2019
November
05
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

In today’s edition, our five hand-picked stories cover the credibility of U.S. election polls, the enduring hope in U.S. places of despair, the resilience of Jewish-Muslim communities, some ways around partisan roadblocks, and how the Rev. Robin Hood helps Chicago’s downtrodden.

First, more than 450 inmates walked out of prison in Oklahoma on Monday. It was the biggest single mass commutation – or act of forgiveness – in U.S. history. 

Wait. Isn’t this “Trump Country”? Are conservatives now going soft on crime?

Yes, and no. More than 65% of Oklahomans did vote for Donald Trump in 2016. On the same day, Oklahomans also approved a referendum to reclassify drug possession as a misdemeanor.  

Oklahoma highlights a major shift in how all Americans view crime. It reflects a close alignment between liberals and conservatives in making the justice system fairer and less expensive. We saw that with last year’s congressional passage of the First Step Act.

What’s behind this conservative shift on crime and punishment? The short answer: the crystal meth and opioid epidemics. The injustice of going to prison on a minor drug charge is increasingly personal. A 2017 national poll showed 54% of Trump voters said they knew someone who is or has been incarcerated. Oklahoma has the highest prison rate in the nation, and over-incarceration is the definition of inefficient government. Oklahoma Republican Kris Steele tells The Washington Post the GOP shift also aligns with Christian values, such as redemption, grace, forgiveness, and second chances

Tess Harjo might agree. She was freed Monday after serving nearly two years of a 15-year sentence for drug possession. After hugging her waiting aunts and grandmother, she told The Oklahoman her release was “a blessing.

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1. Some battleground polls missed 2016. Are they better for 2020?

Many battleground state pollsters missed candidate Donald Trump's rise in 2016. Here's why the polls might be more accurate for President Trump's reelection race.

David

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Is President Donald Trump going to win the White House again next November? Numerous national polls show him losing to the leading Democratic candidates. But, as many voters learned the hard way in 2016, just because your candidate appears to be leading doesn’t mean you should stock up on confetti.

Part of that is because national polls only indicate who will win the popular vote, not the Electoral College. But it’s also because three years ago polls in key swing states underestimated support for Mr. Trump. One reason: Pollsters didn’t adjust for the lack of responses from white men without college degrees – a population that ended up voting disproportionately for Mr. Trump. That has now been addressed, but polling – which isn’t nearly as black and white as it seems at first glance – remains dependent on researcher assumptions that can be thrown off by unexpected variables.

“The things that we can fix, we’ve fixed,” says Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey. “But then there are things that are never fixable because each election presents its own sets of challenges.”

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Some battleground polls missed 2016. Are they better for 2020?

Is President Donald Trump going to win reelection? Numerous national polls show him losing to all three of the leading Democratic candidates: Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders. But, as many voters learned the hard way in 2016, just because your candidate is leading in the polls doesn’t mean you should stock up on confetti.

For one thing, national polls – which were largely accurate in 2016 – only indicate the likely popular vote. Predicting the Electoral College results requires a state-by-state analysis, which can portray a very different picture.

Last time around, an overwhelming majority of polls showed Hillary Clinton leading in key swing states, but Mr. Trump swept to victory on the back of incredibly narrow margins in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. This week a new round of surveys shows that President Trump remains close or ahead in those state battlegrounds that won him the Oval Office three years ago. 

The miss on state polls in 2016 was due to numerous factors, but pollsters bore the brunt of the criticism. So, have they adjusted their methods to be more accurate? In some cases, yes. At the same time, fundamental changes in both the polling and media industries present an ongoing problem. And no one is claiming complete confidence – especially when Mr. Trump is involved.

“The things that we can fix, we’ve fixed,” says Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey. “But then there are things that are never fixable because each election presents its own sets of challenges.”

A snapshot of the race

It’s still a long way to Election Day 2020, but one year out, polls can give a sense of where the race stands at this moment.

