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Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.

2017
November
13
Monday

“I believe the women, yes.”

Those five words are, in some ways, groundbreaking. On Monday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell asked fellow Republican Roy Moore to drop out of the Alabama Senate race. He said he believed several women who accused Mr. Moore of molesting them when they were teenagers decades ago.

Now, Mr. McConnell has plenty of purely political reasons to disavow Moore. Moore has repeatedly bashed McConnell as an ineffective leader. Yet the words still matter.

The history of sexual crime is a history of male dominance. And recently, the crime has often hidden behind a question: Who is to be believed? Countless women have remained silent because that question most often cuts against them.

McConnell’s words point to a broader change, whatever the facts of this case. So do reports against Harvey Weinstein and others. When “Wonder Woman” reportedly says she won’t do another movie unless the allegations against producer Brett Ratner are addressed, it is a sign of a power shift.

Clearly, that power is not in simply flipping the script and distrusting whatever men say. It is in recognizing that true power – the kind that moves societies forward – is never rooted in dominance, secrecy, or shame.

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Today, among our five stories, we examine the lessons from the US-Russia investigation so far, Israel's attempt to be patient amid mounting Mideast tensions, and a pioneering effort to recast schools in West Africa.    

1. What Trump-Duterte says about US stance on human rights abroad

Donald Trump's Asia trip underscored a key aspect of his presidency so far: How he feels personally about a foreign leader seems to play a bigger role than with past presidents. That was in sharpest relief on human rights issues. 

Mark
President Trump, along with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (l.) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (r.), perform the group 'ASEAN handshake' in the opening ceremony of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Manila Nov. 13.
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Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
 

The 30 Sec. ReadFor decades, US presidents have adjusted their responses to human rights abuses and infringement on democratic rights based on where a country fell on the ideological spectrum, or how important a country was to other US priorities. What distinguishes President Trump, some observers note, is the degree to which his personal connection with a leader influences his administration’s stance. He has praised strongmen like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – whose “war on drugs” has been marked by extrajudicial killings – while censuring other authoritarian leaders, including North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Still, notes Hurst Hannum, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, it is administration officials who are typically responsible for “keeping the human rights fires burning and [making] sure that US policy is based on more than simply the president’s personal attractions and dislikes. But so far, we’re not getting the sense that anyone is really making human rights a priority in this administration.”

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1. What Trump-Duterte says about US stance on human rights abroad

When President Trump spoke to South Korea’s National Assembly last week, his emphasis on the systematic abuses and absence of basic freedoms in the authoritarian state to the north made him sound like a fervent champion of universal human rights.

But since landing in the Philippines Sunday on the last stop of his nearly two-week-long Asia trip, Mr. Trump has said nary a word about the flagrant rights abuses of strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte – at least not publicly.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders says human rights “briefly came up” in Trump’s meeting with President Duterte Monday, which she said instead focused on ISIS, illegal drugs, and regional security. But Duterte’s spokesman said there was “no mention of human rights” in the 40-minute conversation.

The contrasting treatments of human rights violations – highlighted in the case of North Korea, skipped over with ally the Philippines – puts Trump in the company of other presidents whose promotion of traditional American values like democracy and personal freedoms has been tempered by a broader pursuit of US national interests, regional and human rights experts say.

What distinguishes Trump from most other recent presidents, some add, is the degree to which a personal sense of either admiration or dislike of a leader plays a part in determining how the Trump administration approaches the treatment of human rights in particular countries.

Thus strongmen like Mr. Duterte – whose deadly “war on drugs” marked by at least 10,000 extrajudicial killings has earned Trump’s praise – or Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are treated to accolades despite their records of weakening personal and political freedoms.

But other authoritarian leaders, like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, receive only barbs for sometimes similar strongman tactics.

“With President Trump, it’s the personal relationship and a personal like or dislike of a leader that matter most,” says Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program in Washington. “So we have the president tacitly endorsing Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ earlier this year, despite the severe rights violations that have accompanied a militarized response to drug use.”

Different reasoning

Consistency has never really been a hallmark of any US president’s pursuit of human rights as part of his broader foreign policy.

For decades, presidents have highlighted or overlooked human rights abuses and infringement on democratic rights in other countries based on where a country fell on the ideological spectrum or how important a country was to other US priorities.

Protesters recite prayers during a candle-light vigil led by the Roman Catholic church to call the attention to the thousands of people killed in the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's so-called war on drugs, Nov. 5 in suburban Quezon city northeast of Manila, Philippines. Human rights was a major topic of conversation during President Trump's visit to South Korea, but did not come up when Mr. Trump met with Mr. Duterte in the Philippines this week, according to Trump and Duterte aides.
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Bullit Marquez/AP

During the cold war, Soviet-aligned dictatorships were blasted, while friendly rights abusers got a pass. Saudi Arabia’s political and human-rights shortcomings have long been swept under the Oval Office rug because of the kingdom’s oil and its strategic importance to the global economy.

Barack Obama downplayed the Iranian government’s rights abuses, including the violent repression of demonstrations following the disputed elections of 2009, because of his over-arching pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran that he believed could forestall the rush to another American war in the Middle East.

“Every presidential administration has had to situate human rights considerations within the broader context of our bilateral relations with any given country, which also often includes shared economic interests, security goals, or cooperation on transnational problems,” says Frances Brown, who served as a democracy specialist on both the Obama and Trump national security councils before joining the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“This doesn’t mean these various objectives are always in tension,” she adds, “but they do raise questions of relative public emphasis, private emphasis, sequencing, and inter-dependencies.”

So while what many see as Trump’s lack of consistency in raising human rights issues is hardly new, some international human rights experts say what is different is Trump’s silence on violations is based not on national interests, but on his apparent admiration for strongmen leaders.

“What has been consistent in US foreign policy for decades is how human rights rarely take the first place and indeed are usually outweighed by security and economic interests,” says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

Trip to Saudi Arabia

He cites as an example how Hillary Clinton “downplayed” human rights concerns on her first trip to China as secretary of State, even though she had long championed universal human rights, specifically in China.

Others say Trump has hardly been different on that score, and they cite as evidence his trip to Saudi Arabia last spring – an important overture to regional leaders in his pursuit of US strategic interests – when he publicly told an audience of Muslim monarchs and strongmen, including Saudi leaders, that “we are not here to lecture you.”

But Dr. Hannum, who is on leave at Oxford University this year writing a history of human rights, says he sees little pattern so far in Trump’s citing of human rights concerns or in where the administration’s places the issue among other national security objectives.

