Monitor Daily Podcast

February 08, 2018
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Monitor Daily Intro for February 8, 2018

Yvonne Zipp
Daily Editor

In Pyeongchang, the last-minute crunch is on before the Olympic caldron is lit. Athletes from returning veteran Lindsey Vonn to Colombia’s first speedskater, Laura Gomez – who had never been on ice before July and arrived in South Korea without gloves – are preparing for Friday’s opening ceremonies.

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant, once a nationally ranked cross-country skier herself, will be covering the Games for us. Christa, also our former Jerusalem bureau chief, shared her thoughts after a trip to the DMZ:

“The most surprising thing about the demilitarized zone is not the barbed wire or the loudspeakers that can blast propaganda for 15 miles or the military observatories perched on opposing hilltops,” she says. “It’s the surf.

“There are things about conflict zones that no one bothers to mention, like the spring wildflowers that carpet the West Bank or the deep turquoise waves that pound away at the Korean Peninsula,” Christa adds. “The natural beauty does not, of course, ease the political tensions. Those tensions run deep, and not even an Olympic gesture of goodwill can ease them in any lasting way.

“But amid persistent conflict,” says Christa, “perhaps there is a promise in these wildflowers and waves that there is more to any place than war and rumors of war.” She'll look at those currents in a story tomorrow, when the two Koreas march into the opening ceremonies as one team.

Now, here are our stories of the day, looking at transitions, a quest for equality, and a new appreciation of art.

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Hints of a US shift on ‘limited’ nukes raise alarm in Russia

In the United States, it's the memo that few people are paying attention to. But in Russia, the new nuclear posture review is raising more than a few alarms. Russians see it as the US opening the door to the use of nuclear weapons outside the bounds of mutual assured destruction – a shift in decades of philosophy that makes US-Russia relations more uncertain.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
A congressional aide stands beside a chart positioning the advancement of nuclear weapons programs in other countries compared with that of the US as Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington on Feb. 6.
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There are two schools of thought when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons. The dominant view, in both the United States and Russia, has been that they are too potentially world-ending to ever be used. That has led to the regime in place today: a system of arms control treaties that sought to limit the numbers and types of weapons, while maintaining a framework of mutual assured destruction. But there has always been an alternative viewpoint, which argued that nuclear weapons might be used to fight and win wars. To Russians, the new nuclear posture review released by the Pentagon last week is suggesting a switch toward the latter view. And it is alarming them. “It looks like Donald Trump simply handed this over to his generals to do, just telling them, ‘I want the biggest and the best,’ with no sense of political priorities or direction,” says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert. “This is the wish list of generals, and it’s dangerous.”

Hints of a US shift on ‘limited’ nukes raise alarm in Russia


The new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released by the Pentagon last week has not generated much notice in the United States, perhaps because another kind of memo has been dominating the news.

But in Moscow, it has been received with shock, and even a touch of fear, because for the first time in almost three decades it appears to talk about the possibility of “limited” nuclear war with Russia.

“This new tone in the NPR is a very serious thing, and it's hard to understand why they are talking about this using Russia’s name,” says Alexander Golts, an independent military expert who is usually critical of the Kremlin. “It's especially hard to hear after eight years of President Obama, who took a close interest in these issues and whose goal was a non-nuclear world.”

The apparent shift in thinking in the US is bringing an old debate back to the forefront in Russia: whether a nuclear arsenal is best as a tool that is never used, or if nations – like the US under Trump – might employ it in some circumstances. And with US-Russia arms-control treaties falling into disrepair, Russians are trying to determine what America’s nuclear intentions actually are.

“It looks like Donald Trump simply handed this over to his generals to do, just telling them ‘I want the biggest and the best,’ with no sense of political priorities or direction. This is the wish list of generals, and it’s dangerous,” says Mr. Golts.

Changing the nuclear conversation

Since the dawn of the nuclear age, there have been two schools of thought about what to do with these massively destructive weapons.

The dominant view, in both the US and Russia, has been that they are too potentially world-ending to ever be used, and therefore the only sensible purpose for deploying them is for deterrence: in other words, to prevent war.

That thinking led the two superpowers – even amid a deep and acrimonious cold war – to create a system of arms-control treaties that sought to limit the numbers and types of nuclear weapons, while maintaining a framework of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), meaning that both sides had equal ability to destroy the other. The most recent such deal was New START, signed by Mr. Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev just eight years ago, which sharply reduced the numbers of strategic warheads and launchers on both sides.

But there has always been an alternative viewpoint, which argued that nuclear weapons might be used to fight and win wars. Russian experts say they have little knowledge of such arguments that may have taken place within the Soviet security establishment, due to its ironclad secrecy, but at least one has erupted into the public sphere in Russia in recent years. As for the US, there is a long history of strategic thinkers debating this issue, though advocates of deterrence and arms control have always won the day.

But the new NPR appears to change the conversation – blaming alleged Russian threats – by arguing that the US needs to develop fresh tactics and a new mix of nuclear weapons, including “low yield” warheads suitable for taking out battlefield targets rather than city-busting.

“To correct any Russian misperceptions of advantage and credibly deter Russian nuclear or non-nuclear strategic attacks ... the President must have a range of limited and graduated options, including a variety of delivery systems and explosive yields,” it says.

Experts point out that this appears explicitly in the NPR section devoted to Russia, though it would more logically seem to apply to a discussion of options for dealing with Iran or North Korea.

“I am afraid this is based on a completely wrong view of Russian strategic doctrine,” says Andrei Baklitsky, an expert with the PIR Center, Russia’s leading think tank on nuclear security issues. “It really seems to us that the US is addressing a problem that doesn't exist.”