A new Washington Post/ABC survey shows President Trump behind Mr. Biden by 17 points, behind Senator Warren by 15 points, and behind Senator Sanders by 14 points. Poll averages show the Democratic contenders with smaller but still substantial margins.

But the national popular vote doesn’t elect the president. The Electoral College does, on a state-by-state basis. At the moment that’s presenting a somewhat different picture.

A just-released New York Times Upshot/Siena College series of state polls shows President Trump either ahead or within the margin of error of his three main Democratic rivals, among likely voters, in six key battlegrounds, from Michigan to North Carolina.

Which measure matters most? That might not be settled until the election is over.

“... the national poll versus state poll discussion over the next 12 months is going to be painful,” tweeted Dante Chinni, a data journalist and director of the American Communities Project, on Nov. 5.

Polling, explained

Poll results sound so definitive, like the results of a running race. But polling and the statistical modeling underlying the results involve a set of assumptions that are not usually made explicit, says Michael Traugott, a research professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Two of the trickiest aspects have to do with figuring out how representative survey respondents are of the general population and the people who will turn out to vote.

If a pollster were to survey 500 students on a 2,000-student campus about what their favorite flavor of ice cream is, she could evaluate how closely her sample of 500 students matches the total population of 2,000 students. She might look at gender, year in school, and other factors, such as whether she got a disproportionate sample of pistachio lovers because she interviewed people outside an exotic nut shop. Then she could weight the results accordingly so that she wouldn’t overemphasize the pistachio lovers’ input.

But if she were trying to capture preferences ahead of an election to decide which flavor of ice cream would be served on campus, she would also have to guess which of the 2,000 students would turn up to vote, and how similar they would be to her sample. Will all the Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food lovers be sacked out on their couches from overindulgence?

In 2012, the U.S. electorate was significantly different than in 2016, which made it difficult for pollsters to accurately predict who would be voting. In addition, voters’ preferences in 2016 were much more correlated to education level; in particular, white men without college degrees voted disproportionately for Mr. Trump. But many pollsters didn’t factor in education level since it hadn’t mattered much in the past.

After the election, Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in Durham, weighted his data to education levels and found his results were then precisely in line with the actual election result.

But the lack of education weighting didn’t account for all the discrepancies in state polls.

“I have weighted to education since I was a wee babe in diapers,” says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll in Wisconsin. “Unfortunately that didn’t keep me from being wrong – I still had Clinton up by 6 [points].”

The main reason for that, he says, was the fact that undecided voters disproportionately cast their ballots for Mr. Trump.

A famous polling miss

In the 1948 presidential election, the Chicago Tribune had to go to press before all the results were in. So, relying on polling, they infamously declared, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

They were wrong. Postmortems pinned the miss on the use of quota sampling, a technique in which interviewers decided who to contact within certain parameters, such as nine white men under age 50 in a rural area. Ever since, pollsters have used random sampling to ensure more accurate results. That is best done by live telephone interviews, selecting randomly from all current phone numbers. But in the age of caller ID, about 95% of the people called don’t answer, or refuse to talk.

At the state level, the response rates are somewhat higher, but still plummeting. Dr. Smith in New Hampshire says that just four years ago, his team was able to complete about 0.9 interviews per hour. Now it’s down to about half that, doubling the costs of a survey from about $25,000 to $50,000 or more.

That is driving many survey outlets to explore alternatives to random sampling, which Dr. Smith says has been the gold standard for decades.

“You’re seeing a movement away from that, which to me is a fundamental change in the industry,” he says.

Misinterpretation by journalists

Likewise, fundamental shifts in journalism have compounded the problem.

As newspaper budgets shrink, many don’t have the funds to conduct polls at the state level – or retain veteran reporters to interpret them.

“We have a lot of journalists who weren’t well-trained to begin with in terms of statistics, and besides that they’re getting younger and they’re less experienced,” says Dr. Traugott, who got his start as a research assistant for George Gallup in the 1960s.

