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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.

2018
July
11
Wednesday

What happens when your news consumption gives you only a narrow slice of the full picture?

For one, you may become misinformed. For another, you could be less well served by government – national or local. Let me explain.

Recently, some friends questioned whether the United States still has a political “center,” amid public dialogue that often lurches unimaginatively from one far side of the spectrum to the other. It’s easy to understand why they’d wonder. Yet a piece by NPR states that pragmatism, rather than sharp partisanship, is winning the day among Democrats in key midterm races. Frank Bruni’s column in The New York Times today carried the headline: “The Center Is Sexier Than You Think.”

Then there’s the revelation that less media coverage could literally be costly. A study done in May found that when local newspapers close, government waste rises over time.

Yet The Boston Globe reported last week that newspapers outpaced coal mining, steel manufacturing, and fishing in job losses in recent decades. And there’s not enough online growth to ease that deficit, which rises quietly, to some extent drowned out by what seems to be a cacophony of information. So that full picture gets more elusive. It’s worth thinking about how to broaden our view.

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 Now to our five stories, which show the power of rejecting fear, keeping an open mind, and prioritizing compassion.

1. For women in Senate, court nomination touches personal issue

As the Senate weighs a new nominee to the Supreme Court, the stakes look especially high when it comes to abortion rights. An important change since 1973: A record number of senators are women, and the issue is very personal.

Amelia

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For women of the Senate, consideration of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a moment when the personal and political intersect. Like several of her colleagues, Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington had a formative experience with the issue of abortion. When she was in college in the pre-Roe days, she had a friend who was raped on a date and later found out she was pregnant. She sought out a “back alley” doctor, who so botched the procedure that she could not have children. Senator Murray describes this as a “real turning point,” realizing that “this was not how we should be treating women.” When the high court handed down its landmark abortion ruling in 1973, there was not a single woman in the Senate. Now there are a record 23, with most of them supporting abortion rights. Yet even with their larger numbers, it's not clear if women senators will become a pivotal coalition that blocks the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh to the high court. Democrats fear he will provide the swing vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if he gets the chance.  

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For women in Senate, court nomination touches personal issue

In the 1960s, Sen. Dianne Feinstein was a member of a California board that set sentences of six months to 10 years for doctors performing abortions, which were illegal at the time.

“I saw some pretty horrendous things in my day, someone killing themselves because they didn’t want to tell their parents [they were pregnant], and that made a deep dent on me,” Senator Feinstein says. Her experience led her to conclude that the law should change, and “fortunately it did.” With the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, abortion became legal across the land.

For women of the Senate like Feinstein, now the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the consideration of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is a moment where the personal and political intersect, often in deeply meaningful ways. When the high court handed down its landmark abortion ruling, there was not a single woman senator in that chamber. Now there are a record 23 – 17 Democrats and six Republicans, with most of them supporting abortion rights.

Yet even with their larger numbers, it's not clear if women senators will become a pivotal coalition that blocks the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh to the high court. Democrats such as Feinstein fear he will provide the swing vote to overturn Roe v. Wade if he gets the chance.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Democratic Member Senator Dianne Feinstein questions FBI Director Christopher Wray and U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz during a Judiciary Committee hearing “Examining the Inspector General’s First Report on Justice Department and FBI Actions in Advance of the 2016 Presidential Election” on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 18, 2018.

Her colleague Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington is equally concerned, and like Feinstein also had a formative experience with the issue. When she was in college in the pre-Roe days, she had a friend who was raped on a date, returning that night devastated and distraught. Several months later the friend found out she was pregnant. She sought out a “back alley” doctor, who so botched the procedure that she could not have children.

The senator describes this as a “real turning point,” realizing that “this was not how we should be treating women.” Then came the Roe decision. Now she says she is “looking at a future court where five men can turn this around and say to all the women of this country, you don’t have a decision you can make anymore, you cannot be safe, you cannot be healthy, you cannot make this decision on your own.”

The battle for 51 votes

Democrats are rallying the country in opposition to the Kavanaugh nomination on this and two other key issues – health care and presidential powers. Outside groups on both sides of the abortion debate have also started a pitched and expensive advertising and grassroots battle aimed at potential “swing senators” in the chamber that is narrowly controlled by Republicans 51-49 – with a key member, Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, absent since the start of the year. As of last year, when Republicans changed the rules, it only requires a majority to confirm a Supreme Court justice.

Targeted are three Democrats in red states that President Trump handily carried and who broke with their party last year to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch. Also in the crosshairs: pro-abortion-rights Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, who last year bucked their party to block GOP repeal of the Affordable Care Act. A few others will find themselves under heavy pressure – including Sen. Doug Jones, the Democrat who pulled off an upset victory in crimson Alabama last year. He may not be up for re-election, but this will be a crucial vote for the newly minted senator, who supports abortion rights.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., left, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, arrive to vote on a bill to expand private care for military veterans as an alternative to the troubled Veterans Affairs health system, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 23, 2018.

Also under scrutiny, of course, is the record of Judge Kavanaugh, a Yale graduate who served 12 years on the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and in the administration of President George W. Bush. At his 2006 hearing for the circuit court, he was grilled by Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York – now the leader of the Senate Democrats – about whether he considered Roe v. Wade to be “an abomination.” Kavanaugh answered that if confirmed to the circuit court, he would follow the ruling “faithfully and fully.” That would be “binding precedent,” he said. “It’s been decided by the Supreme Court.”

Yet Democrats point to his recent opinions they consider damning, including, as Senator Schumer put it, Kavanaugh’s argument that “the Trump administration could keep a young girl in federal custody to prevent her from obtaining constitutionally protected health care.” He is referring to the case of a 17-year old unaccompanied immigrant minor who was held at the Texas border and sought an abortion. Kavanaugh dissented when the DC court allowed the teen to have an abortion, with part of his rationale being that the government has “permissible interests in favoring fetal life.” In June, the Supreme Court threw that decision out – though she had already had the abortion.