'Limited' nuclear use

Mr. Baklitsky explains that Russia’s strategic doctrine, approved by Vladimir Putin in 2016, lays out only two circumstances in which Russia would use nuclear weapons: if it were attacked with nuclear weapons, or if it faced a conventional attack that threatened the survival of the Russian state.

The idea of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield was a current one during the cold war, when huge Warsaw Pact armies faced NATO forces along a conflict line running through the center of Europe. Both sides maintained – and presumably still have – nuclear-armed short-range missiles, gravity bombs, and even artillery shells designed to take out columns of tanks, bunkers, and concentrations of troops. Critics of tactical nuclear war said that use of such weapons could easily escalate to full-scale nuclear war. There is no transparency about this subject in Russia today, experts complain.

“We know what is happening with strategic arms here because there is a treaty and an exchange of information,” says Vladimir Dvorkin, an arms-control expert with the Center for International Security at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. “But we are completely unaware of what is going on in the area of tactical weapons.”

But Mr. Putin and other Russian officials have frequently discussed Russia's nuclear arsenal as something to be taken into account in the active conduct of foreign policy. Western analysts are in disagreement over what this means, with some suggesting Russia is signaling that it might countenance the preemptive use of nuclear weapons, and others arguing that it is mere political posturing to remind the West that Russia still matters.

But Russia did toy with first use of nuclear weapons, especially following the Soviet collapse and the disintegration of its conventional military forces. When NATO subdued Serbia following a long conventional bombing campaign in 1999, the theme of Russia’s regular military exercises that year, Zapad 99, involved using a nuclear strike to forestall a similar move against Russia, says Golts.

“It was obvious to Russian military authorities that we couldn’t match Western capabilities, so the answer was to use nuclear weapons to stop the escalation,” he says.

Another debate took place about 10 years ago, as Russia’s Putin-era national security doctrine was being formulated. Then, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Kremlin’s powerful Security Council, gave an interview to the pro-government newspaper Izvestia, in which he suggested Russia might employ nuclear weapons in a “regional conflict” near its borders. That set off a firestorm of speculation in the West.

“That caused huge shocks in our own strategic circles,” says Golts. “We don’t know how the debates went, but we do know that this idea does not appear in our country’s latest strategic doctrines.”

Misunderstandings are multiplying

The reappearance of the specter of “limited” nuclear war, just as Russia has completed a cycle of strategic nuclear modernization and the US is embarking on its own massive upgrade, has created a new level of dangerous uncertainty in a relationship that is already under great strain. The framework of arms-control treaties, built up over several decades, is unraveling and threatening to take the world back to the hair-raising 1960s.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty that ended the cold war and abolished a whole class of nuclear weapons has been the subject of mutual recriminations for years, and now appears on the verge of complete failure. The US withdrew unilaterally from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, triggering Russian fears that technological advances might one day wipe out their nuclear deterrent. And the New Start treaty, while still in force and apparently working, expires in just three years.

“If the situation were normal, the two sides should already be holding discussions about prolonging it,” says Golts. “That isn’t happening. On the contrary, Putin is blaming the US for violating it. All aspects of arms control, as we knew it, are in crisis.”

Misunderstandings are multiplying, and in this context the old idea of “limited” nuclear war takes on an ominous new look, says Baklitsky.

“The notion behind arms control is that you know what your counterpart is doing. You have mechanisms for verifying it,” he says. “What we see today is that Russia and the US are talking past each other. No one is discussing how to sit down with a practical view to solving problems, understanding each others' concerns, reaching compromise. Instead we have two completely different, mutually exclusive narratives trying to shout each other down.”

On cusp of budget deal, a Congress that’s far from functional

When Sen. Chuck Schumer announced a two-year budget deal Wednesday, he was all smiles. The deal was the result of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, and each side got things it wanted – even if it wasn't perfect. But there's a flip side to this bipartisan story. The budget process itself is Exhibit A of how highly dysfunctional Congress has become. 

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Congress may be on the cusp of its first long-term, bipartisan budget deal since President Trump took office. But there’s a flip side to this feel-good moment. The agreement comes months late, after a fourth temporary spending bill was poised to run out at midnight. And lawmakers universally describe the budgeting process – Congress’s most basic job – as being in a state of chronic breakdown. If the public gives Congress low approval ratings, well, so do lawmakers. “These simple, basic tasks of governing [have] become herculean efforts,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania, speaking with a clutch of reporters at last week’s GOP retreat in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Indeed, Capitol Hill is not a happy place these days. Still, some are looking for ways out of the morass. The so-called common-sense coalition in the Senate, which helped end last month’s shutdown, is looking for ways forward. The aim is not to draft legislation, says Sen. Angus King (Ind.) of Maine, but to simply “make this place work better.”

On cusp of budget deal, a Congress that’s far from functional

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer (D) of New York (l.) walk to the chamber after collaborating on a budget deal, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018.

When Senate minority leader Charles Schumer announced a two-year budget deal this week he was all smiles.

True, each side made painful concessions. There’s no resolution for young unauthorized immigrant “Dreamers” (to the dismay of Democrats). And the debt looks set to increase (to the ire of GOP deficit hawks). But the military gets the spending increase it wanted, while lawmakers also boosted funds for domestic priorities like health care and disaster relief. The deal also lifts the debt ceiling for a year, so the United States won’t be in danger of default.

“That’s compromise. That’s governing,” Senator Schumer said. “That’s what we should be doing more of in this body.”

But there’s a flip side to this feel-good moment. The budget deal comes months late, as a fourth temporary spending bill to keep the government going was poised to run out at midnight Thursday. Lawmakers universally describe the budgeting process – Congress’s most basic job – as being in a state of chronic breakdown, Exhibit A for dysfunction on the Hill.