“With Trump it’s difficult to determine on what basis he condemns some countries and leaders and not others,” Hannum says. “He does demonstrate an attraction to international leaders that most of us would consider authoritarian,” he adds, “but it has been very difficult to identify the policy interests or the ideology that determine whether he speaks loudly or quietly, if at all,” on human rights.

“More than anything,” he says, “it seems to be based on a personal admiration of dislike for the leader in question.”

Human rights advocates say Trump’s admiration for autocrats – or at least autocratic tendencies in leaders – can be seen in the list of leaders he has invited to the White House, including those from Egypt, Turkey, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Ideological underpinning

Yet while most human rights experts bemoan the Trump administration’s treatment of human rights, some advocates say they are heartened by what they see as a renewed ideological underpinning to the issue under Trump.

The focus they discern after 10 months of Trump foreign policy: condemnation of the world’s totalitarian regimes.

“This administration has set a pattern of condemning loudly and repeatedly what President Trump has referred to as the world’s ‘captive nations,’” says Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a Washington human rights organization.

Trump has consistently raised the issue of totalitarian regimes’ abuse of human rights, Mr. Smith says – in his speeches in Poland, at the NATO summit, and now in Seoul – but he adds that it was above all Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September that defined the issue for the world.

“At [the UN] President Trump connected the actions of the regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, Iran and North Korea, with their ideologies, and he laid out on the global stage how one leads to the other,” he says. “We have not had a sitting president probe that connection in such a forceful way since Ronald Reagan.”

Smith says Trump’s presidency is shaping up as a “time to recover lost ground” after the Obama administration’s “muddled approach” to the human rights violations of totalitarian regimes.

Depleted ranks of official advocates

But other experts say that administrations define their human-rights priorities by more than presidential speeches. More important for actually making progress on issues like political rights and personal freedoms is the bench of human rights experts, State Department under-secretaries, and ambassadors who keep the pressure on the issue and constantly remind partners and adversaries alike that the issue remains a US priority.

And on that score, these experts add, the Trump administration is telling the world that human rights are not a top priority.

Under typical conditions, senior administration officials would be advocating the place of human rights in every discussion of national security interests, from bilateral relations to regional challenges. But Ms. Brown, now a fellow in Carnegie’s democracy and rule of law program, says the Trump administration “varies from ‘typical’ times” in key ways.

First, she says the State Department’s “major reorganization” under way under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has democracy and human rights officials in a kind of limbo where they have “less high-level political backing.” And second, she underscores the impact of a State Department that remains “undermanned at senior political and career levels while the administration has demonstrated its preference for bolstering military instruments of power.”

Some human rights advocates see a glimmer of hope in Secretary Tillerson’s plans to visit Myanmar (also known as Burma) this week to press for a solution to the Rohingya crisis that has pushed more than 600,000 members of the Muslim minority group out of their homes and primarily into neighboring Bangladesh.

But as Tufts’ Hannum says, “It’s the assistant secretaries and other senior officials, and then the folks under them, who keep the human rights fires burning and make sure that US policy is based on more than simply the president’s personal attractions and dislikes. But so far,” he says, “we’re not getting the sense that anyone is really making human rights a priority in this administration.”

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2. Mueller investigation: what we’ve learned, and what comes next

Washington is waiting for the next shoe to drop in Robert Mueller's investigation of Russia and the 2016 election. But to understand where he might go, it's important first to understand what he has really done so far and why. 

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadWhere is special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election headed next? The probe has already produced one huge, stop-the-servers news day, Oct. 30, when prosecutors made public indictments against former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates, and unsealed a plea deal with low-level foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos. Almost certainly there will be more such days to come. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and perhaps his son, could well face indictment on allegations centering on work for foreign governments. Mr. Papadopoulos admitted he knew the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of stolen emails – who else knew about that in the Trump campaign, and what they said about it, is another likely focal point. Meanwhile, hanging over the whole probe remains the crucial June 9 meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Mr. Manafort, and others. Do all these events, and numerous other documented Russia contacts among Trump officials, tie together? Are they coincidence? At heart, that’s what Mueller is working to piece together.

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2. Mueller investigation: what we’ve learned, and what comes next

Early last month, as part of its effort to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, the FBI filed an affidavit in federal court explaining why the bureau wanted to keep secret a plea deal it had struck with a low-level former Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos.

On the surface, the request seemed unusual. Mr. Papadopoulos was a bit player in the Trump 2016 effort, a young, unpaid foreign policy adviser who attended meetings but seemed to do little else. Why cloak the fact that Papadopoulos had lied to agents and then deleted social media accounts in a hapless attempt to conceal his actions?

But the FBI had its reasons, special agent Jennifer Zelski Edwards argued in the October affidavit. During 2016, Papadopoulos had had direct contact with Russian nationals and Russia-linked foreigners. Then he’d talked about these contacts with officials up and down the Trump campaign chain of command.

The FBI planned to interview these people, too – and the bureau did not want them to know that a former associate had flipped. In essence, Papadopoulos was a truth check, an informer who could help the bureau determine if any new interviewee was lying.

“The investigation is ongoing and includes pursuing leads from information provided by and related to the defendant regarding communications he had . . . with certain other individuals associated with the campaign,” Ms. Edwards wrote in the affidavit.

The investigation is ongoing, indeed. Six months after Robert Mueller’s appointment as Department of Justice Special Counsel in the Russia probe, it seems increasingly clear that his effort is akin to an attack submarine, large and potentially dangerous to its targets, moving most of the time stealthily, submerged beneath the waves.

On October 30 the investigation rose suddenly into full public view. Mr. Mueller’s team unsealed Papadopoulos’s guilty plea, and made public indictments against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates alleging money laundering and other international crimes.

Now Washington awaits the investigation’s next surface appearance. What will it reveal?

What we may have learned so far, according to Norman L. Eisen, former White House Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform under President Obama, is that Mueller is investigating whether dots of contact between Trump officials and Russians are part of a chain of coordination, or isolated and unimportant. It’s also apparent that Mueller won’t shy away from filing charges against high officials for alleged offenses that may not have been directly related to campaign activities.