Feinstein wants to pore over Kavanaugh’s record before hearings begin – perhaps after Labor Day. But even so, the fact that the president promised to appoint an anti-abortion-rights nominee, and chose one who's been vetted by conservative groups committed to overturning the landmark ruling, is reason enough to assume that he would do so, Democrats say.

Senate women opposed to abortion

While most of the Senate women favor abortion rights, a handful do not. Sen. Joni Ernst (R) of Iowa says that for as long as she can remember, she’s been opposed to abortion.

“It’s never anything I had to think about. I’ve always been pro-life. I was just raised that way, and it’s what I believe. I’ve never held another position, it’s just who I am,” she says in brief interview. When the court ruled on Roe, she was approaching three years old.

Still, her standard answer to the “litmus test” question about a Supreme Court nominee and Roe is that there should not be one. A Republican colleague, who believes that life begins at conception, agrees.

“When I look at a nominee for the Supreme Court, I want a justice who is going to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law,” says Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska. “I don’t ask about specific issues. I do not have a litmus test.”

Senators Ernst and Fischer are reliable conservative votes who can be expected to back Kavanaugh. The game changers would be the GOP Senators Murkowski and Collins. In 2016, Murkowski ran ads in Alaska about women’s rights, points out Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames. And Collins has backed Planned Parenthood, which last year honored her for her fight against Obamacare repeal.

But both senators look like they are leaning toward confirmation. While Collins said she would not support any nominee who had demonstrated hostility toward Roe, on Tuesday she said in a video clip on the PBS NewsHour that “I have not seen that with Judge Kavanaugh.” Also on Tuesday, she told a tightly packed scrum of reporters that Kavanaugh “is clearly qualified for the job” – though she still wants to consider his temperament and judicial philosophy. It’s hard to imagine her finding fault in either of those areas.

For her part, Murkowski said there were far more troubling candidates on Trump’s list of nominees. “There were some who have been on the list that I would have had a very, very difficult time supporting,” Murkowski told Politico Monday. “We’re not dealing with that.”

Ms. Bystrom, however, warns that if they back Kavanaugh, it could eventually backfire on them, even though neither is up for election this year. That goes for Senator Ernst as well. She may not be on the ballot in November, but Bystrom says other races in Iowa could be affected, including a toss-up seat for the House.

“I think we’re in an environment now where people, especially women of all ages, are afraid of rights that they’ve had for decades being taken away.” She says she’s around a lot of young women who have always had choices about their reproductive health. She sees them energized and concerned. They’re watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” – based on the novel about women subjugated to men – and wondering if that is going to be their world, she says.

And they have personal stories of their own. She recalls a young, conservative woman in tears because her friend did not qualify for an abortion under Iowa’s 20-week anti-abortion law, even though the fetus had a very serious defect.

It is such personal experiences that form opinions – those of women senators and the population at large.

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2. As the clock ticks down, Britain to reveal its Brexit plan. What now?

Brexit is starting to come to a head. Yet most observers – including Britons – still don't have a grasp of what's going on or where it will end. On the eve of Britain's Brexit policy reveal, we break it down.

Amelia
Joel Rouse/MOD/Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May and her cabinet begin discussions about the government's plans to exit the European Union at Chequers, the prime minister's official country residence, near Aylesbury, England, July 6.

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It has been two years since British voters chose in a referendum to withdraw from the European Union. But only tomorrow will the government actually publish its vision of what kind of relationship it wants with the EU after "Brexit." That’s because the ruling Conservative Party has been at war with itself over Europe for years, and Prime Minister Theresa May has been trying to keep the peace between hard Brexiteers who want a clean break from the EU and those favoring a “soft” Brexit, meaning Britain would maintain close ties with the continent from outside. Nine months before the deadline to leave the EU, Ms. May has come down on the soft side, but it is not clear that she has made enough concessions to convince Brussels to do a deal. On the other hand, she may have made too many concessions to secure the majority she needs in the British Parliament to pass her withdrawal plan. Brexit has turned into a very complicated mess with no clear outcome.

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As the clock ticks down, Britain to reveal its Brexit plan. What now?

On Thursday, the British government will finally say what exactly it wants from Brexit – more than two years since a referendum called for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. But Prime Minister Theresa May’s new vision has already prompted two top cabinet ministers to resign, and the European Union seems unlikely to accept it. The most intractable crisis in British politics since World War II is set to continue.

Why does the white paper matter?

This is the first time that the government has presented a coherent account of its vision of London’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU. Only last Friday did the cabinet agree to it, and none too soon; Britain is due to leave the union by March 29 next year.

Membership in the EU has been the cornerstone of Britain’s foreign and economic policy for more than four decades, so it was bound to be difficult to disentangle itself. But it has taken two years for the government to decide just what Brexit should mean, largely because the ruling Conservative Party has always been deeply divided over the EU.

Since the referendum, the battle has been between those wanting a clean break and full national sovereignty and those favoring a “soft” Brexit ensuring close trade and other ties with the EU’s remaining 27 members.

The white paper will not look much like the promises that the “Leave” campaign made in 2016. Two top Brexiteers, David Davis and Boris Johnson, resigned from the cabinet this week after a critical meeting last Friday set a new direction for negotiations.

At that meeting, Ms. May came down on the side of a much softer Brexit than she had envisaged earlier, with the prospect that Britain might remain tied to the EU in many ways for years, or even indefinitely. 

What is all the fuss about?

Brexit has been, and remains, an almighty mess for which there is still no clear outcome.

Those who want to leave the EU focus on the issue of sovereignty. If Britain was out of the EU, they say, Parliament could take back control of immigration (ending EU citizens’ automatic right to live and work in Britain) and make its own laws regardless of the European Commission in Brussels; London would pay little or nothing into the EU budget; and Britain could strike its own independent trade deals.