If the public gives Congress low approval ratings, well, so do lawmakers – who themselves are highly frustrated.

“These simple, basic tasks of governing ... become Herculean efforts,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R) of Pennsylvania, speaking with a clutch of reporters at last week’s GOP retreat in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. Since last spring, he said, “I’ve been screaming to our leadership and others that we need a [budget] agreement.”

Capitol Hill is not a happy place these days. Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia put it bluntly when he reportedly told Schumer and other colleagues, “This place sucks.”

When asked to comment on the “joy factor” of working in Congress, Republican Mac Thornberry of Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, responded: “ ‘Joy’ is not among the top 10 words that I would use to describe it.”

And while it may seem a bit of a touchy-feely concept for a member of Congress, unhappiness and frustration have real consequences. They sap energy, feed cynicism, and undermine the ability of members to work together, says former House historian Ray Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

“[Members] lose the will to make the extra effort,” he says. “They become more mechanical and routine in the kind of work they’re doing, when they should be thrilled and excited about the possibilities they can achieve.”

Retirements on the rise

After a while, that dissatisfaction can drive members from Congress.

Last month Republican Trey Gowdy, the Republican chair of the powerful House Committee on Government Oversight, announced he would not be running for reelection, but would return to the “justice system” in South Carolina. “Whatever skills I may have are better utilized in a courtroom than in Congress, and I enjoy our justice system more than our political system,” the former federal prosecutor said in a statement.

Just days after Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee announced last fall that he would not seek re-election, he quipped to a Democratic colleague, “So, are you really jealous?” The answer: “Yes. It seduces me every day. Every day I think about it.”

Being a member of Congress has never been easy. Awaiting Republicans at their retreat last week was a thick, paperback tome: “Surviving Inside Congress – Fifth Edition.” Weekly travel back and forth between Washington and home take a toll, and no one likes the constant fundraising.

But the hyper-partisanship and lack of civil discourse have made things far worse. So, too, has the unpredictability and divisive rhetoric of President Trump.

“Mr. Trump has thrown a huge wrench into how both parties feel they have to react vis-a-vis the executive branch,” says Mr. Smock. Trust and civility are key to getting things done when people don’t agree. “If the president says one day he’s for something and the next day he’s against it, that has an effect all up and down the House and Senate.”

The Common Sense Coalition

Interestingly, this week’s budget deal includes a mechanism to try to fix the broken budget system. It calls for the appointment of a special joint committee to come up with budget-reform legislation. All kinds of ideas are circulating on the Hill about how to fix the process – though it could also be argued that it’s not the process, but the partisanship that is the problem.

Indeed, lawmakers who are trying to bridge the vast political divide and cut through the zero-sum gamesmanship have formed bipartisan caucuses in both chambers.

Their names speak to a spirit of pragmatism – the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House, which has nearly 50 members and was formed a year ago, and the Common Sense Coalition in the Senate. The Senate group has its roots in 2013, when about a dozen members got together to help end the partial government shutdown. It went dormant, but was revived last month with more members, about 25, to end the brief January shutdown.

As long as the Republican-led, 435-member House continues to operate under its party rule of only bringing up bills that a majority of the majority supports, it’s hard to see how the problem solvers can have much substantive influence, says Smock.

But the outlook for the Common Sense Coalition is more promising in the Senate, he says. They represent a quarter of the Senate, in a chamber where a single member can have tremendous power.

The group of senators has been meeting regularly in what’s come be to be known as “Little Switzerland,” the office of Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine. Senators meet without staff present, sustained by Girl Scout cookies and respectful exchanges of views. When they leave, many are literally beaming.

Unlike the various bipartisan “gangs” that form to produce comprehensive legislation or solve particular problems, the agenda of this group seems to be organically evolving. It’s focusing now on the upcoming immigration debate, set to start on the Senate floor next week, when the group hopes to offer an amendment.

The coalition’s aim is not necessarily to draft bills or become a super committee, says Sen. Angus King (I) of Maine, “but to try to contribute to the discussion so that we can make this place work better.”

“People are talking, they’re open, they’re sharing their thoughts and it makes it a much more satisfying place to work if you have that kind of atmosphere,” says Senator King, who caucuses with the Democrats. “I told Doug Jones [the newly elected Democrat from Alabama] ‘You happen to have arrived at this place when there’s been more bipartisan discussion and work than I’ve seen in the past five years.’ ”

Presidential limbo in South Africa: Why Zuma's appeal persists

To observers abroad, it's clear why the ANC would want to oust Zuma: years of corruption scandals and a tough election coming up. But just as telling about South Africa today is why a leader who mismanaged the economy and faces 18 charges of corruption had such staying power. What do South African voters see in the former liberation fighter?

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When Beatrice Letlepe was a child in South Africa, she watched her father slip out of their village to fight apartheid with the African National Congress. Today, almost a quarter century after the end of white rule, she lives in a formerly white neighborhood – something she never imagined possible. “I still vote for the ANC because where we are now – they are the ones who fought for it,” she says. But the party faces uncertain elections next year. Leaders seem to think that President Jacob Zuma, whose administration has been scarred by corruption, isn’t helping. They have begun backroom negotiations to replace him with his buttoned-up deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa. But Mr. Zuma is still in many ways the heart of the party, a folksy former liberation fighter with no formal schooling who promises “radical economic transformation.” “People see in him someone, who, like most South Africans of his generation, didn’t have the chance to be educated but still rose to political prominence against the odds, and that’s a powerful story,” one analyst says.

Presidential limbo in South Africa: Why Zuma's appeal persists

South African President Jacob Zuma waves as he leaves parliament in Cape Town, South Africa on Feb. 6, 2018, after it was announced that this year's state of the nation address that was to be delivered on Thursday will be postponed. Officials say Mr. Zuma will not make the state of the nation address because of concerns that lawmakers may disrupt the event.

