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2019
February
22
Friday

Mueller time may be coming. And whatever special counsel Robert Mueller concludes in a final report, it’s likely to send shock waves through Washington.

Will that alter the balance of US politics? Probably not, at least for a while.

Actually, we’re not sure what, if anything, Mr. Mueller is about to do. But many news outlets report that new Attorney General William Barr is preparing to receive a Mueller report as early as next week (reports today hinted that there could be a delay).

This report could take many forms. It could be a note saying he’s indicted everyone he wants to. It could be a detailed map to alleged malfeasance by more high officials.

Absent some shocking revelation, it’s unlikely to sway people’s minds. In today’s polarized world, partisans are too entrenched in their positions. Trump supporters will say there’s no proof of collusion with Russia. White House critics will point to patterns they deem circumstantial evidence of wrongdoing.

The thing to watch might be the messaging of Washington’s elite. If Republican lawmakers begin to sound more critical of White House actions, that could signal a tectonic shift. Democrats dialing back impeachment talk would mean the same thing the other way.

Remember, a Mueller report represents the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. He’s handed off investigations to regular Justice Department prosecutors, while New York State, House committees, and others continue.

“The truth is likely to come out – maybe not on the timetable anyone wants, but it will,” said former solicitor general Neal Katyal this week.

Now to our five stories for your Friday. 

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1. For government supporters in Venezuela, it’s all about the revolution

Changing our minds can be hardest when it means changing our identities, too. Amid Venezuela’s leadership crisis, that’s happening on a national scale. Some Chavistas are rethinking their support – but not all.

Peter
Rodrigo Abd/AP
A man carrying coveted loaves of bread passes a mural of Venezuela's former president Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela. President Nicolás Maduro, the embattled socialist leader, is holding on despite wide recognition of an interim president as well as international pressure.

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It’s a key moment of reckoning for Venezuela.

Nearly a month ago, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president, posing the biggest challenge so far to President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly iron-fisted rule.

But if the opposition is newly invigorated, for many others this is a moment of painful soul-searching. Mr. Maduro was supposed to be a “steward” for former president Hugo Chávez’s “21st Century Socialism.” In recent years, however, widespread hunger, sky-high inflation, rampant crime, and acute shortages have tested the faith of many Chavistas, as the venerated leaders’ supporters are called. Even among Venezuelans who don’t approve of how Maduro has handled the crises, belief in the revolutionary model often endures. “If the revolution [ceases to exist] I would lose my soul,” says Valeria Palacio, a supermarket vendor. “This is about the Chavista way of life.”

A key question for the opposition, then, is how to appeal to people like Ms. Palacio: Venezuelans who still venerate the revolution and its leader despite the disappointments of his successor.

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For government supporters in Venezuela, it’s all about the revolution

Valeria Palacio lives in a space dominated by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Her run-down apartment has a Chávez portrait painted on the living room wall and a little statue of the late socialist leader placed on a shrinelike coffee table, surrounded by his books and even a replica of his iconic red beret. 

But there is no sign of the current president, Nicolás Maduro, Mr. Chávez’s handpicked successor. “Venezuela is broken. Maduro has done poorly,” says Ms. Palacio, who works as a supermarket vendor.  

The widespread hunger, sky-high inflation, rampant crime, and acute shortages that have hit the country hard over the past three years have started to poke holes in many Venezuelans’ once unbreakable faith in the government. Maduro was supposed to be a “steward” safeguarding Chávez’s revolution, but instead, Palacio says, he’s “destroying” it. 

Yet she still supports him.

The former leader pulled millions of Venezuelans out of poverty and delivered government programs to some of the most ignored portions of the population, thanks to soaring oil prices. Palacio says she can’t let go of her hope that his revolutionary model will once again flourish. “If the revolution [ceases to exist] I would lose my soul,” she says. “This is about the Chavista way of life.”

Palacio isn’t alone in her struggle to square her passionate support for Chávez’s “21st Century Socialism” with a crumbling economy and bland but iron-fisted leader.

On Jan. 23, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared that Maduro’s most recent election was invalid, making Mr. Guaidó himself the nation’s interim president until a fresh vote can be held. Since then, the newly invigorated opposition has gained momentum, posing the biggest challenge so far to Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian government. Amid the visible growth in suffering across Venezuela, with an estimated 3 million fleeing over the past three years, some Chavistas – as supporters of Chávez’s political project are known – are starting to question some of their political beliefs and who represents them.

It’s a key moment of reckoning for Venezuela. Support for Maduro has dipped under 20 percent, according to Caracas-based pollster Datanálisis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority of Chavistas back the opposition. If Chavistas renounce Maduro, the opposition’s chances of taking the nation in a new direction increase. But to win them over, the opposition has to appeal to those like Palacio: Venezuelans who still venerate Chávez and his plans for the revolution despite the disappointments of his successor.

“Maduro and Chavismo are two different things. Maduro’s approval rating has been around 20 percent for the last three years while the popularity of Chávez and his revolutionary legacy have been slightly over 50 percent steadily,” says Luis Vicente León, a political analyst and director of Datanálisis.

‘Loyal always’

Guaidó is starting to make inroads among Maduro fans and Chavistas alike. He’s also appealed to constituents who say they didn’t feel a connection to any existing leadership option – in the opposition or otherwise.

“Guaidó has now a majority of Venezuelans behind him, roughly over 50 percent,” says Mr. León.

However, Chavistas still fill up the streets of Venezuelan towns in their signature red shirts, proclaiming steadfast support for the Maduro government. People of all ages gather at rallies alongside a striking presence of uniformed soldiers. Supporters dance, sing, and call out in unison slogans like “Loyal always, traitors never!”   

Pro-government demonstrators keep showing up for different reasons. Some say they support Maduro purely out of pragmatism: Despite acute shortages of basic food and medical products, the government still gives supporters handouts. Some 5.7 million people still receive food subsidies, according to government figures, and others have free housing or modest financial support. That could all disappear if Maduro falls.  