“Mueller will pursue the evidence where it leads. All you can really ask is that you have a qualified, fair, independent investigation,” says Mr. Eisen, who also served as Ambassador to the Czech Republic and is now a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

Putin ‘means it’

For his part, President Trump made news over the weekend by seeming to accept Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s personal denial that Russia tried to tamper with the 2016 election. Mr. Putin’s assertion was sincere, Mr. Trump said on Saturday to reporters on Air Force One. “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’” Trump told reporters. “And I believe – I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”

A day later, Trump dialed this back by saying: “I’m with our agencies.” US intelligence has concluded that Moscow did, in fact, try to meddle in the 2016 political process.

But the president continued to dismiss the Russia investigation as a Democratic “hit job,” and insisted that the US needs to move on from the probe and instead try to get Russian cooperation on Syria and other world problems.

“We have to get to work,” Trump said on Sunday.

Despite Trump’s wishes, Mueller’s investigation shows no sign of slowing down. Just the opposite.

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is considered a likely target of the Mueller investigation.
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Carolyn Kaster/AP

It seems possible that the next big target in Mueller’s sight may be former National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn. NBC News reported last week that the Russia probe has already amassed enough evidence to bring charges against Mr. Flynn for alleged infractions relating to his private lobbying and consulting work. As with Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates, at issue might be concealment of foreign work and the laundering of foreign money.

Flynn in ‘a lot of trouble’

The Manafort charges are a “straight analogue” to some of Flynn’s alleged activities, says Andy Wright, an associate professor at Savannah Law School and a founding editor of the legal blog Just Security.

“Flynn is really in a lot of trouble,” Professor Wright says.

Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., might be in jeopardy as well. He served his father as a top aide and chief of staff during the time frame under scrutiny by Mueller’s team.

Whether prosecutors will actually move to indict either of the Flynns remains to be seen. It is possible that their real aim is to pressure the former national security adviser to cooperate in the larger Russia investigation.

Beginning before last year’s Nov. 8 election, and continuing through the transition period, Flynn had a number of communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. (He was later fired from the White House for allegedly misleading Vice President Mike Pence about these discussions.) What did Flynn and Mr. Kislyak talk about, and why? Who else in the president-elect’s circle knew they were in touch? Was Flynn directed to talk about the future course of sanctions or other important aspects of US-Russian relations?

Flynn could trade information about his Russia dealings for lighter treatment, as Papadopoulos appears to have done.

President Trump has long insisted that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt” and that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia.

Indeed, it is possible that the documented contacts between his campaign staff and Russians or Russia-linked foreigners were innocent, or happenstance. As an incoming top official, Flynn might well have wished to speak with the Russian ambassador, for instance.

Connections piling up

However, the number of connections with Russia is piling up. Besides those mentioned above, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, along with Manafort, met with a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya and others at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016. Trump lawyer Michael Cohen corresponded with Russians about building a Trump Tower in Moscow through January of 2016.

Foreign policy adviser Carter Page gave a speech in Moscow critical of US foreign policy in July 2016. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has met Russian Ambassador Kislyak on several occasions. Campaign adviser J.D. Gordon and Mr. Page met Kislyak at a July 20 event associated with the Republican National Convention.

Whether there has been collusion or not between Russia and Team Trump may depend on the definition of “collusion.” If it means mutual cooperation to disseminate stolen Democratic emails or other activity, Trump might be correct to say no evidence has yet proved the case. But if it includes a willingness to engage in such activity, and to meet to talk about it, he is wrong, according to critics. And Mueller’s investigation is not over.

“There is a lot of evidence that is continuing to emerge . . . that points to collusion,” says Eisen of Brookings.

Mueller is likely interested in two particular incidents. One is the June 9 Trump Tower confab, at which Donald Trump Jr. expected to receive high level and sensitive information obtained by the Russian government that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton.

“If it’s what you say I love it,” the younger Trump wrote in an email prior to the meeting.

The outcome of the meeting remains unclear. Mr. Trump has said it was a waste of time and that Ms. Veselnitskaya provided no useful information. Veselnitskaya, for her part, said in an interview with Bloomberg News last week that Trump Jr. indicated that a law targeting Russia with sanctions could be re-written if his father won the election. He also asked for written evidence that the Clinton campaign had received illegal contributions.

The second incident centers on George Papadopoulos. In April 2016, Papadopoulos met with a Maltese professor with close ties to the Russian government, who told him that Moscow had “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” according to a Statement of the Offense from Mueller’s office filed with a federal court on Oct. 5.

Who else did Papadopoulos tell about this “dirt?” How did they react to the information, and to Papadopoulos’s continued offers to try to set up a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Trump himself?

This is where the story circles back to Mueller’s request to seal Papadopoulos’s guilty plea. It is likely that he wanted to hear what Gordon, Page, and other mid-level Trump campaign workers had to say about the matter, without them knowing that he had a second source of information – someone who had already pled guilty.

Thus it would not be surprising if Gordon or Page is integral to whatever public turn the investigation takes next.

A key footnote

There’s one further hint of how Mueller is trying to connect the dots of the investigation, contained in the fine print of recent court filings. It’s a footnote, in fact, from Papadopoulos’s plea deal.

Around May 21, 2016, Papadopoulos emailed a high-level Trump campaign official, reiterating that Russia wanted a Trump meeting. Press reports have identified the recipient of that email as newly named campaign chief Paul Manafort. Manafort then forwarded the email to a third party, identified in press reports as Rick Gates.

The footnote in the plea deal outlines what Manafort said to Gates about the offer of a Trump-Putin meeting. “Let’s discuss,” he said. “We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”

This is ambiguous. Does it mean that Manafort wanted to send someone low level to say that Trump wasn’t doing quasi-summit meetings yet? Or does it mean that he wanted someone low level to actually hold a meeting, presumably to discuss items of mutual interest?

This is also the context in which Manafort, Trump Jr., and Mr. Kushner held their Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer on June 9.

One thing seems clear: There will be more days like Oct. 30, when big news from the Mueller probe commanded Washington’s attention. If Trump reacts with the vehemence he has to this point, he may further erode his remaining power to get things accomplished as president, says Wright of Savannah Law School.

“Almost any of these news days are going to be not great days for the president," says Wright. "All of these types of stories will continue to burn down his candle of goodwill.”

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3. From northern Israel, a frontline view of a widening conflict

Iran and Saudi Arabia are increasingly stirring the pot in the Middle East. For Israeli soldiers and civilians on the Lebanon border, the goal is not to get baited into another war that serves someone else's interests. 