For example, if a poll were to show Ms. Warren 2 points ahead of Mr. Biden with a +/- 3 point margin of error, journalists should report that as a statistical tie. But instead, they often present such results as showing an unequivocal lead.

Moreover, if journalists can’t or don’t evaluate the relative credibility of polls, then they drive down the market for higher-quality telephone polls, which at the national level cost $100,000 compared with as little as $5,000 for an online poll, according to a report on 2016 election polls by the American Association for Public Opinion.

The more care and effort you put into collecting the data, the easier it is to analyze the data, says Andrew Mercer, a senior research methodologist at Pew Research Center.

“The flip side of that is the easier and quicker your data collection is ... in order to be accurate with those, you really have to have a good understanding of what are the important variables that predict how somebody is going to behave and make sure you’re able to adjust those variables in your analysis,” he says.

How to tell if a pollster is good, or not

So, what is a voter to do? No. 1, look at how transparent the organization is about its methodology. One indication of that is whether it is a member of AAPOR’s Transparency Initiative. While transparency doesn’t guarantee accuracy, it tends to signal credibility.

For a professional estimate of accuracy, FiveThirtyEight.com assigns letter grades to each election polling organization in its list of latest polls, but users have to dig deep to discover the methodology behind each poll, including whether it was done by phone or online.

Some experts recommend that voters look at polling averages, with the hope that bad polls will cancel each other out. But Dr. Smith urges caution about that approach.

“If you took a glass of pure Poland Spring water, and mixed it together with a glass of water from a mud puddle, would you want to drink it?” he asks.

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2. Surveying hope: Can US instill optimism in regions of ‘despair’?

Our reporters map the contours of desperation and what feeds the pockets of hope and resilience in those same places.

David

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In the past few years research about Americans’ well-being has become newsy for all the wrong reasons.

Overall mortality rates have risen. And amid a rise in suicides, drug overdoses, and diseases linked to high-risk behaviors, the term “deaths of despair” has entered the mainstream lexicon.

Carol Graham, one of the social science researchers tracking all this, sees potential solutions as well as a sobering problem. 

The geography is stark. Locations that have struggled economically amid a long decline of factory jobs and other opportunities for less-skilled workers rank high in “deaths of despair.”

But recent research by Ms. Graham and colleague Sergio Pinto, both of the Brookings Institution in Washington, suggests that answers may come from thinking harder about how to restore hope.

They find that a lack of optimism about the future is a defining feature for regions of “despair,” but also that racial-minority populations in those same areas have a higher sense of optimism than white people.

“We can ... learn from the informal safety nets and community support common in African American and Hispanic communities. These include extended families, churches, and other social entities that give purpose and meaning to life beyond an income and a job,” Ms. Graham writes.

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Surveying hope: Can US instill optimism in regions of ‘despair’?

In the past few years research about Americans’ well-being has become newsy for all the wrong reasons. 

Overall mortality rates have risen, in a break from the nation’s own past and from the typical pattern as countries advance economically. And amid a rise in suicides, drug overdoses, and diseases linked to high-risk behaviors, the term “deaths of despair” has entered the mainstream lexicon.

Carol Graham is one of the social science researchers tracking all this, and she sees potential solutions as well as a sobering problem.

The geography is stark. Locations that have struggled economically amid a long decline of factory jobs and other opportunities for less-skilled workers tend to be hot spots for “deaths of despair.”

But recent research by Ms. Graham and colleague Sergio Pinto, both of the Brookings Institution in Washington, suggests that answers may come from thinking harder about how to restore hope. 

They find that a lack of optimism about the future is a defining feature for regions of “despair,” but also that minority populations in those same areas have a higher sense of optimism than white people.

“Our story is a nuanced one, with pockets of remarkable levels of hope and resilience among cohorts with a history of discrimination and marginalization, but who are gradually getting ahead and for the most part have faith in an American dream,” Ms. Graham and Mr. Pinto write in a report released in October.