“Uuuummmshini wam, uuuummmmshini wam!”

On a hot day last December, the familiar melody rippled across the cavernous hall, pulling delegates at the convention of South Africa’s ruling party to their feet with whoops and cheers. The tune was an old anti-apartheid struggle song, “Awulethu Umshini Wami” – “Bring Me My Machine Gun” – and it was being led by the man who had made it famous again: the country’s president, Jacob Zuma.

As Mr. Zuma’s deep, gleeful voice belted across the room, the moment seemed to encapsulate the strange turning point at which his party, the African National Congress, suddenly found itself.

On the one hand, Zuma, whose administration has been scarred by corruption and economic mismanagement, was quickly becoming a pariah within the ANC, which has ruled South Africa uninterrupted since the end of apartheid in 1994.

A few minutes after his song and dance, the party would announce that it had elected as its next leader a man who in many ways is the anti-Zuma – a buttoned-up businessman named Cyril Ramaphosa, who speaks a crisp, formal English and promises to woo back international investors. When general elections roll around in mid-2019, the ANC hopes Mr. Ramaphosa will win back voters disillusioned with Zuma’s scandal-laden presidency.

At the same time, however, the crowd’s reaction to Zuma’s trademark wiggle was a reminder that he is still in many ways the heart of South Africa’s beleaguered ruling party – a folksy former liberation fighter with no formal schooling who promises “radical economic transformation” for the country’s impoverished masses.

Fast forward two months, however, and the ANC seems to have firmly decided which way to turn. It is away from the president – who, it seems all but certain, will give up that title within days. Over the last week, the ANC’s executive committee began back-room negotiations to gently compel Zuma to step down, more than a year from the end of his term. 

But if his eventual ouster speaks to South Africans’ deep frustrations, his staying power until now is equally telling. South Africa, after all, was a nation under white rule until just 25 years ago, where the president’s complicated history reminds many voters of their own.

Party future on the line

While no timeline was given for the resignation, Zuma made the extraordinary step Tuesday of agreeing to cancel the annual State of the Nation speech he was scheduled to deliver Thursday, signaling to many that he is preparing for his exit. In a press release Wednesday, meanwhile, Ramaphosa alluded to conversations he had with Zuma about “the transition” and promised a “speedy resolution of the matter in the interests of the country and its people.”

For the ANC itself, however, the decision to recall its own leader is a gamble with unprecedented odds.

The party, once part of the country’s liberation movement, has won every national election since the end of white rule. For many voters, it is synonymous with a democratic South Africa.

But in 2016 local government races, the ANC unexpectedly lost control of several major cities, including Johannesburg. That, coupled with the rise of powerful opposition parties from both the right and left, leaves the ANC facing its most uncertain national election yet next year.

And Ramaphosa, a union boss turned business mogul who helped lead the negotiations to end apartheid, is widely seen as the party’s best hope to right its course.

“He started a trade union, he’s educated, he appeals to white liberals, so he ticks a lot of boxes,” says Nomavenda Mathiane, a retired political journalist. “He offers hope to people who want to see the ANC return to its former glory.”

Controversial 'everyman'

But ousting Zuma also risks alienating many of his supporters, who have long viewed the president as a victim of the ANC’s political in-fighting, says Sithembile Mbete, a political science lecturer at the University of Pretoria.

“He is incredibly charismatic and appeals to a certain notion of the South African ‘everyman,’ ” Ms. Mbete says. “People see in him someone, who like most South Africans of his generation, didn’t have the chance to be educated but still rose to political prominence against the odds, and that’s a powerful story.”

That feeling of being victimized, she notes, is also part of Zuma’s story, and it’s a narrative he has built into his appeal from the start. When Zuma was dismissed as vice president in 2005 over corruption accusations, and soon after put on trial for rape, he told supporters the charges were nothing more than an attempt to undermine his political career. During his rape trial, hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Johannesburg court burning pictures of his accuser and chanting death threats. Zuma was acquitted, and his accuser was later offered asylum in the Netherlands.

“This story of victimhood explains why even today he still has a great deal of power and pull,” Mbete says. “The reality in South Africa is that the majority of people in this country have been victimized for 400 years, so it’s easy and natural to see how they could support a man they also feel has been a victim.”

That, in turn, has helped the president outrun a number of massive scandals across the course of his presidency. For years, for instance, he dodged the charge that he had used government money on upgrades to his personal home. When asked why South African taxpayers paid for his swimming pool, Zuma coyly explained that it was a “fire pool” constructed as a safety measure. (The country’s powerful anti-corruption ombudsman, Thuli Madonsela, eventually compelled him to pay back a portion of the cost).

The scandal that eventually became his undoing was his long-standing connection to three Indian businessmen in South Africa: Atul, Ajay, and Rajesh Gupta. In recent years the brothers have been implicated in a long list of corrupt dealings with government, including allegedly arranging for the president to fire the country’s finance minister and replace him with someone sympathetic to their business interests.

In late 2016, Ms. Madonsela released a damning report detailing the Guptas’ interference with South Africa’s government, and accused Zuma of turning a blind eye.

'Things just started spiraling'

For many both within and outside the ANC, this was the final straw.

“People knew that the government had been captured, but this was irrefutable evidence,” Ms. Mathiane, the journalist, says. “Things just started spiraling.”

Calls from the country’s political opposition to unseat Zuma mounted. Last week, the Economic Freedom Fighters party successfully petitioned Parliament to schedule a vote of no confidence in the president in late February. If he lost that vote – a possibility, if some of the ANCs legislators voted against him – he would be forced to resign immediately.

Many speculate that the current negotiations between Zuma and the ANC’s top leadership are designed to offer him a more graceful exit.

