Conservative Women’s Summit sparks campus dialogue

 Photo by Yingke Yang ’20  Kassy Dillon ’18 (far left), president of Mount Holyoke College Republicans, interviews Beverly Hallberg, Ally Stuckey and Kaya Jones (left to right).

Photo by Yingke Yang ’20

Kassy Dillon ’18 (far left), president of Mount Holyoke College Republicans, interviews Beverly Hallberg, Ally Stuckey and Kaya Jones (left to right).

BY  AVA BLUM-CARR ’21

Students and community members gathered in Gamble Auditorium last Wednesday for the Conservative Women’s Summit, an event hosted by the Mount Holyoke College Republicans and sponsored by the Young America’s Foundation, the Zionist Organization of America, the Israel on Campus Coalition, the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute and the Weissman Center for Leadership. 

The evening was divided into two sections, “Israeli/Palestinian Conflict in the Trump Era” and “Conservative Women in Media: Feminism and Fake News.” Nonie Darwish, founder of the organization Arabs For Israel and self-styled Islam critic, gave a speech and took questions from the audience for the first portion of the event. For the second half of the evening, Kassy Dillon ’18, president of the Mount Holyoke College Republicans, moderated a panel discussion between three conservative women from the media industry.

“I chose the speakers for the last event based [on] their platforms and experiences. I think each of them were able to offer a unique perspective and represent different types of ideologies,” said Dillon. “Overall, we aimed to invite speakers that would foster conversation and dialogue.” 

In her discussion of Israel, Darwish focused on her personal interpretation of Islam. She began her speech by discussing her upbringing in the Middle East. Darwish was born and raised as a Muslim in Cairo, Egypt, and also lived in the Gaza Strip at a time when the area was under Egyptian control. “I lived my whole childhood at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Darwish said. She spoke of her father, a lieutenant general in the Egyptian Armed Forces. “His mission was to destroy Israel,” she said. “A lot of death and destruction happened in Israel [because of Egypt], and Israel retaliated and killed my father.” 

Darwish described a process of indoctrination carried out by the religious establishment in mosques, claiming to have grown up attending weekly services that culminated in cursing Jewish people. “If you grew up in this kind of atmosphere as a child, it can feel and sound normal. Hatred becomes normal,” said Darwish. 

Upon visiting America for the first time, Darwish said she came to the conclusion that the religions of Christianity and Judaism have values that differ immensely from that of Islam. “I realized, something is wrong with my culture,” said Darwish. “Biblical values and Islamic values are mirror opposites of one another.” Darwish’s condemnation of the Muslim faith was unequivocal. She claimed that “every page” of the Quran encourages the killing of non-Muslims. “This is the basic doctrine of Islam,” said Darwish. 

Many audience members had questions for Darwish after the conclusion of her speech. Dillon went first, pointing out that there are a wide variety of interpretations of all religions and asking Darwish if she truly believed that the majority of Muslims in America and in the world hold the beliefs that she discussed. “There are many people who are attempting to fix that side of Islam that splits humanity between good and evil,” Darwish replied. “How they are going to fix it? I don’t know. That’s why I’m not a Muslim anymore.”

Another student in the audience asked why Darwish chose to concentrate on her personal interpretation of Islam rather than the geopolitical aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. “Because it’s the core of why we have an Arab-Israeli conflict,” Darwish responded. “If anybody denies that, they don’t want to know the truth. The whole thing is about [Israelis] being Jews. [The Quran] says clearly to Muslims, these are enemies of Allah and it’s your duty to kill them.”

Francesca Eremeeva ’20 questioned Darwish’s claim that Islam was fundamentally incompatible with democracy and diametrically opposed to Judaism. She asked Darwish to comment on the future of a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians in light of her earlier statement. 

“Well, that’s the million-dollar question. I don’t have a solution,” said Darwish. 

“I would maybe start with not saying that [Islam and Judaism] are completely opposite, and maybe finding commonalities between the two,” retorted Eremeeva. “That is good wishful thinking,” Darwish replied.

“The question-and-answer period was one of the best I’ve ever heard from the standpoint of the questions being asked. They were good because people had been listening to [Darwish], disagreeing with her and getting up to ask questions instead of just screaming,” said professor of economics Jim Hartley. “She couldn’t answer them, but I think it’s helpful to see that.”

“I really appreciate that students asked Nonie Darwish tough questions,” Dillon said after the event. “There is no doubt that she went off topic a lot and said provocative things.” Dillon added that this portion of the event was intended to be a panel discussion that included another speaker who held vastly different views than Darwish. “Sadly, the speaker informed us that she could not come last minute,” said Dillon. 