They have made it sound easy. But if Britain were no longer part of the EU single market and its goods and services were treated like imports from any other third country, they would face tariffs and other barriers, customs inspections, and all sorts of other disadvantages.

So a “softer” Brexit, which seems to be winning favor among Conservatives, might involve Britain staying in a customs union with its former EU partners. The new cabinet deal foresees Britain sharing “a common rule book” with the EU’s single market in goods (though not in services, which make up a big chunk of the UK economy).

British business is keen to see as smooth a Brexit as possible with as few changes as possible to current arrangements. But major manufacturers are threatening to move factories and jobs to the European mainland if negotiations go badly and Britain crashes out of the EU with no deal.

Meanwhile the opposition Labour Party is no less divided than the Conservatives about what Brexit should look like, though it is expected to vote against any government plan.

The fight over Brexit has taken up the lion’s share of politicians’ time and attention for two years, but the public seems generally fed up with the endless debate. Polls show that opinion has shifted, but only slightly: In the referendum, 52 percent favored leaving the EU and 48 percent wanted to stay. Those figures are now reversed.

How does the European Commission see things?

Britain’s EU partners are bemused by the disarray in London and by British politicians’ lack of real engagement with the issues at stake. (Mr. Davis, the minister for exiting the European Union, had spent only four hours negotiating with his EU counterpart this year before he resigned.)

The EU has said that it wishes “to have the United Kingdom as a close partner in the future,” but Brussels will not allow Britain to enjoy the same benefits outside the union that it has as a member.

At the core of its negotiation position are the four pillars of the single EU market: freedom of movement for goods, services, capital, and people. It insists they are indivisible – there can be no “cherry picking” of rights.

That bodes ill for the agreement that May strong-armed through her cabinet on Friday, which envisions a single market for goods, but no free movement for people or services. All the prime minister can hope for is to persuade Brussels to compromise on the principle of indivisibility.

So far, the EU27 have remained united behind the European Commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. British hopes of convincing some governments to push for kinder treatment have come to naught. Mr. Barnier has largely succeeded in securing the future for the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK; Britain has agreed to pay a $50 billion divorce bill; and more concessions from London are expected before a deal is sealed.

What’s the problem with Ireland?

On Good Friday 1998, the British and Irish governments signed an agreement putting an end to 30 years of violence over Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the UK. As part of the deal, the Irish Republican Army put down its weapons.

Today, because the UK and the Republic of Ireland are both members of the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is purely notional. There are no ID checkpoints or customs posts anywhere. This fluidity has done much to cement peace.

Dublin, backed by the EU, is insisting that Brexit should do nothing that might endanger the Good Friday accord. That raises the question of how to manage the UK’s only land border with the EU.

London agrees that there should not be a “hard” border and hopes that, if Brussels accepts Britain as a member of the EU single market for goods, there will be no need for one.

If not, though, the UK has come up with several schemes of varying complexity and technological feasibility to make cross-border trade friction-free. Brussels does not think any of them will work though, and is insisting on a “backstop” arrangement until the border mechanics are in place, under which Northern Ireland would remain fully in the EU customs union and single market.

But Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), part of May’s parliamentary majority, will not countenance the creation of a border between Northern Ireland and the mainland. Without such a border, the whole of the UK would be obliged to have the same status as Northern Ireland – fully in the EU customs union and single market – which would prevent London from signing its own trade deals with other nations.

This conundrum remains unsolved.

How will all this end up?

Quite frankly, nobody has a clue. May might survive as leader of the Conservatives, and thus prime minister, but she has been weakened by the cabinet resignations and there is a chance she could be unseated.

The EU and Britain might reach an agreement on time, but as the clock ticks there is a growing likelihood that London could crash out of the EU with no deal at all. Such an outcome would most likely be disastrous for the British economy, and would hurt the EU economy too.

If a deal with the EU is done along the lines of the Chequers plan, it is by no means certain that May could count on enough votes in Parliament to turn it into law. But neither do the hard Brexiteers have sufficient parliamentary support to carry their vision.

Some supporters of the “Remain” campaign are pushing for a second referendum, in the hope that voters might change their minds now they have seen the practical implications of pulling out of the EU. Some Brexiteers, the Remainers suggest, might decide the deal that May is pursuing is worse even than staying in the union because London would be tied by EU rules in many fields but would have no voice in setting those rules.

At any rate, the withdrawal deal must be signed by the end of the year to give time for Parliament to approve it, for EU national leaders to ratify it, and for the European parliament to give its assent by March 29, 2019.

Assuming that Britain does leave the EU on that date, it will then enter a 21-month transition phase, during which the two sides will hold fully fledged trade talks. During this period, most aspects of British membership will remain in place, as if nothing had happened.

And the transition could stretch indefinitely into the future. The US and Canada installed a less ambitious version of the high technology that Brexiteers propose to use in order to speed up the customs procedures that will be needed after Brexit. It took decades to develop.

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3. One border erased: How Ethiopia arrived at a new era of openness

Ethiopia appears to be entering a new phase of reform, marked recently by the end of a 20-year border war with Eritrea. Many Ethiopians are imagining a hopeful future after years of repression.

Amelia

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Until 1991, Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia, with a shared culture, language, and history. But after a bitter decades-long war for independence and the border conflict that followed, the two countries cut nearly all ties – even telephone service between the two. On Monday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki declared that the war was officially over. Since Mr. Abiy took office in April, his government has freed thousands of political protesters, partially privatized flailing state-owned companies, fired corrupt civil servants, and ended a state of emergency. The reforms, which have stunned even the most optimistic of Ethiopia-watchers, have pulled the country back from the brink of a more than two-year political crisis. Now, many dissidents are imagining a future that even recently seemed impossible. But analysts also point out that the easiest reforms may now be behind Abiy. How exactly, for instance, the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea will be drawn remains to be seen. “Those issues are still under the surface,” says Hallelujah Lulie of Amani Africa, a think tank in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “But for now the mood is still excitement, optimism, hope.” 