But turning over a new leaf for the party won’t be as simple as deposing one leader for another, she says. Instead, it will rest on how many voters decide to retain a loyalty that for many transcends personalities or even policies.

For Beatrice Letlepe, a retired high school geography teacher in Johannesburg, that allegiance runs back to her childhood, when she watched her father slip out of their village one night to join the ANC in exile fighting apartheid. Today, she lives in a formerly white suburb of Johannesburg called Brixton, something in those days she never imagined would be possible.

“When I hear young people like my daughter complaining about the ANC, I tell them – you didn’t grow up under apartheid, you don’t remember what it was like then,” she says. “I still vote for the ANC because where we are now – they are the ones who fought for it. They placed us here.”

On the rise in Israel: mixed-gender combat units

Israel is wrestling with some of the same questions the United States did before the Pentagon opened all combat jobs to women in 2016. For the women soldiers, like the men, it comes down to duty, honor, and sacrifice – without restriction.

Courtesy of The Israel Defense Forces
An Israeli soldier from a mixed-gender combat unit uses machinery to reach missing people under the rubble during a training exercise simulating the aftermath of a missile attack.
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Capt. Yuval Rubin is running her soldiers through the simulated aftermath of a missile attack. Surrounded by rubble, they rummage through concrete slabs, as jackhammers shoot sparks into the air. Her 86-strong team is six months into its training – and in the vanguard of the Israeli army’s expansion of women’s roles, given its nearly even split between male and female recruits. In the past five years, the number of women in combat roles has jumped five-fold, with 8.4 percent of women now in combat positions. The Homefront Command that Captain Rubin and her soldiers belong to has among the highest morale levels in the army. But as women’s profile rises, so does the pushback against their serving alongside men. Some former commanders worry about wartime effectiveness, while rabbis from the religious Zionist movement say inclusion will create discomfort for Orthodox soldiers. Yet Brig.-Gen. Sharon Nir, one of the army’s highest-ranking women, says, “This happened … because we needed it to.” And Rubin points to duty. “Before me there were soldiers who gave their service for this place, and now it’s my turn,” she says.

On the rise in Israel: mixed-gender combat units


Rain is pouring down and the soldiers in helmets and neon orange rescue vests are covered in mud, but the search for the missing under the massive piles of rubble continues for the third straight sleepless day.

The soldiers rummaging through the concrete slabs with gloved hands and operating hydraulic jacks are women alongside men, working in teams as part of their mixed-gender brigade.

Jackhammers used to break apart fallen walls shoot sparks into the heavy air, but in this case the missing people the soldiers are trying to rescue are plastic dolls, and the scenario of Israel being under nationwide missile attack is only a drill.

Standing just a few feet away, watching her soldiers work, is Capt. Yuval Rubin, 23, whose 86-strong company comprises a near-even mix of male and female recruits. They are six months into their training as part of a Homefront Command battalion that carries out search-and-rescue missions as well as patrols and operational duty in the West Bank. It’s one of four mixed-gender battalions in the country.

Captain Rubin and her soldiers are among the vanguard of gender-equality efforts in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In the last five years, the IDF says, the number of women in combat roles has jumped five-fold. Today, it says, 8.4 percent of women serving in the army are in combat positions, whether in these co-ed battalions, as pilots, naval combat officers, combat intelligence, the artillery corps, or other roles.

Courtesy of The Israel Defense Forces
Capt. Yuval Rubin, commander of a mixed-gender combat company in the Homefront Command, during a recent search-and-rescue exercise in Lod, Israel that simulated the aftermath of a missile attack.

The impetus for the changing role of women has been twofold: the IDF is acceding to rising demands from women for equality, but it is also seizing on the trend to free up other units to face more demanding military challenges.


But as their profile rises in combat roles – the army is considering allowing women fighters in tank units as well – so does the pushback.

Some former military commanders say they fear that women fighters’ lesser physical strength compared with men’s will reduce the army’s effectiveness in war. And some rabbis from the Religious Zionist movement say it will be impossible in mixed-gender units to maintain traditional notions of modesty appropriate for Orthodox soldiers.

The army has worked to address their concerns: establishing orders, for example, for women soldiers to dress “modestly” during athletic workouts.

At the Lod exercise, Rubin is in full rescue uniform – combat boots, knee pads, and a neon orange rescue vest, with her long dark brown ponytail spilling out from under a helmet with a headlamp. Among her gear is also a chemical weapons suit, in the event she has to mount a rescue mission during a non-conventional weapons attack. When she’s on active combat duty, she carries an M-16.

“One of the main reasons I am here is because I understand that this is my country, I have no other place to live, and all the years before me there were soldiers who gave their service for this place, and now it’s my turn,” says Rubin, who grew up in the border town of Sderot, less than a mile from the Gaza Strip.

Motioning to the scene of collapsed buildings around her – an old neighborhood in the city of Lod that was partially bulldozed by the army for staged trainings like this one – she says the concept of being under attack is not an abstract one for her. From the age of six she grew up with regular missile attacks on her town.

“I grew up in the reality of war, and now we are in the midst of a missile attack exercise,” she says, explaining that her childhood experiences are why she was specifically drawn to serving in the Homefront Command, with its partial focus on search and rescue.

Romance in the ranks?

Among the Orthodox rabbis’ concerns, meanwhile, is the chance that romantic relationships between soldiers will interfere with the units’ missions.

Rabbi Ariel Bareli, head of a yeshiva in Sderot where both Torah study and preparation for military service is combined, has been one of the country’s most vocal critics of mixed-gender units. He tells his students it would be preferable for them to choose military prison over serving in such a unit.

“Soldiers need to think only of the mission of the army. When there are women in the unit it is a distraction from that mission,” he says in an interview.