SOURCE: Research by Carol Graham and Sergio Pinto of the Brookings Institution, and Kate Laffan of the London School of Economics; Gallup
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Mark Trumbull and Jacob Turcotte/Staff

This is the case even though, materially, black and Latino Americans are often worse off than white Americans. Partly, this has to do with an upward trajectory over time, even if progress is slow. But it also has to do with social connections, Ms. Graham writes in a related article.

“We can also learn from the informal safety nets and community support common in African American and Hispanic communities. These include extended families, churches, and other social entities that give purpose and meaning to life beyond an income and a job,” she says. 

For young people, paths toward optimism might include policies that build skills. For older people it might be efforts to ease feelings of isolation.

Santa Monica, California, is one community that, by tracking indicators of well-being, recognized a challenge with loneliness. Among the efforts that followed, says Ms. Graham, were public invitations for people to pose in “family photos” with people they didn’t know. The result in many cases was an unexpected smile and meeting someone new.

Such efforts may sound almost trivial, but Ms. Graham and Mr. Pinto have found that elements of optimism or pessimism play a meaningful role in well-being, even after controlling for other factors that may influence one’s degree of optimism (such as age, education level, and marital status).

“Much previous work shows that hope matters to health, productivity, and lifespans,” they write in their new report. “While restoring hope among populations where it has been lost is not a topic that is usually the bailiwick of economists, the geography of desperation in America suggests that we must begin to take this issue on.”

Editor’s note: In the graphic, the standard deviation has been corrected for the effects on life satisfaction of being “employed full time” and of “unemployment.” And in one map, two states no longer are outlined in red for the highest “deaths of despair”;  the deaths were high in those two states, but not in the top tier.

SOURCE: Research by Carol Graham and Sergio Pinto of the Brookings Institution, and Kate Laffan of the London School of Economics; Gallup
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Mark Trumbull and Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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A deeper look

3. Where an ancient Jewish-Muslim coexistence endures

Peaceful Jewish-Muslim coexistence in the Middle East often seems to be in short supply. But our correspondent found that model alive and resilient in North Africa.

David
Taylor Luck
Yeshiva students at Temple Beth El study in a sukkah hut erected outside the synagogue in Casablanca, Morocco, for the Sukkot holiday, Oct. 16, 2019.

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Casablanca, the epicenter of modern Jewish life in Morocco, hosts four Hebrew schools, 15 active synagogues, and no fewer than five kosher restaurants. And while today Morocco is 99% Muslim, Hebrew culture nevertheless permeates practically every town, evident in place names, buildings, and art.

In Tunis, Jews say tensions with Muslims that were exacerbated by conflicts in the region have faded amid Tunisia's burgeoning political freedoms, and that they are back to being just neighbors and fellow citizens.

While North Africa's ancient Jewish communities have dwindled from hundreds of thousands to a few thousand today, hope is being rekindled in Morocco and Tunisia that the survival of the communities is helping preserve the region’s unique model of Muslim-Jewish coexistence.

“Visiting Arabs and Israelis see the atmosphere in the streets, signs in Hebrew, Jewish and Muslim families living together in the same apartment building, and they can hardly believe it,” says Serge Berdugo, secretary-general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco. “But the fact is, it is not a slogan or some dream, it is daily life for us, and that is a model we need to preserve for the world.”

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Where an ancient Jewish-Muslim coexistence endures

Even as congregants recite evening prayers at Temple Beth El, the Muslim call to prayer rings out from minarets across the city and into the courtyard, a mix of Arabic and Hebrew filling the dusk sky with praises to God.

And as the yeshiva students file out of Beth El (literally, House of God), Mohammed, the gatekeeper, kneels down in Muslim prayer at the synagogue’s entrance.

This is not a mirage; this is Casablanca.

After decades of economic migration and geopolitical tensions that reduced North African Jewish communities from hundreds of thousands to a few thousand people, hope is being rekindled in Morocco and Tunisia that as Jews keep the light of their communities alive, so too does the region’s unique model of Muslims and Jews living side by side.