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One border erased: How Ethiopia arrived at a new era of openness

It was a radical hug. 

On Sunday morning, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stepped off a plane in the Eritrean capital Asmara, and threw his arms around that country’s president, Isaias Afwerki, as if the two men were old friends

In fact, Ethiopia and Eritrea have spent the last two decades more like bitter enemies, ever since a border dispute in the late 1990s turned into a brutal war that killed nearly 100,000 people, according to some estimates. Dr. Abiy himself had been an Ethiopian intelligence operative on that conflict’s front lines. 

But on Monday, Abiy and Mr. Afwerki issued a joint declaration stating that the war – which had never formally ended because of a dispute over who controlled the border town of Badme – was officially over. Ethiopia said it would move to officially return the town to Eritrea, one of the terms of the original peace agreement from two decades ago. 

“The state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has come to an end,” the declaration issued by the two governments read. “A new era of peace and friendship has been opened.” 

For Abiy, the announcement is the latest chapter in a dizzying program of reforms he has instituted since he took office in April. In short order, his government has not only opened diplomatic relations with its neighbor, but also freed thousands of political protesters, partially privatized flailing state-owned companies, fired corrupt civil servants, and ended a state of emergency that had left the country on political lock down, on and off, since late 2016. 

The reforms, which have stunned even the most optimistic of Ethiopia-watchers, have pulled the country back from the brink of a more than two-year-long political crisis, in which mass protests against the government were met with brutal force and mass arrests. Now, many dissidents are imagining a future that even recently seemed impossible. 

“If the progress moves [at] the same pace, Ethiopia will have free and fair elections in 2020, which is what people have been longing for,” wrote Befekadu Hailu, a blogger and activist who has been repeatedly jailed for his political commentary, in an email to the Monitor. “It will be a big step toward democratization.”

For many here, the overtures to Eritrea remain the most symbolically significant of Abiy’s reforms. 

Until 1991, Eritrea was a part of Ethiopia, and people on both sides of the border share culture, language, and history. But after a bitter decades-long war for independence and the border conflict that followed, the two countries cut nearly all ties. There was no trade, no embassies, not even telephone service between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Landlocked Ethiopia had no access to Eritrea’s nearby Red Sea ports, and passengers who wanted to fly from Addis Ababa to Asmara – an 80 minute jaunt – were instead routed on convoluted, daylong paths through the Middle East. 

“This isn’t just a matter of two countries side by side having a border dispute,” says Hallelujah Lulie, the director of programs at Amani Africa, a think tank in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. “This is a matter of two countries that used to be one. They share culture, they share history, they share memories.” 

Indeed, as Abiy landed in Eritrea on Sunday, thousands filled the palm tree-lined streets of the capital to celebrate his arrival. Many families in the region straddle the border, and have been separated for decades. 

The announcement that Ethiopia would cede Badme and thus end the war’s long stalemate came as a welcome surprise, particularly in Eritrea, one of the world’s most isolated countries. Due to alleged ties to extremist groups in Somalia, Eritrea has long been subject to UN sanctions, which Abiy’s government began advocating on Monday to have removed. 

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has continued to pursue reforms in other areas as well. Late last week, Ethiopia’s attorney general, Berhanu Tsegaye, announced the firing of five top prison officials. The announcement came soon after local media aired an investigation into prison torture, and the same day that Human Rights Watch (HRW) was due to release a report on the torture and arbitrary detention of political prisoners at the infamous Jail Ogaden in Ethiopia’s Somali Region. 

“The announcement was unprecedented in Ethiopian history,” says Felix Horne, a senior researcher with HRW, who authored the torture report. Under previous administrations, he says, the response to reports on human rights abuses was generally brusque and defensive. “Generally they’d say that the allegations were baseless and politically motivated,” Mr. Horne says. 

Regardless of whether the firing of the prison officials was in response to a local government-owned television station’s investigations on torture, or HRW's report, “it’s extremely positive, extremely encouraging,” says Horne.  

Analysts also point out that the easiest reforms may now be behind Abiy, who in many ways started with the low-hanging fruit. How exactly, for instance, the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea will be drawn, and how that will affect border communities, remains to be seen. 

“Those issues are still under the surface,” says Mr. Lulie, of Amani Africa. “But for now the mood is still excitement, optimism, hope.” 

Abiy underscored that mood Sunday when he promised that the opening of diplomatic relations with Eritrea would come with a host of benefits, both practical and intangible. Abiy announced that he would work with the Eritrean president to “resume the services of our airlines, to get our ports working, to get our people to trade and to open our embassies again.”

“There is no longer a border between Eritrea and Ethiopia because a bridge of love has destroyed it,” he said. 

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4. On Israel’s doorstep, Syrian civil war brings swirl of changing attitudes

Wars bring horror, and Syria’s war is no exception. But in the desperate fight for survival, myths can be smashed, and that sets the stage for sometimes surprising changes in thinking.

Amelia
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israeli soldiers stand guard as Syrians enter a screening room just after crossing the Golan Heights armistice line en route to medical treatment in Israel July 11.

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As Syria’s civil war shows signs of winding down, much of Israel’s focus is on Iran’s presence there. If Iranian forces approach the Golan Heights, Israel fears, they could lob missiles into much of Israel, adding a front in a future war. Israel has struck Iranian targets in Syria, and is imploring Russia, the main power broker, to rein Iran in. But for now the battle-scarred Golan is the scene of a much different drama. Thousands of Syrians fleeing the latest regime onslaught have pitched tents along the armistice line that for decades has separated Israeli and Syrian forces. Civilians taught to fear Israel are seeking safety on its doorstep. Word of Israeli assistance to border villages, which it undertook in part for its own security, has spread in Syria. “We saw how Israel treated Syrians in the last seven years, and the goodwill of the Israelis encouraged us to come to the border,” a teacher named Mohammed tells reporters. At an Israeli hospital, a doctor who has treated wounded Syrians says he does not differentiate between patients but admits: “If I can change the [attitudes] of the Syrian people, I will do it.”