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadTensions in Israel, Lebanon, and Syria have been intensifying. In the past two weeks alone, Israeli jets struck in Syria, and Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, announced his resignation, saying Hezbollah and Iran were meddling in his country. And some analysts warn that Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival for influence in the region, is angling to get Israel to strike Hezbollah as part of a proxy war against Iran. Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, says that’s unlikely. But he issues his own warning: Iran is moving to consolidate its control over Syria and Lebanon, “and the whole Middle East will feel it.” Experts say another Israel-Hezbollah war would be worse than the last, in 2006, in which thousands died and millions fled their homes on both sides. But amid the tensions, Israelis living along the northern border say they prefer to be hopeful. The head of security for Kibbutz Hanita lost comrades in 2006, but is among those today urging a measured approach. “The alertness level has been raised,” he says, “but there have been no changes on the ground. We are prepared if something happens. Our residents feel safe, and that’s our goal.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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3. From northern Israel, a frontline view of a widening conflict

At first glimpse, the sweeping view north into Lebanon from this ridge-top border kibbutz appears so tranquil – dense forest hillsides of oak and pine cutting a swath of deep green under an open sky, a white-washed house with a red tile roof in the distance.

But look more closely, and part of the hill below has been leveled out by Israeli army bulldozers to help prevent possible raids by Hezbollah fighters. Nearby are a pair of radar towers, a small Israeli army outpost with a watch tower, and across the border fence a Lebanese Army lookout staring right back.

“They say it’s the Lebanese Army tower, but it’s Hezbollah. They control the Lebanese Army,” says Erez Adar, Kibbutz Hanita’s security officer and an officer in the Israeli reserves.

Last Wednesday he took part in an army drill, and in September he was one of thousands of reservists who trained in a 10-day drill – described by the military as the largest of its kind in 19 years – that prepared for possible war with Hezbollah. Among the drilled maneuvers: thwarting infiltration, and evacuating towns and other kibbutzim along the border.

Political and military tensions between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria – and in the region in general – have been intensifying. In the past two weeks alone, Israel launched an air strike on a reported weapons depot in Syria, and Syria responded by firing a surface-to-air missile toward the departing Israeli aircraft; and Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, stunned his countrymen with a surprise resignation from Saudi Arabia, suggesting his life was in danger and issuing harsh words for Hezbollah and Iranian meddling in his country.

Some experts see Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival for influence in the region, angling to get Israel to strike Hezbollah as part of their proxy war against Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used Mr. Hariri’s unexpected resignation to plead for international intervention to check what he says is Iran’s rising power in the region, describing it as a “wake up” call for the world.

But if Israel’s press has been filled with analysts’ dire warnings against Israel being pulled into conflict, Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general and former head of the National Security Council under Mr. Netanyahu, sounds a somewhat calming note: “Israel is mature enough not to fight on behalf of anyone else,” he says. “We will act in our own interests.”

Vigilant but calm

On Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, and further east in the occupied Golan Heights, along a narrow demilitarized zone bordering Syria, residents keep an ear on the news, but seem rather sanguine. They continue their routines of harvesting apples, building houses, running factories, and taking their kids to local playgrounds – even those, like at Kibbutz Hanita, that are feet away from the border fence.

In the Galilee, life has been “quiet,” as the residents describe the lack of cross-border fighting since the 2006 Lebanon war between Israel and Hezbollah, during which Israel came to the unsettling realization that its north was suddenly more vulnerable.

For Israelis and Lebanese, the 34-day war was a watershed. Hezbollah rockets penetrated Israel to an unprecedented extent. Missiles hit Haifa and other major civilian targets in the north, and more than a million Israelis relocated southward en masse during much of the fighting. A similar number in southern Lebanon also fled their homes during the fighting.

The Lebanese, bombarded by Israeli warplanes and artillery, lost 1,200 people in the war, including an estimated 270 Hezbollah militants and 50 Lebanese soldiers and policemen. In Israel there were 158 dead, the majority soldiers, although 43 civilians were killed by rocket-fire.

Experts caution that the next war could be even more punishing and open-ended.

Since 2006 Hezbollah has become stronger. Not only has it has used this period to amass more sophisticated weapons, it has been learning how to be more than just a strike force. In its years fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Hezbollah learned new skills, including how to seize control of towns and cities, and the logistics of large-scale missions.

Israel’s occasional airstrikes in Syria are, experts say, intended to stop Hezbollah’s efforts to expand its arsenal even further. Nevertheless, assessments of Hezbollah’s missile stockpile are that it has grown both in size – to about 120,000 – and range, able to cover most of Israel’s population centers, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Were Hezbollah to strike that deep, the experts say, Israel would likely respond by heavily bombarding rocket launchers that may be tucked into civilian neighborhoods.

Hezbollah supporters raise their fists and cheer as they listen to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, via a video link, in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Friday. The Hezbollah leader said Prime Minister Saad Hariri's 'forced' resignation in Saudi Arabia is unconstitutional because it was done 'under duress.' He also said that war with Israel is unlikely.
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Bilal Hussein/AP

Hezbollah's warning

In May, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a televised speech that the next war could be fought inside Israel and mocked the fortifications Israel has built to prevent infiltrations like the cross-border Hezbollah attack on an Israeli patrol that lit the fuse of the 2006 war.

In that attack, three reservists were killed instantly, and the bodies of two others were returned to Israel two years later in a prisoner swap.

Mr. Adar knew the reservists who were ambushed and killed, and had served with them previously as one of their officers. When he heard of the attack, he raced to the scene just a few miles from the kibbutz, arriving to see the bodies of his fallen friends.

Today he is among those on Hanita taking a measured approach as tensions escalate again.

“The alertness level has been raised, but there have been no changes on the ground. We are prepared if something happens. Our residents feel safe, and that’s our goal,” says Adar, a third-generation member of the collective community who, as he greets his infant daughter, his youngest of three girls, smiles and says, “And this is us working on the fourth [generation].”

Ariel Solna, in charge of garden and maintenance on the kibbutz, says there’s no point at becoming jittery at this point.

“What can we do anyway? We can’t change reality. So what does it help to be fearful?” he says.

In the Golan, the six years of civil war in Syria has turned what had for decades been a “quiet border” into an area now also familiar with occasional errant mortar fire falling, mostly harmlessly, on Israel’s side of the border. Along the northern-most stretch of the Golan, Israelis have even been able to see and hear the battles raging inside Syria.

“We know that all over the border of the Golan there are now terror organizations – there was ISIS and now there is Iran and Hezbollah. They are busy now, but the time will come to aim the guns at us,” says Dalia Amos, the local council’s spokeswoman. “But the army and citizens here are prepared, and we hope that won’t happen.”