“The government is the people. They care about us. The opposition is only interested in power and money,” says a Chavista who introduced himself by a pseudonym, Armandio, at a recent rally in downtown Caracas. 

But others, like Palacio, are with Maduro only because of their deep belief in Chavismo. They call themselves “Chavistas of heart.” For them, 21st Century Socialism, as Chávez dubbed his revolution, was a great success until the economic downturn. Some are quick to blame the opposition for an “economic war,” a common Maduro refrain. 

“There are dark interests fighting against our revolution,” says Saul Romero, a self-proclaimed “diehard Chavista” who lives in the working-class neighborhood of Petare. The “rich global elite are after our oil, gold, and diamonds. They don’t care about democracy at all.”   

Mr. Romero, an electrician who has voted in all 23 elections since Chávez assumed the presidency in 1999, says the international aid stalled at the Colombia-Venezuela border is a hypocritical gesture, since he blames the US-imposed “embargo … blocking every financial transaction” for the shortages in food and medicine today.

“First, they harm us, and then they send us a pittance,” Romero says, agreeing with Maduro’s decision to block the foreign aid.

Others say they are ready to take up arms to defend the revolution. Supporters like Ángel, a Chavista in his 70s, are easy to find on the streets, usually sitting under tarps in areas called puntos rojos, or red points. These sites serve as meeting points for casual chats and meetings to plan grass-roots action. Some have formed militant groups to intimidate government critics.

“We are at war, my friend,” says Ángel, resting in a chair at the downtown Sabana Grande promenade. He’s overseeing part of the “10 million signatures campaign,” an initiative urging Maduro supporters to sign their names on official documents to denounce any possible US military invasion.  

Splintering support

Chavistas used to form a united, ideologically rigid block, but vocal dissidents are starting to emerge.   

“This regime is a criminal enterprise that plunders the natural resources and is bent on destroying every institution to achieve absolute control,” says Carlos Molina, who served as Chávez’s tourism vice minister and now supports the opposition. 

Guaidó and the opposition are encouraging more people like Mr. Molina to join them. His deputy in the National Assembly, Stalin Gonzales, suggests Chavistas should be part of the transitional government led by Guaidó.

This kind of outreach in a nation long defined by its political polarization is an attempt to appeal to and reassure people like Palacio, who see an ideological rupture between Maduro and Chávez.     

Palacio doesn’t appear poised to budge just yet. Under Chávez, “For the first time, we, the poor people, were recognized and represented in Miraflores,” she says, referring to the presidential palace.   

Romero agrees. He says revolutionary values like solidarity, equality, and high morals are deeply embedded in the hearts and souls of Chavistas. He remains a committed one, he says, and thus far the opposition and Guaidó haven’t offered enough to convince him otherwise.

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2. Back out in the open, Europe’s anti-Semitism kindles new response

Public figures harassed and cemeteries defaced in France. MPs in Britain abandoning a party they say is ignoring hatred against Jews. Old libels given new life by the far right. Why is anti-Semitism growing bolder?

Peter
Frederick Florin/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron looks at a grave defaced with a swastika at the Jewish cemetery in Quatzenheim, France, during a Feb. 19 visit with Josette Prim (r.), Quatzenheim's deputy mayor.

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Anti-Semitism has been a chronic problem for Europe, but it has come back to the fore in recent weeks. France has witnessed an especially shocking wave of anti-Semitic incidents this month, including the desecration of Jewish graves, which were daubed with swastikas. And in Britain, frustration with unaddressed anti-Semitism within the Labour Party led nine members of Parliament to leave the party this week, with future defections still speculated.

Anger at Israel constitutes a major strand in what has become known as “the new anti-Semitism” emanating from Muslim communities in Europe. But anti-Semitic prejudice is also surfacing more openly in Europe today as populist movements gain momentum on the strength of platforms promoting national identity and hostility to immigrants and other outsiders.

“We have seen a rise in populist movements, we’ve seen a rise in the appetite for conspiracy theories, and we’ve seen a deterioration of liberal democratic norms in several countries,” says Dave Rich, who works for a British group that monitors anti-Semitism. “And when those things happen, anti-Semitism finds its place.”

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Back out in the open, Europe’s anti-Semitism kindles new response

As dusk fell over Paris last Tuesday evening, some 20,000 people gathered around the iconic statue of “La République,” floodlit in patriotic red, white, and blue, to demonstrate their disgust at anti-Semitism.

“I can’t stand this racist filth anymore,” said Florent Nicoud, a bearded young filmmaker. “It makes me throw up.”

France has witnessed an especially shocking wave of anti-Semitic incidents this month, including the desecration of Jewish graves, which were daubed with swastikas.

But hate crimes against Jewish targets are on the rise across the continent, with increases reported last year in almost every country in Europe. As nationalist and populist movements have grown more powerful and Muslim citizens’ grievances against Israel have reinforced centuries-old European prejudices, anti-Semitic rhetoric is becoming more open.

“Our country, like Europe as a whole and almost all Western democracies, is facing a resurgence of anti-Semitism not seen since the Second World War,” French President Emmanuel Macron told the annual dinner of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions (CRIF) on Wednesday.

But how Europe should go about combating this trend is by no means clear. Despite the age and familiarity of the problem – or perhaps because of it – there are no quick solutions.

“Anti-Semitism is a consequence of much deeper divisions and trends in society,” says Dave Rich, head of policy for the Community Security Trust (CST), a British group that monitors anti-Semitism. “High levels of anti-Semitism will continue as long as society and politics are as divided and confrontational as they are now. So those deeper problems need to be addressed.”

A growing problem

“The new challenge in dealing with anti-Semitism is the same as the old one,” says Sigmount Königsberg, the Berlin Jewish community’s anti-Semitism commissioner. “Anti-Semitism has to be banned and made unacceptable.”

But anti-Semitism is growing increasingly acceptable in certain European quarters. “People who have these views are feeling more confident to express them,” says Mr. Rich. He blames social media and the “general deterioration in the tone and nature of public debate.” But he also holds political leaders responsible for creating a mood more tolerant of anti-Semitism.