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On Israel’s doorstep, Syrian civil war brings swirl of changing attitudes

About half a mile from Israeli-held territory, in a Syrian village on the edge of a yellowed valley, a smattering of tents can be seen, some pitched in a grove of trees, others spilling out from the yards of box-shaped houses.

Living in them are Syrians who fled a punishing military assault by their own government as it tries to quash an anti-regime rebellion – now in its eighth year – once and for all.

Further along the border, which has separated Israeli and Syrian forces for decades in this fortified former war zone, larger encampments can be seen, with hundreds of tents and trailer homes.

The presence of these internally displaced Syrians, under the gaze of Israeli army watchtowers and bases, is both visually striking and an indication of an at least temporary change in attitude among Syrians. An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 have fled here, to Israel’s doorstep.

“We decided the safest place to be was the Israeli border,” said one of them, a 29-year-old teacher named Mohammed. He made the journey to the border village of Al Briqa after his hometown of Daraa – a rebel stronghold where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011 – came under heavy attack from Syrian ground forces and Russian warplanes in late June.

On Friday the first cease-fire deals were struck between Syria and rebels in the Daraa region, reportedly prompting some civilians to return home. The government’s assault sent an estimated 300,000 people fleeing their homes, many thronging toward Jordan as well as the Israeli-held Golan Heights.

“We saw how Israel treated Syrians in the last seven years, and the goodwill of the Israelis encouraged us to come to the border,” Mohammed told a group of reporters by Skype. “We know Israel is a strong country and no one can attack Israel.”

That Syrian civilians would look toward Israel for sanctuary is just one example of how the civil war has reshuffled attitudes here even as it has changed the balance of power. With both Russia and Iran on the winning side, there’s also a new impetus for Israel to court Russia and come to terms with Mr. Assad’s political survival.

For the Syrian civilians, the Golan border area is an appealing draw as a de-facto buffer zone. It falls in the demilitarized area delineated by the 1974 agreement ending the fighting between Israel and Syria that erupted in the 1973 Middle East war. And it has remained quiet all these years, even though technically the nations remain at war.

Word of Israel's "Operation Good Neighbor" seems to have spread, especially in southwest Syria, which unfolds beyond the territory that Israel first captured from Syria in 1967. The policy was launched five years ago as Syria’s civil war showed no sign of ending and amid Israeli concerns that Islamist militants among the Syrian rebels might use the area to launch attacks against Israel.

Israel decided the best way to minimize that threat was to encourage border villages and towns to keep such elements away – first by offering humanitarian assistance in the form of food, gasoline, and medical supplies, and then by expanding that help to include the treatment of wounded Syrians. To date some 5,000 Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals.

But Israel has drawn the line at taking in refugees, citing potential security risks and fearing that such a move could set a precedent for letting in refugees from future conflicts on its border.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Tents erected to house Syrian civilians fleeing a government offensive are clustered in Syria near the border of Israeli-held territory on the Golan Heights, July 3, 2018.

Israel’s focus on Iran

But away from the humanitarian drama on its doorstep, Israel’s chief concern as the Syrian war appears to be winding down is with Iran.

The Iranians and their proxies – the Lebanese Hezbollah and other imported Shiite forces – played a leading role supporting Assad’s regime, and Iran’s forces likely will not leave Syria, Israeli experts warn, but will eventually find their way to the border with Israel.

On Sunday, hammering home its zero tolerance of Iran’s presumed aims, Israel reportedly sent its jets to strike Syria’s T4 air base, which is used by Iran. It was one of several such strikes in recent months.

The timing of this latest strike, Israeli military analysts suggested, seemed linked to a scheduled meeting Wednesday in Moscow between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Further punctuating the moment, Israel said that a drone launched from Syria was shot down Wednesday after penetrating several miles into Israeli airspace.

Israel is demanding that Russia, which played a decisive role in turning the tide of Syria’s civil war in support of Assad and is now acting as a power broker in the country, banish Iran from Syria.

Most observers see that demand as unrealistic and think the most Israel can hope to negotiate would be that the Iranians are kept deeper inside Syria.

Israel’s fear, says Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and a senior fellow at the international security program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, is that Iran would be able to launch missiles at Israel from Syria’s border. That would create the possibility of a three-front war along with incoming rocket fire from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

“I am normally the guy saying Israel should cool it, we can take a defensive approach. But this is something [for which] Israel cannot tolerate even the risk,” Mr. Freilich says. In such a conflict, he says, “Israel will be hit in a way never before seen,” with collapsed buildings and clogged roads “because everyone will leave home to get out of range, and there will be no out of range this time unless you go to the southern Negev…. It will be ugly.”

Assaf Orion, a reserve brigadier general and a senior researcher at the International Institute for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, offers a more restrained assessment, saying he does not see “much appetite on any front” for conflict soon. “All of the involved players understand the consequences of a war,” he says, “the grammar of violence is very constrained at the moment.”

The Russia factor

Viewed from Israel, the Syria conflict also plays a role in the complicated relationship between President Trump and Mr. Putin, who can point to Syria to claim he has outmaneuvered the United States, Israel’s main ally.

That reinforces Israel’s interest in courting Putin as it girds for a post-civil-war Syria. While Russia has indicated it will not kick Iran out of Syria, Mr. Orion argues, Moscow has not been a bad address for Israel’s requests.

“In Russia we find a very interesting partner who is attentive to our needs. We can coordinate with them on some issues, although they are not at all a strategic partner like the US is to us,” he says.

That said, if Israel continues to strike Iranian targets in Syria it will test Russia’s patience, warns Moshe Maoz, a Syria expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Israel must also determine a path forward with Assad, though Professor Maoz and others surmise that the Syrian leader will have his hands full with rebuilding and consolidating power and that it will take years, if not decades, to rehabilitate the country.