Iran's strategic plan

Yet Israeli experts say that even if the consensus is that neither Israel nor Hezbollah are looking for a fight at the moment, geopolitical changes are afoot that could trigger an even unintended escalation of force.

“Syria and Lebanon are facing a dramatic change that could threaten Israel’s interests. Mainly the concern is about Iran’s growing involvement in Syria and with Hezbollah in Lebanon,” says Yoram Meital, chairman of Ben-Gurion University’s Chaim Herzog Center for Mideast Studies and Diplomacy.

“Israel is looking ahead to the day after the war in Syria ends, and the assumption here is that we are almost there,” says Professor Meital. Israel is focused on Iran’s role, “not necessarily only in terms of supporting the Assad regime, but also in terms of military presence and transfer of advanced weapon systems through Syria and via Hezbollah, also into Lebanon.” 

After Iran’s investment in the Assad regime during Syria’s civil war, he says, the Iranians think it’s payback time in the form of a new level of power and physical maneuverability in the region.

Mr. Amidror, the retired major general, says he does not think Mr. Hariri’s bizarre resignation or Saudi Arabia’s more aggressive stance in countering Iran are the main shifts regionally.

Rather, he says, it’s that Iran is moving to the next stage of its strategic plan after building up Hezbollah and stabilizing the Assad regime.

“And the whole Middle East will feel it,” he says. “Now is the next step in which they will consolidate their control over Syria and Lebanon."

A 'rational enemy'

Among Iran’s strategic goals, he says, are a land corridor from Iran and Iraq through Syria into Lebanon, Mediterranean naval bases, air bases in Syria, proximity to Israel’s border, and a presence in Yemen to be close to Saudi Arabia.

“The key for the next stage in the next few years in the Middle East,” he says, “is how far will the Iranians manage to push, and how they will be contained by Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

In the meantime, while Israel has benefitted from the Syrian civil war in that the Syrian Army has been weakened, the increased influence of Iran and Hezbollah there means the Lebanese Shiite militia has a new front with Israel on the Golan, says Yusri Hazran, a lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies in Jerusalem.

“Hezbollah now enjoys the choice one day of launching a war not just from the front of Lebanon,” he says.

This, Amidror argues, is all part of Iran’s plan.

But Dr. Hazran describes Hezbollah as a “rational enemy” and ideologically dedicated to fighting Israel on principle, not just as deflection from its own domestic problems. And, he and other analysts note, they are still smarting from the loss of up to 2,000 men in Syria – a significant number for a fighting force of an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 fighters, making it highly unlikely they would strike Israel in the near term.

For now, Israel is maintaining a dual strategy of sounding the alarm about Iran’s ambitions through Hezbollah with its allies and issuing bellicose statements, but according to Eyal Zisser, a Middle East history professor at Tel Aviv University and expert on Lebanon and Syria, this might not be the wisest approach either.

“Israel has a motivation to turn Hezbollah into a danger, and it is dangerous with its missiles, but let’s not turn them into the champions of the region,” Professor Zisser says. “They are still not an army.”

'The Wishing Tree'

Yoel Barkan, 79, sits in a café at Kibbutz Hanita with an espresso and a novel in the late afternoon. Mr. Barkan was born in Belgium on the eve of World War II, and was hidden with villagers for three years before being reunited with his parents. He’s been living on the kibbutz since 1958 and knows well the times he and other kibbutz members had to go into underground bomb shelters during times of war and flare-ups. In the 1970s, he did guard duty to help prevent attacks by infiltrators from Lebanon.

“We feel the tension, we hear the army Hummers going by,” Barkan said. “But what will be? We just don’t know.”

A short walk away, at an overlook into Lebanon, Yuval Vakrat, takes in the view.

“That’s the dissonance between the pastoral views and the tension of the conflict,” says Mr. Vakrat, a yoga teacher who grew up on the kibbutz.

He and two other kibbutz members found their way of feeling less helpless by forming an organization that brings groups of school children, both Jewish and Arab, well as tourists, to this spot they have renamed “Peace Ridge.” They have built art installations there, one they call “The Wishing Tree,” where visitors write their wishes down on round white pieces of paper and hang them from its branches.

Visitors have made and hung signs from the ridge that say “peace” facing a Lebanese village, just a quarter mile away in the valley below. They know the Lebanese villagers in Alma Shaeb probably can’t see their signs. But they hope the message, somehow, will still get through.

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4. How Liberia’s bold charter-school experiment has fared

What does a radical education overhaul look like in one of the worst places in the world to go to school?

Mark
A student in the third-grade class at Cecelia Dunbar Elementary School in Freeman Reserve, Liberia, helps lead a phonics lesson. The school is part of a radical educational experiment that will see many of the country's public schools converted into charter schools over the next several years.
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Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
 

The 30 Sec. ReadIn this corner of West Africa, after years of civil war and an Ebola outbreak, nearly two-thirds of children never go to school at all. But at this elementary school, an hour outside the capital of Liberia, things don’t look so bleak. “School is better now,” says one third-grader. “Now our teachers come to school every day.” It’s part of a radical pilot the government began in 2016: handing dozens of public schools to nongovernmental organizations and for-profit companies. The government would keep training and paying teachers, and kick in $50 per student each year. Organizations running the schools, meanwhile, would have control over almost everything else. If the system worked, it would expand across the country – a global first, and a highly controversial one. “When you’re in a situation like ours, you need to do something radical,” says the minister of education. Few dispute that the system needs an overhaul – or even that students are learning more at pilot schools. But the question is how to take those gains nationwide. “You can’t build a skyscraper without a solid foundation,” one critic says, “and that’s exactly what they are trying to do.” 

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4. How Liberia’s bold charter-school experiment has fared

At first glance, Cecelia Dunbar Elementary School hardly looks like the site of a radical educational experiment.

Set in a cacophonously green village surrounded by lanky rubber trees about an hour from Liberia’s capital, its low-slung classrooms are unlit and streaked with dirt. Children – as many as 50 to a class – squeeze into a number of desks that is never quite enough, like an endless game of musical chairs. On a recent morning in the 4th grade classroom, two students – one who looked about 9, the other perhaps 15 – share a bench with no legs, propped up by large rocks, with tattered workbooks balanced carefully on their knees.

“Chairs are one of our biggest challenges,” admits principal Jacob Haiwulu. “And lunch,” he adds – as in, the school can’t afford to provide it, and most students don’t have the money to bring or buy it either.

