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jewish women's international networks

Keynote speech given by Dr Karmela Belinki on 8 February 2015  at WIZO Finland 90 Years  Event

Jewish women's cooperation is implemented wherever there is a need. Some of the most noted  examples are UN World Conferences and other important international gatherings, where  international Jewish women's organisations form a block. It is cooperation for survival. A young  Jewish couple in Europe said not long ago that it is clear to them that a new Auschwitz is possible. It  is not a question of if, but when. To these young people Israel was the shield against this dismal  development.

In spite of political and religious divergences, not to mention personal ambition and envy, it is evident to Jewish women all over that cooperation, solidarity and defending the existence of the Jewish state are conditions for survival as Jews, as women and as human beings, who wish to live in accordance with western democratic principles.

But Jewish women's international cooperation is not limited to manifests pro-Israel or against anti-Semitism. There are social and moral issues involving Jewish women, which need attention all over the world. They are prevalent in the limbo between the different parts of Europe, to point out some burning issues.

Europe needs to define her own special needs and we European Jews our European-Jewish concepts based on our special conditions. What neither Europe nor European Jews need, are "besserwissers" with theoretical formulae without any understanding for practical needs. Women are needed in the positions where plans are made, structures formulated and economic needs assessed, and not only as executors of theoretical principles worked out by men. Of decisive importance is that European  Jews do not isolate from mainstream society, but participate in positive ventures and projects to show their willingness to achieve balance and harmony in a multicultural society.

It is 25 years since the walls came down for an essential part of Europe. I was in Berlin standing on a roof, when the masses tore down the wall and began to stream in from the holes. My feelings were very mixed. I was moved to tears, but on the other hand I was also frightened. It was the innate Jew who was scared, the journalist was excited and the woman wept. My colleagues from all over the world expected riots, but nothing happened. People were just happy and relieved on both sides. I was thinking of the millions of Jews, who were lost by the parents of these people, and by the unwillingness and incompetence of the allied forces to stop Stalin's ravaging.

We had all with interest followed the glasnost, which reflected on all these states, and conscious women considered the whole process of democratisation a very male dominated venture. We expected conservative and preservative winds to blow, because these countries had had very little chance to be part of the development of attitudes to the advancement of the position of women in the West. Parity in the East meant that women worked full time and had nobody to share household duties with. The Babushka institution had been their rescue, but what would happen now, when the laws of the land were determined by the free market?

The process is still in the first stage of motion, women from the East are trafficked to the West, and there are very few women in political top positions in the Central and Eastern parts of Europe, Jewish institutions not forgotten. I predicted in writing during the period of glasnost that the process would take at least one generation, perhaps more, because of the historical and "nostalgic" implications.

These parts of Europe had not exactly been in the forefront of equality between the sexes before Stalin. Old habits die hard and an interesting phenomenon appeared, when women wanted to be feminine women in a way which no longer applied in the West. They went back at least half a century in attitudes.

Jewish women in Europe are part and parcel of the countries where they live. They are both victims and partners in the development of their societies. I have met Jewish girls from Eastern European countries in houses of certain fame in Frankfurt and Antwerp and I am sure there are others elsewhere as well. I was aghast, not morally, but because these girls would not find their way through Jewish or other networks to another kind of life. I interviewed some of them in Frankfurt and not all of them came from deprived circumstances. I met a Russian Jewish physician, who said that in her new trade she earned in one month twice the annual salary in Russia for physicians and she knew how to take care of herself. She was in her late twenties, married and had a small boy. She was there
with her husband's consent. There were three Jewish girls in that house with fifty women. Impossible to say, whether that was the real ratio or just a coincidence. It was a depressive experience, not least because they were not trafficked against their better knowledge like the other girls whom I talked to.

Jewish women's international networks have also pioneered in creating fora for intercultural and interreligious dialogue all over the world. Dialogues based on common experiences as women have indeed been an opening in many cases. But dialogues alone do not solve conflicts. They can, however, be a useful instrument towards understanding. Jewish women's networks are not clan like cabals, but open to all Jewish women. There are highly
organised organisations with international experts from different echelons of society. There are also spontaneously arisen local groups that address Jewish women's concrete problems. Jewish women are not safeguarded from family violence, unemployment or school bullying. Jewish women have the same problems as other women. Jewish women's networks also encourage women to decision making in society.

Jewish women's networks are well known internationally. They are appreciated and sometimes also considered with anguish and envy. They are well organised and represent know-how on the highest  level in international organisations. But not even the best organisation or expertise can handle the violence and the rising hate movement against the Jews with their state as a pretext. Many debaters have even in Finland finally commented on the paradox that all other peoples have a right to their own country except the Jews.

Jewish women must continue to work for the survival of their people. That is what the Jews are never given a chance to forget. Those who defame do not see any difference between different Jewish religious or other fractions, between conscious Jews or those, who deny their origin. The Jews en masse are the enemy. The depressing prediction of a new Auschwitz by the young couple must be combated with all our might. In that combat women have a decisive role.

Some weeks ago millions of people marched in Europe for the freedom of expression. Simultaneously ordinary Jewish citizens in France mourned their brutally murdered kin, who had been shopping in a kosher store in Paris. In official statements anti-Semitism was for the first time in years mentioned without rhetoric or without comparison to other similar phenomena. 

It is no longer satisfactory that among women the debate about which cake is better takes up an hour of the meeting. Everybody cannot and need not participate in meetings on the international level, where every nuance must be interpreted and analysed. But it is the responsibility of every Jewish woman to be conscious of the responsibility of both the individual and the collective for the development of society, no matter where they live. Young women should be encouraged to take part in projects, if they do not have time or interest in long term organisational work.

Jewish women are no longer assistants or supporters to decisions made by men only. Every Jewish woman's duty is to contribute with her own knowledge and experience to the survival of the Jewish people and to Israel, without which there will be no Jewish future.

Am Israel Chai!