There is no love lost between Israel and Assad. Israel regards him as a war criminal, the man who used chemical weapons on his own people. But he is also the same leader that before and during the civil war kept the border with Israel quiet.

There is something, Moaz allows, to the adage, “Better the devil you know.”

With Syrian patients, in Israel

In the meantime, in the northern Israeli coastal town of Nahariya, the process of fostering new attitudes among Syrians continues.

Five years ago, the first wounded Syrians to wake up in Israeli hospitals were shocked and horrified, doctors recall, having grown up on stories of Israel as a cruel enemy. But later they returned home, in some cases after complicated series of reconstructive surgeries to repair gruesome war wounds, and told friends and neighbors of the excellent treatment they received in Israel, Syrian patients at the hospital say.

Nahariya’s Galilee Medical Center has treated the majority of the Syrian wounded. Thirteen more Syrians arrived last week, all seriously wounded in the most recent round of fighting. The hospital is currently treating 40 Syrian patients.

Eyal Sela, who directs the hospital’s head and neck surgical division, describes the sophisticated work that goes into reconstructive facial surgery.

“It’s a game changer here. We are going to treat anyone who walks into the hospital. We don’t see nationality or religion,” he said at a media briefing. “I am not here to butter you up with clichés, but this is what we do.”

But he admits, there is another force propelling him.

“I do it for my future, for my children,” Dr. Sela says. “If I can change the [attitudes] of the Syrian people, I will do it.”

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5. ‘A life that is worthy’: In Plains, Ga., an evangelical politician like no other

At a time when Christianity is often politicized, a Sunday school class given by a former president focuses solely on spiritual power. And his fellow congregants welcome that.

Amelia
Branden Camp/AP/File
Former President Jimmy Carter walked with his wife, Rosalynn, after teaching Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., in 2015. In 2018, the two celebrated their 72nd wedding anniversary.

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On Sunday, the pews in Plains, Ga., were filled with self-described pilgrims. Now age 93, Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, has been giving Sunday school lessons here since 1981. It is fair to say that Mr. Carter then and now understands the world entirely through the lens of his Southern-rooted Baptist faith – a faith that infused his politics, he’s said. Sunday’s lesson, on Deuteronomy 6, harks back to a Baptist emphasis on personal liberty and the importance of striving to live a morally perfect life. “If we have a life at this moment of which we’re not proud, or if we’re not satisfied, we have an opportunity this moment to change it,” Carter told the congregation. “Because every one of us many times every day makes a basic decision: This is the kind of person I choose to be.” As he walks around the room, asking folks where they’re from, Bertice Berry is grinning. She’d driven down from Savannah, Ga., this morning. “I guess I’ve been really down over the political climate in the country, and I needed to feel restored,” says Ms. Berry. “My heart longed for what this all is.”

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‘A life that is worthy’: In Plains, Ga., an evangelical politician like no other

It’s the morning after his and Rosalynn’s 72nd wedding anniversary, and former President Jimmy Carter is walking slowly into the crowded sanctuary at Maranatha Baptist, his hometown congregation here in rural Plains for the past 40 years.

He stops to peer over the people sitting together closely in the sanctuary’s pews. “Are there any visitors here today?” he asks, his lips pursed with just the slightest of grins. The congregation laughs, knowing that when he’s not teaching his Sunday school class, only 25 to 30 of his neighbors join him at Maranatha’s Sunday service.

There are more than 10 times that number here today – self-described pilgrims, long-time admirers, and journalists. At 93, the nation’s 39th president has been giving such lessons here since 1981, about 40 Sundays every year since the time he left office. He’s slowed down since surviving brain cancer three years ago, and President Carter has only three more classes scheduled the rest of this year. 

As he walks around the room, asking folks where they’re from, Bertice Berry is grinning, too. She’d driven down from Savannah this morning, taking extra time to wind through the back roads driving west with her daughter Fatima and “white sister” Brynn Grant. They wanted to see their home state’s country sights, they say.

“I just needed it,” says Ms. Berry, a sociologist and member of Savannah’s Christ Church Episcopal, the first official congregation in Georgia’s history. “I guess I’ve been really down over the political climate in the country, and I needed to feel restored. My heart longed for what this all is.”

Preserved by intention and circumstance, Plains is still in many ways a place that many imagine as a kind of pastoral ideal: small-town rural America, where residents hold to simple but strongly held virtues, commit themselves to local civic engagement, and attend small congregations of neighbors, churches that give ’em that old-time religion.

The Carters, in fact, have long structured the daily rhythms of their lives together around this small congregation at Maranatha. The night before, they took the half-mile walk over to the home of their close friend Jill Stuckey, a leader at Maranatha. She hosted a dinner in honor of their 72nd anniversary with about 10 old and new friends and some of his family.

“The Carters didn’t stay long,” Ms. Stuckey says. “Even though it was a special evening, President Carter had to prepare for his Sunday School lesson the next morning.”

In 1976, during a stop at the home of a North Carolina political supporter, then-candidate Carter sparked a wave of raised eyebrows across the United States when he professed to be a “born again Christian.” It was before the full blooming of the religious right and the Reagan revolution to come. At this time, just as many had questioned the implications of candidate John Kennedy’s Catholicism 16 years earlier, many “Washington elites” and journalists alleged that Carter’s conservative evangelical faith might make him the kind of person who would, say, claim to receive messages directly from God.

In fact, it is fair to say that Carter then and now understands the world entirely through the lens of his Southern-rooted Baptist faith – a faith that indeed infused his politics, he’s said. “Despite what I consider to be a constitutional and biblical requirement for the separation of church and state,” he wrote in 2005, “I must acknowledge that my own religious beliefs have been inextricably entwined with the political principles I have adopted.”