For even in a time of global polarization, Moroccans and Tunisians are proving that historical bonds bind, rather than divide, Jews and Muslims, whose shared past they say paves the way for a shared future. 

Jews came to modern-day Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria some 2,000 years ago, with the largest migration arriving shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 CE.

In Morocco, a country that is 99% Muslim whose monarch carries the title “commander of the believers,” a distinct Hebrew culture nevertheless permeates practically every town today: Arabicized Hebrew street names, historic synagogues, Jewish quarters, or maleh, Jewish cemeteries, and Berber and Arab jewelry inspired by Jewish designs.

Moroccans will be quick to tell you that this is not only Jewish heritage, but Moroccan heritage.

“We have Jewish life from the cradle to the grave in Morocco,” says Zhor Rehihil, an anthropologist specializing in Moroccan Judaism and curator of Casablanca’s Museum of Moroccan Judaism.

“Morocco never cut ties with the diaspora even during the Israeli-Arab wars, because they were a part of us, and when they left, for us Moroccans it was as if part of us had left.”

“A model we need to preserve”

King Mohammed VI has promoted the return of the Moroccan Jewish diaspora and Israeli tourism to the country, funding the preservation and renovation of 162 ancient Jewish cemeteries and several synagogues across the country. Under Moroccan law, anyone with Moroccan Jewish ancestry can claim citizenship.

The preamble to Morocco’s 2011 post-Arab Spring constitution enshrines Moroccan Jews as integral to the national fabric, stating that Morocco “is a sovereign Muslim state … whose unity is nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian, Jewish, and Mediterranean constituents.”

Casablanca, where many Jews across the country have migrated in recent years, has emerged as the de facto capital and epicenter of modern Jewish life in Morocco.

Taylor Luck
Serge Berdugo, secretary-general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco, at his office in downtown Casablanca, Oct. 16, 2019.

Savvy roadside vendors stack freshly cut palm reeds and leaves at busy intersections to sell to Jewish residents constructing palm-leaf canopied sukkah huts for the Sukkot holiday.

The city hosts four Hebrew schools, 15 active synagogues, rabbinical judges, no fewer than five kosher restaurants, and multiple caterers providing services for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

“Visiting Arabs and Israelis see the atmosphere in the streets, signs in Hebrew, Jewish and Muslim families living together in the same apartment building, and they can hardly believe it,” says Serge Berdugo, secretary-general of the Council of Jewish Communities of Morocco and a community leader.

“But the fact is, it is not a slogan or some dream, it is daily life for us, and that is a model we need to preserve for the world.”

His community has dwindled from 300,000 in the 1940s to a mere 3,000; the diaspora abroad stands at around 1 million.  

From his 13th-floor office overlooking downtown Casablanca and the King Hassan II mosque, the 80-year-old Mr. Berdugo works tirelessly to “highlight and preserve Moroccan Jewish heritage.”

At Cercle d’Union kosher restaurant and supper club, Mr. Berdugo chats with friends over lunch of beef tongue tagine and salads – Moroccan Jewish culinary staples.

“We are always looking for ways to keep our community vibrant,” he says.

Eating kosher in Tunisia

Dating back to the Punic era, and having constructed what is believed to be the oldest synagogue in Africa, Tunisian Jews once numbered more than 100,000, but now number around 2,000. 

While the island of Djerba grabs headlines and tourists for its large Jewish community, Jews are very much part of the pulse and lifeblood of Tunis.

On the streets of the bustling capital, passers-by will point you to the kosher restaurant in the port of La Goullette, the Jewish nursing home, the towering national synagogue, or the historic synagogues marked by menorahs carved into their wooden doors.

The demand for kosher meat – seen as even more meticulously prepared than by Islamically halal butchers in the capital – is high among Tunisian Muslims as well as Jews.