Nine members of Parliament quit Britain's opposition Labour Party this week, citing anti-Semitism as one of their main reasons. Luciana Berger, a Jewish MP who needed a police escort when she attended the last Labour Party annual conference after receiving death threats, said the party was “institutionally anti-Semitic.”

“The more people see anti-Semitism within the Labour Party and its leadership, the more they think it’s acceptable,” worries Rich. “It’s normalized, because these are not fringe cranks; they’re leaders of the Labour Party.”  

Political leaders on the far right routinely denigrate Jews and downplay their suffering. Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, recently described Adolf Hitler and the Nazi era as a “speck of bird droppings in over 1,000 years of successful German history.”

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
People attend a national gathering to protest anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la République in Paris on Feb. 19.

A senator for the Five Star movement, a partner in Italy’s ruling coalition, was put under investigation earlier this month for promoting claims there is a Jewish plot to take over the world, citing the notorious forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

In a Swiss trend that the Alpine nation shares with other European countries, anti-racist activists have noted increasing numbers of hate messages on the internet. “Inhibitions are slowly disappearing and more and more agitators are acting openly under their real names,” according to the most recent report by the Swiss Foundation Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, a nongovernmental group.

‘A constant feature of European history’

Historically, spikes in anti-Semitic behavior in Europe have coincided with spikes in violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict, says Marc Knobel, research director at the CRIF. “Paroxysms of violence are imported from the Middle East to Europe, and Jews are made responsible for actions by the state of Israel,” he explains.

Anger at Israel constitutes a major strand in what has become known as “the new anti-Semitism” emanating from Muslim communities in Europe. “But the prejudices young Muslims express are no different from the ones you hear from the extreme right,” says Jean-Yves Camus, a specialist in anti-Semitism at the French Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Those prejudices and stereotypes, deeply ingrained in French society, hold that Jews are disproportionately and unfairly richer than other citizens and more politically influential. “Anti-Semitism has been a constant feature of European history for two millennia,” Mr. Camus points out.

Today, however, anti-Semitic prejudice is surfacing more openly in Europe as populist movements gain momentum on the strength of platforms promoting national identity and hostility to immigrants and other outsiders.

“We have seen a rise in populist movements, we’ve seen a rise in the appetite for conspiracy theories, and we’ve seen a deterioration of liberal democratic norms in several countries,” points out the CST’s Rich. “And when those things happen, anti-Semitism finds its place.”

Anti-Semitism is not only a product of clashing, polarizing political divisions; it could deepen them, warn Jewish leaders. “Beyond being a threat to Jews, anti-Semitism is a warning signal of a weakening of democracy in our country,” suggested Francis Kalifat, CRIF’s president, in a recent statement.

“When you attack Jews, you attack the Republic,” agrees Mr. Knobel. “The Republic is threatened by totalitarians who hate democracy and want to bring it down.”

No easy answers

That leads some to seek solutions in civic education. “We need to work out a way to encourage young people to see the value of a democratic system,” says Michael Sauer, president of the German Association for Political Education. “Holocaust education is important, but we also need to empower children so they don’t think it’s necessary to discriminate against others.”

“Children must be taught to have empathy,” adds Mr. Königsberg. “It’s not just about teaching the Shoah, but also showing that Jewish life is something normal in Germany.”

Those are long-term approaches, though. In his speech Wednesday, President Macron called for “decisive action,” promising legislation to ensure that messages on the internet promoting anti-Semitism are taken down faster, to make it easier to identify those who post such messages anonymously, and to make platforms such as Facebook legally liable for the content posted.

Camus would like to see sterner action by the police and courts. “If you knew that being an active anti-Semite could land you in jail, you’d think twice before insulting your Jewish neighbor,” he says.

In the meantime, however, demonstrations also help – some. “I don’t know if this changes much, but at least we can say ‘We’re here; you are not alone,’ ” said Mr. Nicoud, the filmmaker, as he brandished a placard reading “That’s Enough” at the Place de la République last Tuesday.

“We really value the support … of other communities,” says Marie van der Zyl, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. “These things really matter. There is good in humanity; I don’t want to lose sight of that.”

• Clifford Coonan in Berlin, Kristen Chick in London, and Dominique Soguel in Basel, Switzerland, contributed reporting to this article.

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3. One state asks: What if Girl Scouts, martial arts counted toward a diploma?

Lots of learning occurs outside the classroom – but doesn’t appear on transcripts. Our education reporter saw a chance to listen in on New Hampshire’s debate about the best way to balance individual choice with the collective public good.

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New Hampshire’s education commissioner recalls a robotics club at a Manchester high school where students were so engaged, they asked him if he could get the school to stay open later at night.

“They are learning programming,... engineering.... Why doesn’t that count?” says Frank Edelblut. “Can we help change that whole culture … and move beyond the idea that learning happens from 7:30 to 2:30?”

The Granite State is recognized as a pioneer in competency-based education – pushing students to show mastery of skills instead of just earning credits with “seat time.” But a new idea by the New Hampshire Board of Education would push the state into uncharted territory. Under the Learn Everywhere proposal, students in an approved theater group or business-based program, for instance, could earn credit to be applied to their high school transcript.

At a packed Feb. 14 public-comment session, educators, parents, and school board members raised concerns that Learn Everywhere would undermine the value of diplomas, and may exacerbate inequities.

But longtime advocates for more flexible education pathways hope the details can get worked out. “Why aren’t we … working our tails off to ensure that every single kid in this state gets to experience these kinds of opportunities?” asked Fred Bramante, a former chair of the State Board.

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One state asks: What if Girl Scouts, martial arts counted toward a diploma?

Ninth-grader Rachel Chubb never thought much about lake pollution – until she witnessed a fascinating debate about fisheries at the New Hampshire State House. She’s spending one day a month there this semester, interning as part of the Girls Rock the Capitol program run by the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains.

“It’s a lot more in depth and hands on, and you’re just thrown into a whole new world,” she says in a phone interview. “Even how people speak and act is different in classes or in textbooks [compared with] in real life.”