And his 1980 defeat in many ways marked a moment in which Carter’s fellow Evangelicals mobilized into one of the most powerful political subgroups in the country, and the core of the Republican Party to this day.

If some 8 out of 10 white Evangelicals express support for President Trump, many enthusiastically, Carter has in many ways remained a voice for the small minority of Evangelicals, those 2 in 10 who see the nation and their faith in different terms.

There are many “still searching for harmonious answers to most of the controversial religious and political questions,” Carter wrote in his book “Our Endangered Values.” “It is in America’s best interests to understand one another and to find as much common ground as possible.”

Still, politics rarely finds a place in Carter’s Sunday school class, church members and others say. “You want him to get up and say, Trump is bad, and all that,” says Berry, politically far to the left of the former president. “But spiritually, we don’t need that. We need, like he says, only you are responsible for your actions. He’s a great leader by his example, and by his life.”

The Silo

Like a lot of other Maranatha members, Mary Jo Dodson, Carol Anderson, and Mildred, a resident of Plains since 1958 (who asked that her last name not be used), head over to The Silo Restaurant and Bakery after Sunday services most weeks.

The three took their usual table in the back room – an after-church ritual they’ve been doing, well, for at least a few decades, they say, spanning back to when the place had different owners and different names.

At the entrance of The Silo, just inside the front door, a “missing man table” is placed under a black POW-MIA flag. The empty place setting is flanked by a Bible, a candle, and a single red rose, along with other symbols of sacrifice.

“Miss Rosalynn, she was my Sunday school teacher back when I was 10 or 11,” says Ms. Dodson, drawing out her vowels. “We used to go to their house for the lessons sometimes.” And at Maranatha, she says, “we pretty much do everything together.”

Branden Camp/AP/File
Former President Jimmy Carter teaches during Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church on Dec. 13, 2015, in Plains, Ga. Mr. Carter has taught about 40 Sundays a year since after he left the White House.

The church’s longtime organist, Carol Anderson, 60 years in Plains, explains how members of the congregation do almost all the work together, taking turns to serve as custodians, caretakers of the sanctuary and church grounds, as well as the church’s other needs. The Carters have always taken their turn to contribute, she says – in the past mowing the lawn or even cleaning the toilets.

“They’re down-to-earth everyday people,” says Mildred, as she eats her fried chicken and white beans with ham hocks – which people joke is the vegetable down here. “They’ve never put on any airs – they’re just one of us, that’s all.” Mildred’s been a Maranatha member from the start. The congregation had its 40th anniversary in 2017, after breaking from Plains’s more conservative congregation in 1977.

Carter, who took up woodworking years ago, constructed the sanctuary’s large wooden cross. He also built some of the nursery’s chairs and tables, as well as the large table in the vestibule. He also made the church’s mahogany collection plates.

‘What’s the best advice you’ve gotten?’

“People ask, what was the best advice you’ve gotten from President Carter,” Maranatha’s newly installed pastor, Brandon Malloy Patterson, says to the congregation during a Q&A before the former president walks in to teach his class.

“Well, the first one, he gives a lot of advice on marriage,” says Pastor Patterson, noting that Maranatha is his first full-time posting. “And the latest one he’s given me was, don’t look at any other woman.” The congregation laughed, since the pastor two months earlier had begun his first year of marriage. “He’s very big on being completely committed to one another.”

There’s a common American evangelical theme implicit in this congregation, too, a theology in some ways rooted in a letter of Paul to the Corinthians: God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak of the world to confound the mighty.

A Millennial, Pastor Patterson says it’s been a very hard transition moving to rural Georgia, since he’s always preferred living in the bustle of big cities.

But as he notes, he speaks with a heavy lisp. “My voice is weird,” Patterson tells those gathered. “But God said, Brandon, I’m going to do something weird with you. Think about it: I’m short, I have the craziest hair, I have this lisp, I have a high-pitched voice that likes to crack, but there’s a God who said, Brandon, let me use you to speak to 500 people.” 

‘Hear, O Israel’

After his greetings, the former president began to teach his lesson on a momentous passage, Deuteronomy 6. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.”

“And shall love the Lord thy God with, what?” Carter asks the class. Most respond: “With all your heart, and all your soul, and all your might.”

But it’s what follows that most interests him in the chapter – the exhortations to keep God’s commands close at hand. Carter notes how commands were sewn into their clothing, posted on their doorposts, and bound to their wrists. They were to teach their children daily, and ponder them morning to night.

“This command to love God Almighty as your only God, and to have no other gods before him, and to love God with all your heart, that was the foundation of God’s promise to Abraham about 600 years earlier,” he says.

And then Carter launches into what could be called a freewheeling and very Baptist meditation.

Daniel and Lauren Berman are among those who came this morning to get the chance to hear Carter teach once more. The CEO of Pharmacentra, an Atlanta-based company that opened a call center just outside Plains, Mr. Berman cast his first presidential vote for Mr. Carter in 1976. Two years ago, he brought his 16 year old son to hear him, too.

“It’s often hard for me as a Jew to take in Christian messages, and take them in a way so that I can receive them,” he says, noting the centuries-long history of Christian persecution of Jews.

And the text, of course, is one of the essentials of Jewish theology. The formulation “Hear, O Israel” is considered the most fundamental affirmation of Jewish monotheism called “The Shema.”

He and his wife give their children a rigorous Jewish education, Berman says. “But his perspective on Christianity, from my perspective as a Jew, is incredibly refreshing,” he says. “It’s inclusive, and the message is universal.”

It’s also very evangelical, but in a way that harks back to a Baptist emphasis on personal liberty and the importance of striving to live a morally perfect life.

“It’s very important for us to know the elements of the Bible,” Carter says. Most all of us have received the Bible “with appreciation, and reverence, and with gratitude to God for giving it to you. But that puts a slight burden on everybody to know what’s in the Bible.”