“To have [Darwish] represent the conservative voice of the Arab-Israeli conflict was a disgrace to the conflict and completely took away from the importance of having a dialogue regarding such a complex, polarizing and emotional issue,” said Eremeeva in reflection about the event. “She was disrespectful, divisive and, frankly, she made me embarrassed to go to an event at my school that chose to highlight such a poor speaker for such an important issue.”

After an intermission, the audience reconvened for the panel discussion, and Dillon introduced each of the panelists. The first panelist, Beverly Hallberg, is the president of District Media Group and a frequent guest on Fox News and CNN. The second, Allie Stuckey,  blogs under the name “The Conservative Millennial,” and hosts a show on the conservative network CRTV. The third panelist, Kaya Jones, is a pop singer and the Native American ambassador to the Diversity Coalition for Trump. The three speakers discussed a range of issues, including the potential dangers of “fake news,” feminism and the Trump presidency.

Hallberg spoke first on the subject of “fake news” and argued that most of the media we consume is biased in some way and should rarely be taken as complete fact. “I really don’t like the term fake news,” said Hallberg. “These cable networks are businesses and they’re here to make money. You have to sit back and ask yourself, ‘am I viewing this as straight journalism, meaning they’re telling me everything that’s important, or do I realize there’s an opinion behind it?’”

“I think that there’s also something called confirmation bias. It’s human nature to want to watch the things that we already agree with,” added Stuckey. “I don’t think it’s possible not to be biased. We all have bias, but I think it’s so important to work around it because otherwise we’re not going to have the kind of productive dialogue on which this country is founded.  It doesn’t benefit any of us to stay in our ideological echo chambers.”

The panelists had differing opinions when asked by Dillon if they identified as feminists. “I do consider myself a feminist but I think my definition may be different than what people normally think,” said Hallberg. “I have attended the past two Women’s Marches, because I wanted to see whether my ideas would be represented there, and they weren’t.”

She added, “We should realize that women have a wide variety of issues and perspectives. To say that women solely care about reproductive rights — I actually think this is insulting to women. I care about a lot of things. I care about taxes and healthcare and foreign policy.” 

Stuckey said that she does not consider herself a feminist. “Ultimately, I decided that I don’t need feminism to describe what I have always believed, which is that men and women have equal, inherent worth. I don’t need to slap a trendy label on that,” she said.

The conversation then turned to the panelists’ opinions on Donald Trump’s presidency. Hallberg, who did not vote for Trump, said that she was pleased with some of the policies enacted by the administration but disappointed by others. “I thought the tax reform was amazing,” said Hallberg, but she added that the president’s style of communication is worrisome to her. “I criticize the president a lot on how he speaks. I work in communications, so rhetoric is extremely important to me, and I actually think his language is very divisive,” said Hallberg. “I worry about his style of negotiation because I think the way we talk about things truly changes what happens in the future.”

Stuckey agreed to an extent about these shortcomings. “I voted for [Trump] because I felt he was the only alternative, but I’ve been pretty critical of him. I certainly haven’t liked his Twitter history and some of the things he’s said, and there are even things I perceive as character and leadership flaws,” said Stuckey. “His is going to be a results-based presidency ... If he builds the wall and defunds Planned Parenthood, he definitely has my vote in 2020.”

“I love him. I love everything that he’s doing,” Jones said simply. This comment was met by applause from some members of the audience. All three panelists seemed to share the view that President Trump has been treated unfairly by the media. “The narrative that’s being pushed is that he wasn’t elected by the people, that this was some fraudulent thing that happened from Russia,” said Jones. “This is the president of the United States, he was elected by the people.”

“I thought [the second panel] was fantastic. It was beautiful in the sense that you couldn’t agree with all three of them about everything and they really made you think,” said Hartley. “It would be nice if that was a more normal part of education here.”

Reflecting on the evening as a whole, Dillon said that she hopes students took away from the event the idea that conservatism is not monolithic and that dialogue is necessary. “Shouting down speakers is never productive,” Dillon added. “I am so proud of my Mount Holyoke community for being respectful and asking hard questions.” 

Lili Paxton ’21 did not share this conclusion. “I decided to go because I wanted to see what type of people the College Republicans would invite, and I was extremely disappointed that the Weissman Center would contribute any funding to these people who said such Islamophobic and sexist things,” Paxton said. 

“There’s something good for Mount Holyoke about bringing speakers that people disagree with,” Hartley said. “No one ever wants to bring in a speaker they disagree with, and that’s sad to me, because if all you ever hear from is people we agree with, you never learn anything.”  

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