Students benefit greatly from rich opportunities to connect their learning to the “real world” of work, community involvement, or mentoring in disciplines ranging from the sciences to the arts. 

But how can that kind of outside learning be organized so that it counts toward a high school diploma?

New Hampshire is in the midst of this lively debate, one with undercurrents of some bigger questions playing out around the country: Does education need to be radically revolutionized, or is it best to innovate from within, with locally elected school boards acting as gatekeepers? What is the best way to balance individual choice with the collective public good?

The Granite State is widely recognized as a pioneer in competency-based education – pushing students to show mastery of skills instead of just earning credits with “seat time.” Many school districts here already partner with local businesses and nonprofits to offer internships and other extended learning opportunities (ELOs) that fulfill certain competency requirements.

But a new idea by the State Board of Education would push New Hampshire into uncharted territory yet again, allowing for-profit entities and nonprofits like the Girl Scouts to apply for accreditation to grant high school credits.

Under the Learn Everywhere proposal, students in an approved theater group or business-based program, for instance, could earn credit to be applied to their high school transcript. Such credits could potentially enable them to opt out of a class and take a study hall or a different elective, or even to graduate sooner.

“One thing that’s promising about this proposal is that it diversifies the people who could offer education, [including] … a lot of institutions that weren’t started as schools,” says Harvard professor Jal Mehta, coauthor with Sarah Fine of the forthcoming book “In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.”

They found that core classes often lack what extracurricular activities tend to boast – a sense of purpose and investment among students, and opportunities for more meaningful relationships with adults.

Learning in the off hours

Frank Edelblut, New Hampshire’s education commissioner, recalls a robotics club at a Manchester high school where students were so engaged, they asked him if he could get the school to stay open later at night.

“They are learning programming,... engineering. They’ve got budgets…. Why doesn’t that count?” he says in a phone interview. “Can we help change that whole culture … and move beyond the idea that learning happens from 7:30 to 2:30?”

Supporters of Learn Everywhere say it could help tailor more of the high school experience to individual needs and passions. It could tap community resources more efficiently, since a large company or nonprofit wouldn’t have to negotiate with multiple school districts to be able to offer credits.

Granting credit for extracurriculars is “an amazing idea, and it would keep a lot of [high-schoolers] in Girl Scouts,” says 11th-grader Clara Richman in a phone interview. She no longer has time for weekly troop meetings, but she has a part-time job at a day care, thanks to CPR training and people skills she developed in a Girl Scouts group that meets less frequently.

A concern: inequity

But at a packed Feb. 14 public-comment session at the Department of Education here, many educators, parents, and local school board members raised concerns that Learn Everywhere would undermine the value of local diplomas, and may exacerbate inequities.

“Is it going to be all-inclusive? When my student applies, are they going to be accepted if they have an emotional disability?” asked Esther Kennedy, director of student services in Gilford.

ELO coordinators sometimes have to send a nurse or paraprofessional to support students in their out-of-school experiences, Ms. Kennedy said. If the state authorizes other providers without the school district approving and coordinating participation, “Who is going to take care of that child that has an emotional breakdown [or] an epileptic seizure?”

Some educators also wondered why the State Board seems to want to reinvent the wheel instead of offering more support so districts can expand ELOs.

“Local control is as quintessential to New Hampshire as the unmovable granite on which our communities are founded,” said Bonnie Robinson, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment at Lebanon High School, which boasts a thriving ELO program. “The ELO coordinator [is] the gatekeeper of experiences and credits. It is through this path that academic integrity is maintained,” she said.

Doris Hohensee, now a school board member in Nashua, appealed to the State Board in 2005 when the district denied her son’s request for credit for an online advanced physics course. Despite losing that appeal, she spoke in favor of allowing local school boards to set limits on outside credits, noting that it would be difficult to budget for teachers and textbooks if students might start opting out of courses partway through the year in favor of Learn Everywhere credits.

But some school districts here don’t yet offer extensive ELOs.

“Why aren’t we … working our tails off to ensure that every single kid in this state gets to experience these kinds of opportunities?” said Fred Bramante, a former chair of the State Board who helped set up a rule more than a decade ago directing school districts to harness community resources to engage each student.

With a refined version of the Learn Everywhere rules expected this spring, Mr. Bramante’s views suggest one way a compromise might be reached: “To me, the ultimate local control is parents and kids,” he said after the hearing. But he also hopes the State Board considers incorporating local coordinators akin to the ELO structure.

The overarching goal isn’t hard to get people to agree on: creating lifelong learners.

“Students who are engaged in their learning … they learn how to learn. So now they can be much more effective as adults when they do enter the workforce and are challenged with new technologies … new problems they have to solve,” says Mr. Edelblut, the commissioner. “And better learners will be better citizens in the long run.”

 

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4. Too strong for other women? Why star runner’s case strikes a nerve at home.

Fairness is deeply embedded in ideas about sports. Just think of expressions like “fair play” or a “level playing field.” But figuring out what fairness really looks like is more complex than those metaphors let on.

Peter

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Caster Semenya is fast – Olympic-gold fast.

But this week, Ms. Semenya has been in a Swiss courtroom, challenging a proposed rule that could change the course of her running career. If the International Association of Athletics Federations’ rule holds, some female athletes who naturally have unusually high levels of testosterone would have to artificially lower them in order to compete as women.

It’s part of an ongoing debate about the blurry boundaries of sex and how they intersect with the clear-cut men-and-women categories of sports. It’s also a debate about deceptively complex issues of acceptance and fair play. 

But in Semenya’s home country of South Africa, where support for her is deafening, history also plays into how people perceive her case. Many see echoes of their own struggles, both personal and national, in hers. “When you’re being told to change something that you were born with, that you’re not in control of, or risk being discriminated against, that’s a pain that lots of South Africans know very well,” says Phuti Lekoloane, a professional soccer player.

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Too strong for other women? Why star runner’s case strikes a nerve at home.

