference opened early on a Sunday morning with former Chancellor Franz Vranitzky teasing the sleepy Ariel Muzikant, president of the Israeli Cultural Community of Vienna, that of course even on Sunday, one should be up and about by 7 a.m.! Reviewing the current status of equal opportunity, Vranitzky insisted that "there is no rational reason" why woman should face discrimination of any kind. Calling himself a "one 100% supporter of equal rights for men and women," Vranitzky said necessary improvements were still needed and called for "gender-sensitive awareness in all policy planning, decisions and measures to encourage lasting structural changes" that would guarantee equal rights and opportunities for all.

It was, however, the remarks of Hannah Lessing that caught everyone by surprise.  Her talk about "gender-specific persecution during the Holocaust" and the work of the Austrian National Restitution Fund stirred the emotions of the Vienna skeptics, her descriptions of Austria’s reparations efforts bringing tears to the eyes of many. In the break after the speech, some expressed attitudes far more conciliatory than any they had been able to voice before.

These hints of forgiveness unexpectedly provided a transition to another highly charged issue on the agenda: The role of women as provocateurs of peace (Friedens Stifter).

"Without women, [there is] no freedom," said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commissioner for Foreign Affairs. "Without freedom, no security, and without security, no development."

"There are glimmers of hope" in the current Middle East ceasefire, Ferrero-Waldner said. Which sounded harmless enough, until she raised a few eyebrows with her suggestion of a rapid return to the "Roadmap" for the peace process, and that "a two-state solution was the only viable one."

However, it was during the question period that the atmosphere really began to heat up. Frustrated questions became sharper, and after a few unpleasant comments were fired back, Ferrero-Waldner reached the limit of her tolerance.

"My dear ladies," she retorted. "Read the international papers! That’s what you should be doing!" Extremists can be found "on both sides," she said.

Bugajer then leaped in to cool down the round of questions by clarifying that there were differences between terrorists and extremists. Terrorists are the weapons of the extremists, she said.

"That’s right," Ferraro-Waldner answered. "This difference between extremists and terrorists is something I recognize."

After the break, the audience was ready to listen to Barbara Prammer, first woman president of the National Assembly, who began with the convincing argument that "only women who feel no fear in the face of resistance or rebellion can really alter the conditions of women and make changes for the better, and thus make the world more humane." Unfortunately she frittered away this attention on an endless listing of numbers, statistics and dates on female voter turnouts.

The remarks of the Israeli Ambassador Dan Ashbel were moved up on the agenda because the 50 Year Anniversary of the diplomatic relations between Israel and Austria, that would be celebrated in Tel Aviv, Ashbel needed to fly – along with Ferrero-Waldner – to Brussels, where he would stand in for the Foreign Minister at a ministers’ summit.  Even when Europe is Israel’s most important trading partner, the relationship needs improvement. This means talking to each other.

"Israel has to make Europe use more ‘soft power,’ particularly in the struggle to improve women’s position in society in the Mediterranean countries," said Ashbel. If they fail to do this, European politicians can be hooked into a kind of post-colonial syndrome and made to look small. In particular, they may refuse to accept any diminishment of women from the excuse of tradition.

"Then there should be no economic promotion programs and no money!" he said.

The final speaker was Daniel Taub, legal advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and negotiator with Syria and the Palestinians. He finds his job a balancing act.

"I am a man with two faces," Taub said, explaining how he, on the one hand, tries to explain Israeli defense measures to international audiences, while on the other, he works to make sure his government obeys international law.

If Israel doesn’t have all the answers in the fight against terror, "at least it asks the right questions," he said. Israel has, however, succeeded in providing people with security while ensuring that they retain their rights, a story which often goes unnoticed.

What needed to be made clear, said Taub, was that Israel "does not want the Palestinians to suffer; on the contrary, they want Palestinians – already the three-time victims of their own political representatives and the Arab world – to prosper in every way." For this to happen, Taub said, Palestinians need to develop a positive self-image; violence should be removed from Palestinian children’s television programs and schoolbooks.

"But how," he wondered, "can these many violent passages be replaced, as long as a concept of martyrdom is glorified?"

Childrearing is to a large extent the key to the prevention of future conflict, agreed WIZO International chair Brenda Katten, who raised the problem of conflicting values at the end of the conference.

"We are shocked when, from oversight, the innocent are killed instead of a terrorist," she said. "They, on the other hand, hand out sweets to children and celebrate on the streets when a lot of Israeli women and children are killed in a terrorist attack. As long as this is the case, we have a big problem."

With assistance by Dora Sacer and Colin Peters, adapted from an article originally published in Die Gemeinde, of the Jewish Community in Vienna.

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