Bareli served in the army himself in the mid 1980s in a tank unit, and he does not believe there can be women serving alongside men without posing a special problem for religious soldiers who are forbidden to hug women, let alone touch them.

According to him, part of the pact the Jewish people has with the Israeli army is not to go against the edicts of the Torah.

“As long as the IDF does what God wants, it will continue to succeed,” he says. “We can see someone has helped us from above before through the many miraculous victories we have achieved.”

Soldiers in co-ed units themselves laugh off the notion that romance would interfere in their mission. After working such intense and long hours together in the field, they can’t imagine seeing each other in a romantic way, they say in interviews.

Courtesy of The Israel Defense Forces
Two women serving in a mixed-gender combat battalion that is part of Israel's Homefront Command train in a recent search-and-rescue exercise in Lod, Israel.

“Ultimately we are like a family. We are 24/7 together and on sea doing patrols for hours and at work doing exercises. The male soldiers are like brothers to me,” says Sophia Zylbersztein, 20, who is in a mixed-gender unit of the Navy. Based in the southern port city of Ashdod, she and her unit patrol Israel’s southern border along the Mediterranean Sea.

The army has a strict policy of separate sleeping quarters and separate showers and bathrooms for male and female soldiers, even if they serve together. Women get special physical training, focused on building upper-body strength. There’s also a focus on iron and carbohydrate-rich nutrition for the women fighters.

Army's practical concerns

And although mixed-gender units are helping to bring a new level of gender integration into the IDF, the practical concerns are significant. When the first units were created in 2000, they were deployed to help protect Israel’s “quieter” borders of Jordan and later Egypt as a way to free up all-male battalions to be posted to other parts of the country.

The Homefront Command that Rubin and her soldiers belong to has among the highest levels of morale in the army, attributed most often in interviews to the search-and-rescue nature of their work. The other half of their job, being on duty in various parts of the West Bank – they are currently assigned to the area near Jerusalem – can have its share of tension, the soldiers say. But they say they feel proud to be able to serve the country there as well.

Rubin takes issue with those who criticize mixed-gender units or women serving in combat units in general.

“I have a company of 86 people and half of them are men, and I command them well and we work in full equality. I think people who are critical don’t know the reality in the field – they don’t see that it works and that it works well.”

As she is speaking, a group of men and women soldiers hoist a fellow soldier (acting as one of the wounded from the rubble) onto a stretcher and race by at full speed to bring him medical attention.

Soldiers owed 'meaningful service'

Rubin recalls joining the army in 2012 when she was one of a small handful of women in the company.

“There are lots of personal characteristics I have gained here that I don’t think I would have today if I had been in another position in the army or in civilian life,” she says. “Today I’m a serious combat soldier and that will stay with me – strengths to overcome challenging situations and confidence that I will take with me into the outside world.”

Brig.-Gen. Sharon Nir, one of the highest-ranking women in the army and the adviser to the chief of staff on gender issues, says “This happened in the army because we needed it to.”

Speaking from her office at the IDF’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, she says, “The number of women fighters is going up, and the number of clerks doing administrative work is down, thanks to computers.

“What is most important is that we find a match for people’s abilities and the role they take in the army,” she adds. “If we call on a young person, as we do, to come and give service during the best years of their lives, then we need to give them meaningful service to do.”

Museums beckon to a new generation with 'Instagram worthy' art

Museums used to rack their brains trying to figure out how to get young people through the door. Not anymore, thanks to social media – as anyone who's ever tried to see the "Mona Lisa" at the Louvre is aware. West Coast museums are creating selfie-ready exhibits – and selling out installations as if they're rock concerts. But does art have to be photogenic, and should it be reduced to a backdrop?

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The reporter in Yayoi Kusama’s 'Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away' at The Broad in Los Angeles.
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Is art there to be looked at, or interacted with? Increasingly, museums are attracting Millennials with installations that invite selfies. Thousands of photos posted on Instagram show that a new generation is not afraid to shell out money for tickets or wait in long lines to experience art as a backdrop. Los Angeles has become a hotbed for Instagram-ready art installations, including one called Happy Place, which is booked weeks in advance for its picture-perfect confetti rooms. In nearby Glendale, The Museum of Selfies is opening April 1. The trend has the art world divided, with some praising the reinvigoration of young people’s interest, and others seeing a threat to the value of artwork that isn’t as photogenic. “The power of Instagram to get people in the door is so seductive to museums,” says Philip Kennicott, senior art and architecture critic for The Washington Post. “But there is a lot of other stuff in the museum that is maybe not as Instagrammable. Are [young visitors] going to that kind of stuff? Increasingly, I’m skeptical about that.”

Museums beckon to a new generation with 'Instagram worthy' art


New York college students Helen Chen and Siyin Li are only visiting Los Angeles for a few days, but they decided to spend their Sunday afternoon in a line that wraps around the block.

“The minute we booked our trip, we bookmarked [The Broad],” says Ms. Chen.

The Broad, a free contemporary art museum in downtown L.A., has welcomed more than 1.7 million visitors since its opening in September 2015. The museum’s popularity has tripled annual expectations, say staff, and they attribute a lot of its success to Yayoi Kusama’s work, both her “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition that was on display last fall and one of the permanent pieces in the museum’s collection, “Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away.”

“It’s an Instagram-worthy shot for sure,” says Ms. Chen, pointing to a picture on her phone that a friend took in Ms. Kusama’s room at The Broad and shared on Instagram. In fact, the hashtag #YayoiKusama has 563,200 posts on the social media site.

“The only reason people know about it is because of Instagram,” says Ms. Li. 

That may be true for the Millennials in the crowd, who indicate that they consider the photo opportunity to be the museum’s major draw.