Growing up in rural South Africa in the 1980s, Hlengiwe Buthelezi got used to hearing that she was too much.

Too strong. Too fast. Too much like one of the boys – whom she regularly outmatched in neighborhood pickup soccer games.

The only way she saw to fight it was to keep quiet. To run faster and kick harder and just pretend not to hear the whispers: She likes girls. She wants to be a man.

Today, Ms. Buthelezi co-organizes a competition called the AfroGames for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex athletes (LGBTI). And this week, every time she turned on the TV or picked up a newspaper, she saw something else her younger self never could have imagined. It was a woman who looked like her, who loved like her, fighting on a world stage for the right to be herself. And she had the support of millions of other South Africans behind her.

Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion runner at 800 meters, has spent the past week in front of a sports tribunal in Switzerland. She is challenging a proposed rule for runners that would require women with hyperandrogenism, a condition in which women naturally have unusually high levels of testosterone, to artificially lower the amount in their bodies in order to compete as women in events from 400 to 1600 meters. 

It’s a case that has sparked a global conversation about the blurry boundaries of sex and how to police those borders in sports neatly divided into men’s and women’s races. For many, it’s also a case about fairness: the fairness of accepting athletes as they are and the fairness of maintaining a level playing field – and about whether that’s even possible.

But in Ms. Semenya’s home country, support for her is deafening. In part that’s because so many people here, like Buthelezi, see echoes of their own struggles in hers – struggles that touch on sexual orientation and gender but also race, class, and nationality.

“When you’re being told to change something that you were born with, that you’re not in control of, or risk being discriminated against, that’s a pain that lots of South Africans know very well,” says Phuti Lekoloane, a professional soccer player. Having lived through apartheid and its aftermath, “we feel that pain with her.” 

A national symbol

Semenya’s fight began in 2009, when news leaked that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) was conducting a “gender verification test” on the runner. Hours later, she blasted past the competition, and her own personal best, to win the world championship in the 800 meters race. “It is clear that she is a woman, but maybe not 100 percent,” Pierre Weiss, secretary general of the IAAF, said at the time. 

For many South Africans, the announcement smacked of discrimination. If Semenya was being asked to “prove” she was a woman, they asked, why had the same thing not been asked of all her competitors, including the white ones?

In fact, varieties of “sex testing” have also been leveled against a number of white women in the past, as international sports authorities have stumbled for ways to authoritatively define the “boundary” between male and female competitors. The IAAF has argued that high levels of testosterone provide an unfair advantage, particularly in short events. Critics, on the other hand, hold that a whole host of factors, from resources to height to coaching, provide just as much of an advantage or more.

To many South Africans, the IAAF’s line of reasoning felt like yet another humiliating case of a black woman’s body being scrutinized for how it naturally looked. And so when Semenya was cleared again to compete in 2010, it felt to many here that she had confronted history and won.

“When you look at the history of South Africa, someone like this – a black woman, who comes from a poor background, who identifies as a lesbian – this is not someone who was set up by our society to be great,” says Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane, a human rights lawyer and a fellow at Sonke Gender Justice, a South African NGO. “But against all odds, she is. And for South Africans, that’s been a reason to stand up and collectively say you can’t take this away from her.”

‘I was born to do this’

And Semenya herself has cultivated a public persona that is brashly unapologetic about who she is – on and off the track.

“Would it be easier for you if I wasn’t so fast? Would it be simpler if I stopped winning? Would you be more comfortable if I was less proud?” she asks in a 2018 Nike commercial. “That’s too bad, because I was born to do this.”

Semenya’s openness about her sexual orientation in particular has made her an inspiration to a generation of LGBTI South Africans, many of whom say they grew up with few “out” celebrity role models.

“I’ve always looked up to her,” says Mr. Lekoloane, who in 2015 became the first gay man to publicly come out while playing in a professional soccer league here.

But Semenya’s achievements are in other ways also a reminder of how far the country still has to go in terms of acceptance, says Buthelezi, the AfroGames organizer.

“In South Africa, we are liberated in the books but not always in our own society,” she says. The country, after all, allowed gay marriage before the United States and has a constitution that specifically protects the rights of gay citizens. But it has also long struggled to translate those rights into social acceptance, and discrimination and violence against LGBTI South Africans is common. “With someone like Caster, because people love her so much, they are trying to understand,” Buthelezi says. “And that helps break the stigma.”

The South African government has pledged to financially support Semenya’s current challenge at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and on Wednesday the country’s minister of sport, Tokozile Xasa, flew to Lausanne to offer her support in person. A decision is expected in late March.

“What’s at stake here is far more than the right to participate in a sport,” Ms. Xasa said in a press conference last week. “Women’s bodies, their well-being, their ability to earn a livelihood, their very identity, their privacy and sense of safety and belonging in the world, are being questioned.” 

As she approached the final day of the hearing, Semenya seemed unbowed, tweeting to her 161,000 followers Thursday afternoon:

“Be fearless, be brave, be bold, love yourself.”

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5. Forget the Oscars: Why ‘Roma’ resonates with three Monitor families

“Roma,” the Academy Award-nominated film, has sparked conversation about underappreciated laborers. But for our Mexico correspondents, their shared experience includes love and gratitude for the nanny they all worked with.

Peter
Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Trey, Kate, and Gabriel LaFranchi posed in a 2013 reunion with their childhood nanny, Veronica Delabra, in front of the Mexico City house where the LaFranchis lived from 1996 to 2001. Veronica has been a nanny for three Monitor correspondents in Mexico City. Howard LaFranchi is now the Monitor’s chief diplomatic correspondent.

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In some ways, the movie heroine of “Roma” bears little resemblance to our Veronica, who has cared for three Monitor households and five Monitor children. To call Veronica Delabra a domestic worker feels off, even though by definition she counts among the 2.5 million of them in Mexico – putting children to bed, preparing them for school, cooking family meals, and folding clothes. But all three reporters – Sara, Howard, and Whitney – recognize the love: between nanny and child, and between nanny and employer. They recognize the force of stability that a nanny provides, and the blurred lines that can sometimes be confusing to navigate.