In many ways, however, these challenges are small in the face of what ails Liberia’s public school system more generally. This corner of West Africa is, undeniably, one of the worst places in the world to get an education. Nearly two-thirds of children never go to school at all, and even for those who make it to the end of high school, half fail the West African graduation exam.

Many students had their education interrupted first by the country’s more than decade-long civil war, which ended in 2003, and more recently by the outbreak of Ebola that swept Liberia three years ago and shuttered schools for nearly a year. When the Ministry of Education surveyed adult women who had attended school through the fifth grade, it found only 20 percent could correctly read a single sentence.

So in early 2016, the Liberian government announced it was going to try something new. It would take about a hundred public schools – among them Cecelia Dunbar – and hand them over to nongovernment organizations and for-profit companies.

Children play in the courtyard of Cecilia Dunbar Elementary School in Freeman Reserve, Liberia. Many of the country's public schools will be converted into charter schools over the next several years.
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Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor

As part of the “Partnership Schools for Liberia” program, the government would keep training and paying teachers at these schools, and kick in $50 per student each year. The organizations running the schools, meanwhile, would have control over almost everything else.

If it worked, the education minister pledged, the charter school experiment would expand across the public school system – a global first, and a highly controversial one. From San Francisco to Sweden, private-public partnerships in education have become touchstones for debates that extend far beyond the classroom. Defenders hold them up as models of desperately needed innovation, while critics say they erode public resources and equality – a phenomenon some Liberian education experts fear is already repeating itself in their country.

“Liberia had fallen so badly behind that we didn’t think incremental steps were enough anymore,” says George Werner, the minister of education. Instead, he says, the country needed to pry open its education system and start over. And maybe, in the process, it could teach the world a lesson or two about how to educate its most vulnerable children. 

Doing things differently

Few would dispute the fact that Liberia’s education system needs a radical overhaul. But many are skeptical about how Mr. Werner has gone about it.

Why, detractors ask, is the government spending lavishly on privately run schools instead of funneling that cash into improving its own capacities?

“You can’t build a skyscraper without a solid foundation, and that’s exactly what they are trying to do,” says Samuel Johnson, the secretary general of the National Teachers Union of Liberia. And anyway, he says, private companies don’t have a long-term obligation to Liberia – what if they decide they don’t want to work here anymore?

“Provision of public education of good quality is a core function of the state,” the United Nation’s special rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, said last March, speaking about the Liberian experiment. “Abandoning this to the commercial benefit of a private company constitutes a gross violation of the right to education.”

Werner, a young and energetic former teacher with an American-inflected accent, has heard all this before. But donors, on whom Liberia leans heavily for educational funding, “are tired of funding the status quo, and frankly I don’t blame them,” he says. Who wants to give money to yet another failing school system creaking under the weight of inefficient bureaucracy?

So to show them he was serious about doing things differently, in early 2016 Werner began dispatching teams from the ministry around the country to prune his payroll of so-called “ghost teachers,” instructors who never showed up to school – or in some cases didn’t exist at all – but still pulled down a government salary each month. The government eventually eliminated the paychecks of nearly 2,000 teachers – saving itself millions of dollars annually.

But Werner also had bigger plans. So he signed an agreement with Bridge Academies – a controversial American company that runs low-cost private schools in East Africa, India, and Nigeria – to allow them to take over a few dozen Liberian schools. The project would be a pilot to test whether the entire school system could eventually be privately run with public funding. 

Local education activists balked, drawing attention to Bridge’s reputation for high spending and rote teaching. (Teachers at Bridge schools, for instance, follow a strict script that instructs them on exactly what to say to students and even when to make eye contact with them). 

“It didn’t seem like this program was trying to address any of the structural issues in our schools,” says Lakshmi Moore, the Liberia programme manager for the international nongovernmental organization ActionAid.

So the government backpedaled, eventually agreeing to divide the experiment among eight companies and non-profits, ranging from a Bangladeshi education NGO to a small Liberian charity that provides education to street children.

Analyzing Year One

And then, in September 2016, the experiment began.

At Cecelia Dunbar, teachers were given spiral-bound booklets with a new curriculum designed by a team of international education experts who had set up low-cost private schools in neighboring Sierra Leone. Posters were hung in classrooms and corridors, cheerfully reminding students to “come to school every day hungry to learn, and thirsty for knowledge.” New teachers arrived, fresh from the country’s teaching colleges, and the former principal was replaced with Mr. Haiwulu: warm, thoughtful, and young, he came from the area and radiated a clear love for both the village and its kids. 

“School is better now,” says one third-grade student, who has attended the school since preschool. “Now our teachers come to school every day.” Before, she says, they showed up once or maybe twice a week. In the classroom behind her, meanwhile, her class breaks into peals of laughter. Their teacher, Tarrance Johnson, has turned a phonics drill into a race to see which student can blurt out a word first when he taps it on the blackboard. “Ball!” yells one student. “No wait, bell!”

But the question, says Ms. Subramani, is not whether Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) schools like Cecelia Dunbar are doing better than public schools. An evaluation of the first year of the program showed that most of them were. In particular, students in PSL schools improved by an extra two-thirds of a grade level in math, and an extra half a grade level in English, compared with other Liberian students, and spent twice as much time learning each week.

But “that’s like comparing apples to oranges,” she says. That’s because ordinary Liberian schools receive an annual budget of $50 per student from the government. PSL schools, on the other hand, receive twice that – and can supplement with their own additional funds. Bridge, which is backed by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, spent $663 per student last year, and Rising Academies, which runs Cecelia Dunbar and four other schools, about $270 – figures that are highly unsustainable even if Werner can eventually raise his budget, as he hopes, to $125 per student.

“The minister keeps saying it’s about innovation, but where’s the innovation?” Subramani says. “The basic idea of the program seems to be that if you put more money into schools, you get better results. If you better train teachers, you get better results. It’s very simple stuff that we don’t need to privatize to try.”

The ministry has also begun to scale back its rhetoric about the PSL. When the program started, Werner promised to hand over “as many schools as possible” to private providers if they performed well. Today, he won’t give a figure for how many schools he hopes will eventually become charters, but calls the program an “incubator for the wider school system” rather than its future. 