While New York City-based exhibits, such as the Museum of Ice Cream and Refinery29’s 29Rooms, ventured to the West Coast last year and sold out in a matter of minutes, Los Angeles has become a hotbed for Instagram-ready art installations in its own right.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
New York college students Siyin Li (l.) and Helen Chen wait in the standby line at The Broad, a contemporary art museum in L.A., to see Yayoi Kusama’s 'Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away.'

At the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles exhibition, “Tattoo,” visitors can become a part of the exhibit at the on-site tattoo parlor. The pop-up installation “Happy Place”, with the tagline “Capture your happy,” booked out weeks in advance for its picture-perfect confetti rooms and rainbow grilled-cheese sandwiches. And the Museum of Selfies will open in Glendale, Calif., on April 1, where visitors can “explore the origin of the selfie” while taking selfies of their own with interactive installations.

“L.A. is a special area where interactive entertainment is really growing,” says Tommy Honton, who co-created of the Museum of Selfies after working in the escape room industry. “We have all the ingredients other cities may be missing: the artists, creatives, tech investors, and the space. L.A. audiences are savvy, open-minded… and hungry for new forms of entertainment.”

'It’s changed the way people look at art'

The art world is seemingly divided on this trend. Some observers believe that it has reinvigorated the interest of young people in museums and generated necessary ticket sales through free marketing, while others say seeing art through the lens of potential Instagram “likes” is egotistical, disrespectful to the work, and threatens the value of other artwork that isn’t as photogenic.

“The power of Instagram to get people in the door is so seductive to museums. They may think, ‘Okay that’s what works. Why are we not doing more of that?,’ ” says Philip Kennicott, senior art and architecture critic for The Washington Post. “But there is a lot of other stuff in the museum that is maybe not as Instagrammable. Are [young visitors] going to that kind of stuff? Increasingly, I’m skeptical about that.”

Kevin Pobjoy has only worked at The Broad for three months, but he has lost count of how many times he has said, “Please don’t touch.” That familiar museum refrain is more important than ever, as damage from selfies gone wrong can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the room holding Robert Therrien’s “Under the Table” (a set of table and chairs 18-feet-high) a visitor approaches Mr. Pobjoy and all she says is “Can you – ,” before he stretches out his hand for her camera phone. He even helps stage her photo: “The best place for a photo is by this chair, where the shadows meet.” 

“It’s changed the way people look at art, but whether it’s good or bad is not for me to say,” says Pobjoy, adjusting the light on the young woman’s camera. “Art is meant to be enjoyed, in whatever way.”

Kusama’s work – as well as a lot of the other “Instagrammable” art – at The Broad, was created long before cell phone cameras became ubiquitous. For example, Mr. Therrien’s “Under the Table,” was completed in 1994, and the 80-something Kusama first began experimenting with reflection rooms in the 1960s. 

The acclaim for Kusama’s art has remained steady over the last 50 years, but the ways in which visitors experience her work has changed. 

Stopwatch viewing 

Before her rooms drew long lines of camera-ready Millennials, museum visitors were allowed to experience Kusama’s work without a time limit. Now, The Broad, for example, rotates visitors in and out of the “Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” on a 45-second schedule.

Li and Chen waited at least five hours (in three separate lines) to get their 45-seconds in Kusama’s piece, too brief a time to get the coveted Instagram-worthy shot, Li explained later.

Mr. Kennicott has been in one of the artist’s rooms for multiple, uninterrupted minutes at a museum in Washington, and he says the experience was entirely different – and more fulfilling – than the brief encounter most visitors have. 

“[Kusama’s rooms] have been really popular in the Instagram world, and I think it is because they are so popular in the real world,” says Kennicott. “The experience is not to be deprecated. Those are some wonderful minutes you can spend in there.”

In some ways, the digital age has added fresh insight to the artist’s work. For one, it is impossible to take a photo of Kusama’s mirrored work and have it not be a selfie. And if the message in her work is one of infinite reflection, it can be argued that sharing a photo of your visit to the museum – and then uploading it to the internet – allows the work (and the visitor) to exist together infinitely.

“[S]ocial media is a way we connect with other people. It’s the same with the mirror room,” says Sarah Loyer, assistant curator at The Broad. “When you see yourself reflected infinitely, it’s a loss of ego or individual self.”

Ms. Loyer says “word of picture” has been a big contributor to The Broad’s success. The Guggenheim in New York has seen similar chain reactions for particularly photogenic exhibits, according to the museum’s former digital director, JiaJia Fei.

“Not only are [visitors] taking pictures of art, they are taking pictures of themselves within these spaces. So in the pre-digital photography era, the message was ‘This is what I am seeing. I have seen,’ ” Ms. Fei said in a 2015 TEDx Talk. “And today the message is: ‘I was there. I came, I saw, and I selfied.’ ”

Selfies can be a part of the museum experience, but museum experts share similar advice: take time to learn about the work. Pobjoy says he has seen young families unknowingly pose for photos in front of subtly provocative paintings before reading what the work is about or looking at the piece up close.

“I would just encourage visitors to, in addition to taking their photo, try to take a few minutes to really try to look at the artwork without the camera in between you and the object,” says Loyer. “You can do both.”

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Signal of hope for Venezuela

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The people of Venezuela already know the state of their crisis. The economy continues to shrink. Basic goods are in short supply. And President Nicolás Maduro – whose dictatorial grip will probably increase after a pseudo-election planned for April – has refused humanitarian relief, fearing it might lead to concessions or send more signals about the crisis. A recent tour of Latin America by United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could help turn what is for many outside Venezuela a distant issue about the country’s economic implosion into an explosion of empathy for the rising number of refugees from that country. The shift in concern should then add to the diplomatic momentum for a solution. Helping Venezuela’s refugees is one way to unite the rest of Latin America into taking stronger action toward restoring democracy in that country. And sending a message of hope from outside might convince more Venezuelans at home that they are not alone. They deserve both basic goods and basic rights. 