Sara treasures what Veronica’s mothering means to both her and her child. Whitney admits to the mixed emotions and jealousy that evolves into appreciation. And Howard, the first Monitor Mexico City correspondent to meet the nanny in 1995, says her arrival “turned out to be the biggest blessing of our Mexico years.”

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2. Forget the Oscars: Why ‘Roma’ resonates with three Monitor families

The movie “Roma,” vying for 10 Oscars on Sunday, including best picture, is an homage to domestic workers. For three Mexico City-based Monitor correspondents, it’s an homage to one particular domestic worker – Veronica.

The movie by Alfonso Cuarón is set in Colonia Roma, the Mexico City neighborhood where he was raised in the 1970s. The movie focuses its lens on Cleo, the nanny to four children in a middle-class Mexican household whom the director says was inspired by his own caregiver.

By telling their story through the perspective of the nanny, the movie takes an intimate look at racism, classism, and marginalization – and also the authentic love that forms from the natural mothering role that a nanny assumes.

In some ways Cleo bears little resemblance to Veronica, who has cared for three Monitor households and five Monitor children. To call Veronica a domestic worker feels off, even though by definition she counts among the roughly 2.5 million of them in Mexico – putting children to bed, preparing them for school, cooking family meals, and folding clothes.

Veronica grew up poor. One of 10 siblings born in Mexico City, she had to start work at age 14, with just an elementary school education. The job was in a perfume warehouse where she packed up the finished product. She finished high school when she got married, and then had two kids of her own.

When she first met Howard, she was in her 30s and not a young, rural woman like Cleo, who along with thousands of young muchachas travels from isolated towns to bigger cities to live with well-off families, often in separate parts of the house. Veronica was then, and still is now, happily nestled in her comfortable home on the southern edge of the capital.

But all three of us recognize the love; between nanny and child, and between nanny and employer. We recognize the force of stability that a nanny provides, and we recognize the blurred lines that can sometimes be confusing to navigate.

The LaFranchis

As my wife and I drove south through Mexico City that July night in 2001 – we’d chosen a performance at the beaux-arts Bellas Artes performance hall to bid farewell to the Mexican capital we’d called home for seven years – the rain pelting our windshield filled me with a sense of relief.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Kate and Trey LaFranchi help their nanny, Veronica, sweep the driveway of the family’s first Mexico City home in 1995.

We were headed to the modest home of our domestic helper, Veronica, who had agreed to watch our three children one last time. The next morning we would board a plane back “home” to the States (where our children had never lived). And the way I figured it, the driving rain would require a quick, efficient transfer of kids from house to car.

With the unsentimental priority being to keep everyone dry, there would be no time for teary acknowledgments of the enormity of the moment. No inadequate declarations of how much this diminutive woman with soft brown eyes, occasional wry smile, and boundless heart had meant to my family and to me.

And at first all went according to plan. The rain barely allowed for quick hugs before I got our two older kids out to the car’s back seat. I dashed back inside to grab Gabriel, our chilango (meaning born in Mexico City) – who had only known life with Veronica, now bundled up in a blanket and asleep in her arms.

Then it happened. As I reached for my slumbering son, one of his legs, exposed below little boy shorts, slipped out of the blanket. With a gesture that suddenly encapsulated for me everything that Veronica had been to us, she clasped that little leg and said softly, “Adios, mi amor.”

The rains continued to pound, but it no longer mattered. The tears flowed.

I recalled that sweet scene on the evening over Christmas when we five LaFranchis assembled in our TV room for a viewing on Netflix of “Roma.” We’d all agreed it would be interesting, and surely nostalgic, to compare our Mexico City experience with the one in the movie. Only Gabriel, now 23, expressed the slightest apprehension about a movie I’d said told the story of a Mexico City family’s relationship with their Mixteca housemaid.

“Uh-oh,” he’d said, “sounds like a tearjerker.”

Yet while the movie indeed conjured up a swirl of memories for all of us – especially the sounds it reproduced, from the sharp, sad whistle of the evening sweet potato vendor, to the clang-clang of the garbage collector’s bell, and the chock-a-block architecture of the city’s residential streets – the young housemaid’s relationship with the family she worked for seemed so different from ours with Veronica, that all eyes remained dry.

Veronica had come to us after a younger cousin of hers had dropped us cold to cross over to el Norte.

It turned out to be the biggest blessing of our Mexico years.

I know that Veronica didn’t become part of our family overnight. But looking back, it seems like it was no time before she was an essential part of us. Yes, she cleaned our house, washed our clothes, and prepared comida, our midday meal (all before returning home to her own family). And that would have been enough.

But somehow – and this is where that boundless heart comes in – she had the capacity to be to us a guard, a guide (life in Mexico City can be daunting), a mother, a friend. Having Veronica in our home allowed me to be the roving Latin America correspondent I was, because I knew my family was cared for and safe. It allowed my wife to return to her career as a lawyer, because she knew our kids, and especially our newborn Gabriel, were not just in good hands, but were loved.

Some of our Mexico City friends, both Mexican and American, were incredulous if we ever let on that we often called on Veronica to get our kids to and from school. Many of the Mexican children at our kids’ private elementary school were picked up by burly chauffeurs wearing reflective sunglasses and driving black Suburbans. One of my sweetest memories is of a little guero (white-skinned) Gabriel happily taking Veronica’s darker-toned hand for the ride on the pesero (the one-peso bus) to his pre-K school.

That memory of how (and why) we confidently placed our kids in Veronica’s care came to me at the end of “Roma.”

In the film’s climactic scene, the young maid wades out into deep and tugging surf to save her work family’s drowning boy, even though she does not know how to swim.

Up until that moment only a few things in the movie had reminded me of our years with Veronica. But as that maid pulled the boy to safety and the family hugged for dear life, I thought, I recognized that fierce love.

We know that boundless heart.

The Llanas

When I arrived in Mexico, Howard gave me the best piece of advice he could: Call Veronica.