But so far, there’s not much evidence that the high performance of the new charter schools is helping Liberian schools in general. Several PSL schools – notably those run by Bridge – have reassigned weak teachers out of their schools, according to a report released in September analyzing the program’s first year. This practice, activists say, shuffles the problem of bad teaching to schools with fewer resources to fix it – rather than addressing the root problem of shaky teacher training.

Some PSL schools have also capped class sizes to make teaching easier. In Liberian schools it is not uncommon to find children spilling out of their classrooms, unable to see the blackboard or hear their teachers. “I am learning small small,” says one third-grade boy at B.W. Payne Elementary School in Monrovia, using Liberian English. His class – in a non-PSL school – has 74 students. But shrinking class size can have unintended consequences, says Mr. Johnson, of the teachers union.

“There have become major issues with access,” he says. “In communities where there is only one school, what you’re effectively doing is ensuring those kids don’t go to school at all.”

For now, however, the program is still growing, despite a call by the program’s evaluators and technical advisers to halt any expansion until the results of the PSL’s first year had been fully analyzed.

This school year, the number of schools has doubled, from 93 to about 200. The ministry hopes to add more schools next year. The experiment, it says, is working. The next step is to make it available to more children.

“When you’re in a situation like ours, you need to do something radical,” Werner says.

Tecee Boley and Adrian Pabai contributed reporting.

This story was updated to reflect the correct amount Bridge schools spent per pupil in Liberia last year. 

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5. At backyard bird feeders, a human role in avian evolution?

We know that, as humans, we're a key part of the ecosystems around us. But a study on bird beaks in Britain shows what surprising effects we can have on how nature evolves – even in a relatively short amount of time.  

Mark
 

The 30 Sec. ReadIn Britain, backyard bird-watching is something of an unofficial pastime. An estimated half of all British households put out food for the birds. To residents, bird feeders are inexpensive ornamentations that draw a bit of lively color and song to their yards. To local birds, the bird feeders are a lifeline through the winter months. But a new study suggests that the prevalence of bird feeders in England has had a much more profound effect on one species of bird, the great tit. In an example of natural selection, this songbird’s beak has evolved to better access these backyard offerings. In comparing the genetic differences between two populations of great tits, one in Britain and one in the Netherlands, scientists found that the British birds’ beaks were roughly one millimeter longer than the Dutch birds’ beaks. Bird beaks shaped Charles Darwin’s thinking about natural selection, and now they’re illustrating another chapter in the story of evolution; this time it might be a tale of adaptation to living in a human world.

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5. At backyard bird feeders, a human role in avian evolution?

Bird beaks shaped Charles Darwin’s thinking about natural selection, and now they’re illustrating another chapter in the story of evolution; this time it might be a tale of adaptation to living in a human world.

The scientists behind a study published in the Oct. 20 issue of the journal Science didn’t set out to reveal a human influence on bird evolution. But when they compared the DNA of Dutch and British great tits (Parus major) they found clues of just that.

The key genetic differences between these great tit populations lay in their beaks. As a result, the British birds’ beaks were roughly one millimeter longer than the Dutch birds’ beaks, a change that appears to have taken place in just a few decades.

The scientists studying the great tits suspect a change in human behavior might be behind this dramatic evolution. Backyard bird feeding started becoming popular in Britain in the 1960s. Now, an estimated half of all British households put food out for the birds, says Kate Plummer, a research ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology, who was not part of the research team. “It’s an enormous pastime for people in [Britain].”

British birds born with longer beaks may have been better able to access the plentiful food source provided by backyard bird feeders, improving their likelihood of surviving to reproduce. Over generations, in an example of natural selection, this adaptation seems to have become widespread through the local population. In other words, human actions could be driving evolution. 

“The amazing thing about this study is that it shows a decisive mark on the genomes that was made indirectly by bird feeders,” Christopher Witt, director and curator of birds at the Museum of Southwestern Biology in Albuquerque, N.M., writes in an email. “I think it is very powerful evidence that when we provide any new resources for wild populations, we’re messing with natural selection.”

So are we going too far?

“It’s not inherently a bad thing, but it could have unintended consequences,” Dr. Witt says. “If the bill shape becomes optimized for feeders, the new shape is going to affect how great tits interact with their environment away from feeders.”

Whether these changes will remain permanent is a subject of debate, but adaptation in response to interactions with human communities is likely inevitable, says Eric Wood, an avian ecologist at California State University, Los Angeles. “We are rapidly urbanizing throughout the world,” he says. “Biodiversity doesn’t really have an option other than to live in open areas or protected areas, or have to adapt to urban environments.”

The great tit isn’t the only bird making changes in response to this human-provided resource. The blackcap, Sylvia atricapilla, summers in Germany and Austria, and used to winter exclusively in Spain. But during the past 50 years, a population of blackcaps has shifted to make a different trip during winter, heading north to Britain. Researchers, including Dr. Plummer, have linked this change to backyard bird feeding. 

This isn’t just happening in Britain. Hummingbirds and other migratory birds in the United States have also been found to winter in more northerly regions where people put out food for them.

And beaks are changing in the US, too. A study of house finches in urban and adjacent desert areas in Arizona found that the urban birds had evolved larger beaks, possibly correlated with the presence of backyard bird feeders.

“Given the fact that humans have such a massive impact on our planet and with that on the habitat of species on a local scale, it is to be expected that the (human-driven) change in environment will lead to microevolutionary changes and local adaptation of a variety of species,” Mirte Bosse, an ecological geneticist at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands and lead author of the great tit study writes in an email.

Research on how wildlife adapts to living in urban environments is just beginning, says Professor Wood. He expects further research to reveal more examples like this.

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The Monitor's View

Measuring the kindness of strangers

 

The 30 Sec. ReadPublic indifference toward World Kindness Day – Nov. 13, in case you were wondering – may be excused by the fact that the annual celebration has only been around fewer than 20 years. Perhaps even younger is the science of measuring kindness (if it can be measured at all). Singapore’s government has long tried to shape social behavior, such as gum chewing – sometimes with measures widely viewed as disproportionate. But after a recent burst of shaming bad behavior on a website called STOMP, it launched a Kindness Movement in 2013. The aim: to make helping strangers more “accepted and sometimes even expected.” Singapore officials say the country’s success should not be defined by how much people earn or possess but by how well they treat each other in daily interactions, especially online. When the use of social media becomes antisocial, it may be tempting to censor it. Yet the better antidote is to smother it with acts of kindness, especially between strangers. With enough of that, World Kindness Day will not simply be a nudge to act kindly but become a true celebration of it. And perhaps better known.