Signal of hope for Venezuela

Men carry a woman who fainted while queueing to try to cross into Colombia from Venezuela through Simon Bolivar international bridge in Cucuta, Colombia, Jan. 24,

Of all the refugee crises in the world, from those in Syria to Myanmar to Libya, the one least recognized as a crisis is Venezuela’s. That perception changed in recent days, however, after a tour of Latin America by United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The massive influx of Venezuelans into the rest of the region was a major topic, helping turn a distant issue about the country’s economic implosion into an explosion of empathy for the rising number of refugees.

The shift in concern should add to the diplomatic momentum for a solution in Venezuela, where poverty and hunger are now the norm and President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorial grip will probably increase after a pseudo-election planned for April.

Providing aid to the refugees could send a subtle message – as it has done in other world trouble spots – that innocent civilians deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

The people in Venezuela already know the state of the crisis. The economy continues to shrink. Basic goods are in short supply. The country now has the highest inflation rate in the world. Its oil production has stagnated while the government has defaulted on some foreign debt payments. The regime needs to rely more and more on the military to quell dissent. And Mr. Maduro has refused humanitarian relief, fearing the country will be forced to make concessions.

A poll this week revealed that 85 percent of Venezuelans say the country is in a “grave humanitarian crisis.” Less than a third plan to vote in the coming election.

In neighboring Colombia, almost half a million Venezuelans have already “voted with their feet” by fleeing across the border. And every day, hundreds more arrive in Colombia as well as in places such as Brazil, Panama, and Argentina. Colombia says the migration is now its top concern. The government has opened its first shelter and made plans for large-scale camps. Mr. Tillerson promised to consider US aid for the effort.

Venezuela’s “deep” crisis, says Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, is the “result of the failed [socialist] revolution led by President Maduro.”

Helping Venezuela’s refugees is one way to encourage the rest of Latin America to unite and take stronger action toward restoring democracy in that country. And sending a message of hope from outside might convince more Venezuelans at home that they are not alone. They deserve both basic goods and basic rights.

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.

Living our inherent dignity

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Today’s column explores how an understanding of everyone’s God-given dignity and worth can bless us and others.

Living our inherent dignity

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

I’ve been thinking a lot about dignity recently. One dictionary defines it as self-respect and also as being worthy of honor or respect. So, we could say dignity is about seeing ourselves and others as worthy, valued, and needed. I might add, loved.

When I was first out of college I got a job teaching high school students who were much older than the normal age for the grade they were in. Several of them were actually older than I was. There were often days when some of them would call out in class. One fellow would even taunt me in front of the other students. It was difficult and disturbing for me.

So, as I usually do in any tough situation, I turned to God in prayer for comfort, guidance, and a solution. I prayed to see those students, and the one young man especially, as the children of God, reflecting the nature of God, good. Even though their behavior was not reflective of this identity, I asked God to help me see that they had the God-given capacity to express qualities such as respect, self-control, kindness, humility, dignity, and, yes, love for themselves, me, and the other students.

My basis for praying this way was this idea I’d learned in my study of Christian Science: that God is our divine Parent, the divine Spirit that created man (meaning all of us) in His likeness – that is, spiritual, whole, complete, significant, and good. We all have the innate capacity to see ourselves and others as God does, to recognize ourselves and everyone as the strong yet tender reflection of God, divine Love, with God-given dignity and worth. This is the true, spiritual nature of all of us, no matter what we look like, where we’re from, or how we may have acted in the past. And it’s a powerful basis for redeeming and restoring a lost sense of worth or respectfulness.

Thinking and praying with these ideas brought me a fuller sense of everyone’s inherent dignity, which helped me handle things that came up in the classroom. There was noticeable improvement in the classroom dynamics, too. For instance, while there was one more major flare-up with the young man, he never again spoke out in such a manner and moved on to a better comportment and attitude. Actually, to a better demonstration of his own self-worth and dignity.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we read that a man with leprosy approached Christ Jesus one day and asked for healing. In those times lepers were considered unclean, even defiled sinners, never to be approached or dealt with in any way, yet Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man, proclaiming, “Be thou clean.” The man was instantly and completely healed (see 8:1-3). Jesus had a clear sense of man’s innate dignity and worth as transcending physical appearance and mores of the day. His strong yet humble respect for man as God made us enabled him to bring health and healing to many.

Having a pure sense of dignity and respect for ourselves and others counters intolerance, temper, prejudice, and whatever else would sway our thoughts and actions from our natural spiritual attributes representative of the divine character. Speaking of guarding our thoughts, temper, and tongue, and referring to God as divine Soul, Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy writes in “Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896” that “… trials lift us to that dignity of Soul which sustains us, and finally conquers them,” adding that “the ordeal refines while it chastens” (p. 126).

Acknowledging everyone’s true spiritual identity reveals that our God-given dignity, and that of others, is whole, intact, and undamaged, and opens the door for us and those around us to feel and live this dignity in daily life.

A message of love

Reviewing a military parade

KRT/AP video
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks with officials during a military parade in the capital, Pyongyang, Feb. 8. North Korea held the parade and rally on Kim Il-sung Square just one day before South Korea hosts the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. (This image is a still made from video provided by North Korean state media.)
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Yvonne Zipp
Daily Editor

Thanks for spending time with us today. Come back tomorrow. We’re working on the Washington, D.C. school district story, where what looked like improvement in high school graduation rates belied a culture of passing seniors by any means necessary. That’s a reflection of gray areas around attendance and credit recovery across the country that are making it difficult to measure true progress. 

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