Carter then laments the decline of Biblical literacy in the US, citing Gallup polls and even a bit by Jay Leno years ago, when he was a guest. The comedian went on the street to interview people about the Bible, Carter recounts. “One of them said, the sixth commandment is, thou shalt not admit adultery.” Another person said, “The epistles were the wives of the apostles.” The congregation erupts in laughter.

But the point, he says, is that people must learn the basic principles of the Bible to pursue the Christian life, and especially the teachings and perfect example, he says, of Jesus Christ.

For many conservative Evangelicals, the focus is more upon the atoning blood of Christ and the price paid for the forgiveness of sins. Carter, however, focuses mostly on the life and difficult teachings of Christ, which “reveal the meaning of God.”

‘Who makes the decision to love and not hate’

And Carter sees the revelations of God through Jesus Christ as requiring an even greater commitment to living a moral life. Love your enemies; turn the other cheek; murder and hatred differ only in degree, not kind. Lust and adultery are one and the same, too. Forgive 70 x 7.

“It’s a profound and challenging and far-reaching standard that we Christians have to follow the example and laws described by Jesus Christ in our daily lives,” he says. “Does that put a responsibility on you that you didn’t feel before?”

“I’m not trying to burden anybody,” he continues, “and I have the same problem accepting as a Christian the ideals and goals of a transcendent life, a life that is worthy of God’s approval.”

Carter concludes, then, with what Baptists have long emphasized: the complete liberty of individual.

“That’s a very sobering thing, is it not? To know that what we do is up to us,” he says. “Who makes the decision to love and not hate, or be generous and not stingy, who makes that decision?”

“If we have a life at this moment of which we’re not proud, or if we’re not satisfied, we have an opportunity this moment to change it,” Carter says. “Because every one of us many times every day makes a basic decision: This is the kind of person I choose to be.”

“What could be better?” Carter concludes. “That’s what Christianity offers, not only an opportunity, but an obligation, to look at ourselves at every moment, ask God for forgiveness, study the life of Christ in prayer, and then make the decision, This is the person I want to be.”

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The Monitor's View

Mexico as a haven for asylum-seekers

The United States received more asylum requests than any other developed nation last year. In recent decades it has resettled more than 3.3 million refugees, the largest number of any country. With this US generosity under strain, is there a way to share the responsibility? Many are encouraged by the fact that the US is in talks with Mexico to assist that country – and its incoming, migrant-friendly president – in becoming an appealing refuge itself for those fleeing violence or repression. Mexico still has far to go in how it processes asylum-seekers and protects them from abuse. Still, it could become a safe harbor as well as an easier place for Central Americans to assimilate. In 2016, a Mexican constitutional amendment recognized a right to seek and be granted asylum. During the recent presidential election, the top three candidates acknowledged a moral need to welcome genuine asylum-seekers. As Mexico’s economy improves, that country can join the US in being a new home to migrants fleeing fear.

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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.

Just love

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Today’s column considers just how powerful the spirit of love can be.

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Just love

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Nineteenth-century Scottish evangelist, biologist, writer, and lecturer Henry Drummond once said, “You will find as you look back upon your life that the moments that stand out, the moments when you have really lived, are the moments when you have done things in a spirit of love” (“The Greatest Thing in the World,” p. 56).

Many people today are happily discovering for themselves the truth of that insightful statement. It’s worth it to follow such a heartening trend and do the same. For me, this idea of loving has become even more meaningful in the light of what one of my most treasured books, the Bible, has to say about love: simply, that “God is love” (I John 4:8).

As a boy, I had determined God to be some sort of invisible entity who was silently watching and judging, rewarding and withholding. But when I began to consider God as all-encompassing and all-powerful Love itself, from that point forward nothing in my life was the same. Because divine Love is by its very nature limitless, it is with us wherever we go; it enlivens us, provides for us, and enables us to help others. This is the God who has “not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind,” as the Bible says (II Timothy 1:7).

Unselfish care for another that’s impelled by the concrete presence of the Divine is empowering, as Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, observes in her book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.” She says: “Whatever holds human thought in line with unselfed love, receives directly the divine power” (p. 192). As we begin to recognize the allness and pure goodness of divine Love, our thought changes, and we reset our priorities for daily life. We let our actions, outlook, and inner thoughts express the loving nature of the God who created us in His spiritual image. This then enriches our interactions and experiences, sometimes far beyond our expectations. We discover that we can feel divine Love’s healing presence very tangibly.

When a friend of mine became absolutely overwhelmed with his workload, he had an unconventional response: Each day he prayed to feel and express more love for God, along with more love for the opportunities he was being given to serve others. He stayed very consistent with doing this. Before long, he discovered that not only had his sense of love expanded, he was also able to handle an even greater workload than he’d had before. This was noted and commended by management.

Christ Jesus often talked about the love of God. In fact, not just through his words, but in his acts, it was the leading theme in his healing ministry. From Jesus’ example we can begin to see that the divine Love that is God truly is so complete and all-encompassing that it leaves no room for anything unlike itself. Just Love. Love, and Love’s expression in us and the universe, is the entirety of true existence.

“He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him,” says the Bible (I John 4:16). Throughout any given day, we have numerous opportunities to demonstrate a growing awareness of God as Love, to joyfully strive to feel and express Love’s essence. The results will be seen in active, selfless love for others and a deepening love for God. God created us as the expression of His boundless love. So, as a result, what shall we do? Just love.

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Viewfinder

Crowded out

Aijaz Rahi/AP
Indian students hang on the door of a rider-packed bus during morning rush hour in Bangalore, India, July 11. India's population tops 1.2 billion, making it the world’s second most populous country after China. Wednesday marks World Population Day, which seeks to focus attention on the urgency of population issues.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( July 12th, 2018 )

Thanks for joining us today. Tomorrow, we will look at paid leave for such events as the birth of a child or a medical emergency. More states are acting to close a benefits gap that affects millions of workers.

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July 11, 2018
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