I didn’t. Children seemed a long way away for me, I was consumed by my work as a new foreign correspondent, and I couldn’t understand his urgency. Only when I met her years later, eight months pregnant, did I realize my own foolishness. Today we call her abuela, or grandmother.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Veronica accompanies Sara Miller Llana’s daughter into the ocean near Tulum, Mexico. Veronica does not swim. In March 2013, this was her second visit to the beach ever.

That term has raised questions for our daughter as she has gotten older. “But how is she my grandmother?” she will ask. “Is Mario [her grandson] my cousin?” She was only 2-1/2 years old when we left Mexico for France. I tell her the story of Veronica visiting us six months later in Paris. We opened the door to our courtyard, and as Veronica walked through, our toddler, who was facing forward in a baby carrier, had a look of angst, anger, and the purest sadness. Her bottom lip quivered as it turned downward and she burst into tears – the reaction of someone who has felt abandoned by someone loved dearly. Within minutes she was in Veronica’s arms. We have been calling each other every two weeks for more than five years.

When I watched “Roma,” however, I was brought back not so much to Veronica’s relationship with my child, but my own relationship with her as a mother. Cleo was an anchor of stability to the four children, and never more so than after their father walked out on their mother. My marriage wasn’t dissolving, but all was not well.

Motherhood did not come easily to me. I was overwhelmed by the new world of parenting, by a new sense of vulnerability and helplessness over the things one can’t control. My mom visited me. So did my sisters and my best friend. But I felt lonelier than I ever had. I burst into tears the first week Veronica started with us. I knew intellectually I should maintain some boundaries, given that Veronica was, after all, working for us. But the line evaporated that day. I cried so many times to her afterward, about so many things. We also laughed about so much. She, in effect, became my Mexican mother. My own mother wrote her a note when we left Mexico. She didn’t thank her for caring for her granddaughter. She thanked her for taking care of me.

When we had our first big earthquake – the kind that did damage to our home – I was at a coffee shop writing a story. I remember grabbing my computer and running home as the buildings still shook, losing my power cord and mouse along the way. When I walked through my door, there was Veronica, shaken in a cloud of dust as one of our walls crumbled, and clutching my daughter. She confided to me that she thought it was the end, for both of them. And that she would clasp fiercely onto her until the end. Just like her abuela.

The Eulichs

When I confirmed my move to Mexico City in 2014, I immediately reached out to my colleagues Sara and Howard. “Who should I talk to?” I asked, referring to sources like academics, analysts, or government officials.

Whitney Eulich
Veronica holds correspondent Whitney Eulich’s newborn, the most recent Monitor Mexico City baby, on Oct. 22, 2016.

Both gave the same answer: Call Veronica.

I wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids, so it felt like a pretty out-of-touch suggestion. But flash-forward 5-1/2 years, a wedding, and one toddler later, I now understand why both felt Veronica was the most important person to know in Mexico.

I’m immensely fortunate – as has been the Monitor over the past 25 years – to have someone caring for my child during the workday who came with more than two decades of glowing, personal references. But it wasn’t without some mixed feelings: I was handing over my baby each morning for another person to love and nurture while I set up interviews and tapped out stories at my computer one room over.

I remember the time I went into my daughter’s room at the end of the day and waiting the minute or two (which felt like an eternity) for Veronica to pass her into my arms: I was jealous. I never doubted my desire to return to work, but, like many working parents, I “wanted it all,” including the most time and the strongest bond possible with my infant.

As my daughter grew and it became evident she knew exactly who her mom was, that jealousy dissipated and transformed into gratitude. I saw one big reason reflected back to me in the film “Roma.” There’s a scene where the family is piled on the couch watching TV and Cleo is tidying up around them. At one point she bends down to pick up a dish and one of the young boys drapes his arm around her. She leans into him, each soaking up the other’s affection: It’s a moment of effortless love.

A few weeks ago I was walking upstairs to my office just as Veronica was putting my daughter down for a nap. Te amo (I love you), my toddler’s high-pitched, singsong voice called out as Veronica left the room. “Te amo,” Veronica responded through the cracked door – the same words she has cooed to four other Monitor children over two decades.

And so, one day, when a Monitor correspondent asks me who she needs to know in Mexico, the only name to even cross my mind will be “Veronica.”

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The Monitor's View

The pocketbook case for EVs

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Owning an electric vehicle today may seem as expensive and unnecessary as smartphones did when those were new. But technology and innovation have moved faster than public perceptions. If Americans today think about EVs at all, they are likely to assume that EVs are expensive and, perhaps most worrying, that their batteries will run down and leave them stranded. 

But the first assumption is already largely wrong, and the second is fast becoming so. In the next few years a slew of new EVs from nearly every major world automaker will be arriving on dealer lots, many priced competitively. Cost of ownership has declined. Strides have been made that address “range anxiety.” 

With the need to cut carbon pollution becoming more urgent each day, a transition to EVs can be an important part of the solution. The idea that owning an EV requires a sacrifice of cash and convenience beyond what most people will be willing to make is fading. Environmental stewardship and shopping for the best bargain are about to join hands.

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The pocketbook case for EVs

Who would have imagined back in the late 20th century that ordinary folks would carry powerful computers in their pockets or purses that would open up new ways of communicating? Yet today even people of modest means wouldn’t do without their smartphones.

Owning an electric vehicle (EV) now may seem just as expensive and unnecessary as a smartphone did back then. But as is often the case, technology and innovation move faster than public perceptions.

If Americans today think about EVs at all, they are likely to assume EVs are expensive and, perhaps most worrying, that their batteries will run down and leave them stranded (a concern often called “range anxiety”).

But the first assumption is already largely wrong, and the second is fast becoming so.

In the next few years a slew of new EVs from nearly every major world automaker will be arriving on dealer lots. Last year the average price of a new car in the United States topped $35,000. Many new EVs will sell for something close to that – and that’s before subtracting government rebates or tax incentives.

Buyers who look beyond the sticker price to the true cost of ownership find more good news. On average in the US, it costs less than half as much to travel per mile in an EV than in a gas-powered vehicle, according to the US Department of Energy.

