I was privileged to attend the President’s Conference with my good friend Corinne Berzon. Having a buddy to hold your place in line while you run to the bathroom is invaluable. Having her back you up when you loudly protest the stealing of your stall is priceless. This piece is our tale of two women.
We were stoked to be there and to hear from a wide range of intellectuals, businesspeople, politicians and activists.
As far as the headliners go, the fairer of species had four prominent representatives. One of whom was Sharon Stone, actress and apparent peace activist, and another Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Dutch-American women’s advocate who has faced many trials and tragedies.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer also headlined at the conference and spoke candidly and refreshingly on her area of expertise -sex- and even gave homework!
Ms. Weili Dai, co-founder of Marvell Technology Group, spoke Hebrew, wowed the crowd with her confidence and knowledge and used pizza as the analogy to explain her technology saying that she’s a ‘mom’ and so, relates a lot to food. The shout-out to the moms in the crowd was much appreciated!
For now we will focus on the first two: Stone is the Cultural Chair of YALA, a non-sectarian online organization for peace in the Middle East. Ali founded the women’s rights group the AHA Foundation and is an outspoken critic of radical Islam. Having endured the horror of female genital mutilation and escaped an arranged marriage, Ali is a fierce opponent of these practices. Her book Infidel was a bestseller world-wide, and she has faced, and continues to face, threats of violence from the Muslim world.
We listened to both of these beautiful and statuesque women, and were dumbstruck by the differences between them. On the one hand, Sharon Stone who memorably described herself as “hot and sexy,” and on the other Ayaan Hirsi Ali who offered sharp political insights while maintaining an air of dignified modesty. At one point during the plenary which Stone participated in, she was asked by Ms. Tamar Ish Shalom how she is able to remain neutral on the question of the Israeli Palestinian conflict when so many of her colleagues pick sides. It was a very interesting question that gave her the opportunity to express the possibility of working towards peace without placing blame solely on one party. It was an ideal opportunity for her to discuss her own organization’s platform and be an example. Instead, Stone paused, flipped her hair and answered: “That question is like a marshmallow wrapped in bacon.”
Instantly hundreds of people looked up from their phones, laptops and tablets in disbelief and confusion. What the heck is a marshmallow wrapped in bacon? What is she trying to say? At this point I tweeted: “A train wreck. I’m watching a train wreck,” and Corinne concluded out loud: “I guess we found out who drank that missing bottle of wine from the TOI meet-up.” As the dust from that bombshell settled, Stone continued by saying that we all love babies, and whether or not they are Palestinian or Israeli we cannot help but want to bite their pudgy thighs. So this is her position? That we should have peace so we can cannibalize each other’s babies? I know that I am not the only one who was disappointed. Most likely, Ms. Stone was looking to say that we are all people and if we just want it hard enough, peace will come (in fact this is what she said later in the week). We wanted to hear a reality-based, inspiring, engaging, encouraging- or at least lucid- perspective. Instead we were confused about why she was even present at the conference.
Sharon Stone’s underwhelming presentation was a stark contrast to that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. While she spoke in the first day’s opening plenary, it was her master class that truly impressed. Corinne insisted we stand in line nearly an hour before the session, and for that entire hour sang Ali’s praises. Hoping that I wouldn’t be disappointed by the second female headliner, we sat as close to the podium as possible while Corinne swooned. From the moment she began to speak, I was captivated. Ali was poised and eloquent. She spoke with clarity and conviction. Country by country, Ali analyzed the Arab Spring, the conditions and outcomes of each local uprising and the potential long-term repercussions of this phenomenon. She spoke of the poverty and lack of direction that have given Al Qaida and other terror groups fertile ground for recruitment. She pointed out what so many who praise the overthrowing of relatively stable regimes choose not to see- that when a power is removed, another major power steps in.
Ali described Saudi Arabia as the Darth Vader of Darth Vaders, but pointed out that since Wikileaks we know that they would rather deal with Israel than Hamas. She spoke of the brain drain and of the very real potential for war over water. In under 45 minutes she provided an astute, accurate and insightful analysis of the dangerous and delicate balance we find ourselves in. Ali spoke of a frightening reality but ended with a message of hope. If we can resist the tide and stand up for democracy then we may be able to survive the wave of violence and extremism threatening our shores.
At the close of the session, Ali was asked how, after all she had seen and endured, she could still have such a wonderful sense of humor. She replied that she has met numerous Holocaust survivors, and is always amazed by how funny they are. She concluded: “The funniest people I know have been through the worst.” We walked out impressed and inspired, feeling like we had gained knowledge and a bit of understanding.
What differentiated the two experiences was perspective and a willingness to speak the truth. These are things you cannot buy and you cannot fake. While Aayan Hirsi Ali seeks the dissemination of truth and the open discussion of what our best options are, Sharon Stone wants us all to know that babies have cute thighs and hopes and dreams. Somehow she feels that this will bring peace.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali has perspective in spades. While one certainly cannot fault Sharon Stone for not having been born into the struggle and strife that enables this perspective, if one is going to take up an issue, then one had better get some.
Without it? Well, that’s just like a marshmallow wrapped in bacon.