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Measuring the kindness of strangers

How many people honored this year’s World Kindness Day on Nov. 13, preferably with a random act of kindness? How many even knew about it? By one indicator, probably fewer than in previous years.

The proportion of people who “helped a stranger” went down last year, according to the latest World Giving Index. It fell 1.8 percentage points, with 80 countries seeing a decline compared to 52 that saw an increase.

Public indifference toward World Kindness Day may be excused by the fact that the annual celebration has only been around fewer than 20 years. Perhaps even younger is the science of measuring kindness (if it can be measured at all).

Earlier this year, Microsoft released a survey of 14 countries tracking the level of empathy, respect, and dignity used in digital platforms, such as social media and online forums. Its “digital civility index” found 50 percent of online users are “extremely or very” worried about online etiquette and risks, including cyberbullying, public shaming, and hate speech. Countries with the highest levels of perceived digital civility were the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia. Those with the lowest were South Africa, Mexico, and Russia.

Microsoft now offers courses on online safety in its stores. Among its recommendations: “Live the Golden Rule by acting with empathy, compassion and kindness in every interaction, and treating everyone they connect with online with dignity and respect.”

Perhaps no country is more aware of promoting kindness than Singapore. Its government has long tried to shape social behavior, such as gum chewing, sometimes with measures widely viewed as disproportionate. But after a recent burst of shaming bad behavior on a website called STOMP, it launched a Kindness Movement in 1997. The aim, according to Dr. William Wan, general secretary of the organization, is to make helping strangers more “accepted and sometimes even expected social behavior.”

“When people share videos on social media of kind acts that people do, or when newspapers report on these cases, it creates an environment where doing so does not seem so unusual after all,” he says.

Yet Singapore officials admit that graciousness toward others cannot be ordered up. It must come from the heart and is built out of humility, integrity, and patience. They say the country’s success should not be defined by how much people earn or possess but by how well they treat each other in daily interactions, especially online.

When the use of social media becomes antisocial, it may be tempting to censor it. Yet the better antidote is to smother it with acts of kindness, especially between strangers. With enough of that, World Kindness Day will not simply be a nudge to act kindly but become a true celebration of it.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial had an incorrect date for the start of the Kindness Movement.]

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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.

Joyful noise

 

Advised before a trip to India that her senses would be “assaulted” by the sights, sounds, and tastes she would experience there, today’s contributor prepared for the trip by thinking about the Bible’s advice to “make a joyful noise unto God” (Psalms 66:1). She saw this kind of “joyful noise” as a type of gratitude for God’s infinite goodness, which heals, protects, and sustains us. With this approach, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the intense experience in India, she felt even more aware of the glory of God. At times a clamor may threaten to disturb our peace, but we can find that “the Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea” (Psalms 93:4), and we can feel the peace of God.

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Joyful noise

I’ll never forget the experience of landing in Chicago after eight weeks on a student abroad trip to India – the silence was deafening! I had come to find the constant honking of horns, as well as the hustle and bustle of the many people in India, to be joyful sounds of vibrancy and life. While I was looking forward to coming home to the comparatively gentler noise of my own city, I had learned that the way we think about a disturbing clamor can actually allow us to see it transformed into joyful noise and to feel at peace.

Before going to India, I had been told that all my senses would be “assaulted” there. I wanted to embrace this opportunity to love the rich and vibrant tastes, smells, and sounds of another culture, and as a student of Christian Science it was natural for me to turn to the Bible for assurance. I found it interesting that in the King James Bible, there are 70 references to “noise.” While some of them have a negative connotation, many of them have positive implications – such as “make a joyful noise unto God” (Psalms 66:1).

As I read, I began to note that making a joyful noise unto God was a powerful offensive tool. For instance, when several enemy groups came to attack King Jehoshaphat, he gathered his people together to sing praises to God instead of going to battle, and the enemy attack failed (see II Chronicles 20:1-22).

This points to a concept of joy that is more than just a positive attitude. In fact, it belongs to our very nature as the creation of God, infinite good. I’ve found that “joyful noise” does not necessarily need to be loud at all; it can also be quiet gratitude for God’s goodness. And this kind of awareness and active acknowledgment of the power and presence of God heals, protects, and sustains us. It helps us see that inharmony, pain, and fear don’t have the power they seem to.

So I decided that I would let the advance guard of joy go before me as I went to India. With this approach, I felt more deeply the proclaiming ever-presence of God, divine Life – even amid all the noises I heard, from the early morning calls to prayer from the minarets, to the scooters and rickshaws honking their way through the intricate weaving of traffic. I was delighted to recognize so many spiritual qualities, such as dedication, order, harmony, and beauty, in it all. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by these noises, I felt even more aware of the glory of God.

I was grateful that I could draw upon this happy memory recently when celebratory noise from a wedding threatened to disrupt an all-day inspirational meeting I had been preparing for over many months, and which I was conducting in a hotel conference room. At first it was just some gentle notes wafting up to us from a string quartet immediately below our room. But over our lunch break a rock band started up and the floor was literally throbbing. I had no idea how we would be able to conduct our afternoon session over that racket.

So I reached out to God in prayer – not so much to get the wedding celebrants to be quiet, but to see that the joyful sounds of this wedding and the joyful message of our meeting did not have to be in competition with each other. I thought of them as one coordinated chorus of praise to God.

Just as our meeting started up for the afternoon session, the music quieted down, and it remained that way until we adjourned, when it began rocking the floor again. To me this was more than human coincidence. Prayer had enabled me to better understand that God, divine Mind, governs all of its spiritual creation in one grand harmony, and the result was to see, without any manipulation, that we could all participate in making a joyful noise without conflicting with each other.

At times tumult may threaten to disturb our peace, but we can find that “the Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea” (Psalms 93:4). And we can feel the peace of God that unites us all in joyful noise, or brings appropriate quiet!

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Viewfinder

Shaken in Iran

Survivors sit in front of buildings damaged by an earthquake in Sarpol-e-Zahab, western Iran, Nov. 13. A powerful magnitude-7.3 earthquake that struck the Iraq-Iran border region killed more than 300 people in both countries, sent people fleeing from their homes, and was felt as far west as the Mediterranean coast.
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Omid Salehi/AP
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( November 14th, 2017 )

Thanks for reading today. We hope you come back tomorrow when we take on a subject that I know fascinates many of you: Where did the whole "climate change" thing come from? We'll be taking a look, in one graphic, at the origins of climate science.   

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