EVs also cost much less to maintain than gas-burning vehicles with internal combustion engines, a technology first developed in the 19th century.

And what of range anxiety? While the driving range per charge of the new wave of EVs is over 200 miles, that’s still short of the 400 miles or more vehicles can travel on a tank of gas. But if shoppers look at how far they drive in an average day running errands or commuting, most will find 200 miles is more than enough.

What’s still needed (and on the way) are many more public charging stations that allow EVs to extend their daily range. Cities, states, and private employers are providing more and more of these: California, New Jersey, and New York alone plan to invest $1.3 billion in charging stations. And at least one entrepreneur is using an Uber or Airbnb model to match EV drivers with available nearby public or private charging facilities.

EVs won’t be just sedans, either. An all-electric pickup truck being underwritten by Amazon may be on the streets by next year. And the first company to get an all-electric SUV to market is likely to find it’s a winner.

With the need to cut carbon pollution becoming more urgent each day, a transition from fossil fuels to EVs could be an important part of the solution. Many governments recognize this: Norway aims to ban sales of gas and diesel cars by 2025; India, Ireland, Israel, and the Netherlands by 2030; and Britain by 2040. Volvo will stop making cars that run only on gas or diesel this year, and Volkswagen will follow in 2026.

The meme that owning an EV requires a sacrifice of cash and convenience beyond what most people would be willing to make is fading before our eyes. Environmental stewardship and shopping for the best bargain are about to join hands.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Overcoming our intolerance of the intolerant

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Today’s contributor explores the idea of disarming the temptation to respond in kind to those who hate us by coming to value the nature of all as God’s creation through new views of God’s goodness and love.

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Overcoming our intolerance of the intolerant

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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For the past decade and a half since I returned to England after a spell abroad, I’ve felt there was less prejudice than when I left, including in regard to the anti-Semitism I’d faced as a Jewish teenager.

These days, however, signs that progress is still needed are coming to the fore. Just this week, seven British Members of Parliament resigned from the main opposition party, citing anti-Semitism in party ranks as a major reason. Meanwhile, rallies have taken place around France in protest against the rise in anti-Semitic attacks there, while The New York Times reported that of 55 hate crimes in New York City so far this year, nearly two-thirds have targeted Jews.

Prejudice in all forms is a terrible trait, with no justification, and it needs to be overcome. But from experience, I’ve found how tempting it can be to nurse intolerance of the intolerant. To resist this temptation isn’t to say we should let hateful acts go unaddressed or stop holding people accountable for their behavior. It’s about avoiding the trap of becoming a hater ourselves.

I had to learn this over time. But to do so took a change in perspective from a mainly material sense of myself and others to a more spiritual understanding of one and all, through understanding the example of Jesus and learning about Christian Science. The latter helped me see what Jesus had done in a new light. I came to understand how he shows us the healing Christ, the true idea of what it means to love as God loves, which we can all learn to emulate, step by step.

For instance, Christ Jesus evidenced such mental freedom in the face of hostility. He articulated and epitomized the idea of loving our enemies and even turning the other cheek to those who strike us, and loving those who hate us and not just those who love us. The basis for his ability to do this was his crystal-clear understanding that God is Love, and that the true nature of all is a spiritual nature we each inherently have that concretely expresses that divine Love.

In striving to understand what that demanded of me in practice, I realized my intolerance for those I feared, though humanly logical, was self-defeating. Heaping hatred on top of my fear was just taking more of my thought away from perceiving and feeling God’s love. Even if just for our own sake, I saw, we need to turn that other cheek.

But doing so does more than just bring us an inner sense of freedom from negativity. It also frees us to see the debilitating nature of hatred’s influence over those succumbing to its silent allure, and to wholeheartedly desire their freedom, too – to see that hatred isn’t so much anyone’s personal opinion as it is an impersonal, mental imposition on people that derives from a limited, mistaken view of life and mind as material. To love spiritually is to see that the opposite and truly substantial mentality that is the divine Mind, God, alone has authority over all of us. It is to trust that a humble acceptance of that truth can reach beyond the borders of our thought to touch the heart of somebody, somewhere, who’s ready to be liberated from what Martin Luther King Jr. described as the burden of hating.

Even politically, it could be argued that intolerance of the intolerant adds fuel to the fire. But more profoundly, if we want to bring the healing power of God’s love to bear on overcoming prejudice, we need to yield the human logic of reactions to higher views of everyone that can lead us to inspired practical steps.

As Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered Christian Science, once put it, echoing Jesus’ example: “I would enjoy taking by the hand all who love me not, and saying to them, ‘I love you, and would not knowingly harm you.’ Because I thus feel, I say to others: Hate no one; for hatred is a plague-spot that spreads its virus and kills at last” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” pp. 11-12).

Can we stand firmly against intolerance while at the same time doing the hard work of making the commitment to “hate no one”? Can we sincerely utter these same words of love when we think of those who speak or act out of hostility based on whatever harmful identifier they associate with us? The task of continuing to make gains in dismantling prejudices such as anti-Semitism might depend on more and more of us unleashing the healing influence of being able to answer, “Yes.”

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Viewfinder

Persian powder day

Changiz M. Varzi
Mohammad Parsafar, a snowboard instructor, performs a jump at Darbandsar Ski Resort in Iran. Resorts near the capital, Tehran, are frequented by upper-class Iranians and families of foreign diplomats. In the 1960s, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, with a goal of westernizing the country, helped make skiing popular. (After the shah was overthrown in 1979, the resorts applied Islamic law to show the world that all aspects of Iranians’ lives had been changed by the revolution.) This year, with a sharp rise in the price of ski gear and a 36 percent increase in the price of entry tickets, even the wealthy have refrained, feeling the bite of the latest economic sanctions on Iran. (For more images, click on the blue button below.)
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( February 25th, 2019 )

Come back Monday. We’ll be looking at how societal groups in Afghanistan, particularly women, are likely to be affected by a peace deal with the “new” Taliban.

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