On a rainy Friday this October, men and women lined up at the kosher butchery of Amran Fennech, the store name in Hebrew and Arabic, red spicy merguez sausage hanging from the storefront.  

Ask anyone in central Tunis; hands down, Amran has the best cuts in town. 

“He always gets the best beef and lamb,” says Rehab, as she walks away with 2 pounds of beef ribs.

Although the number of Jewish customers has dwindled, Mr. Fennech says Muslim clientele and the return of the Tunisian Jewish diaspora in the summer keep him busy; he also prepares tuna for export across Europe.

“We are Jews and we are Tunisians – we have specific cuisine, a specific dress, and a specific way of life – you can’t separate one from the other,” Mr. Fennech says as he pulls out a beef carcass from his iron fridge.

Taylor Luck
Hamdi Hassine serves a traditional Moroccan dish of hergma – cow feet and chickpeas – at the Cercle d’Union kosher restaurant in Casablanca, Morocco, Oct. 17, 2019.

Historians say the high-water mark of Jewish-Muslim relations may have been over a millenium ago at the time of Al-Andalus, or Islamic Iberia, when the Muslim empire stretched across the Mediterranean to modern-day southern Spain.

Jews and Muslims had become an intertwined community that was a beacon of science, philosophy, art, and enlightenment while much of Europe was in the Dark Ages. They flourished as the leading scientists and writers: philosopher Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), diplomat and physician Abu Yusuf ibn Shaprut, poet Moses ibn Izra.  

“Al-Andalus was a model for interfaith harmony and coexistence that we can still learn from today,” says historian Habib Kazdaghli, dean at the University of Tunis-Manouba and an expert on religious minorities in Tunisia.

When Europeans reconquered southern Spain, Jews and Muslims fled together back to North Africa, forming their own distinct “Andalusian” neighborhoods in towns and villages in modern-day Morocco and Tunisia, distinguished from their fellow countrymen who had never left Africa.

War-time tensions

For Tunisia’s Jews, communal tensions arose in the second half of the 20th century amid regional crises and the birth of Israel.

Arab nationalism and anger over wars with Israel stoked occasional outbursts of vandalism against Jewish properties and stores in Tunis. Violence erupted during the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, and the 1991 Gulf War.

“Every time there was a war in the region, tensions would increase and certain people would direct their anger toward their Jewish neighbors,” says one 50-year-old Jewish resident, preferring not to speak in the name of the community.

But in the 21st century, particularly after the 2011 revolution, Jewish Tunisians say they have noticed a marked difference.

With Tunisian political freedoms, Israel – and by extension Jews – are no longer the main contentious issue or used as a misdirection by an autocratic regime to steer attention away from its abuses at home. 

Tunisian Jews say they are back to being neighbors and fellow citizens.

“At the time of the revolution, there were bigger issues than the Jewish community and the question of Israel; the troublemakers left us alone,” says Mr. Fennech, the butcher. “Now we are all living in a new Tunisia together.”

Such sentiment was on display at a cafe in downtown Tunis Oct. 23, as dozens sipped their morning espresso watching the swearing-in ceremony of recently elected President Kais Saied.

As the television cameras cut away to focus on the front-row dignitaries, Tunisian Rabbi Haim Bittan sitting next to Grand Mufti of Tunis Othman Battikh and Archbishop of the Tunis Archdiocese Ilario Antoniazzi, some cheered.

“See that? We have a rabbi, alongside an imam, alongside a priest because they all represent Tunis,” said cafe-goer Mohamed Ben Hassine, pointing at the screen.

“We are a democratic state that chooses to embrace and respect all of our components of society, not divide them.”

“I am not a quota”

Tourism Minister René Trabelsi serves as the only Jewish minister in the Arab world, and the first in Tunisia since the 1950s.

Many Tunisians credit Mr. Trabelsi with successfully turning around Tunisia’s tourism – which once accounted for over 20% of gross domestic product – after being hit with years of instability and ISIS attacks.

“What is important is that I am the right man for the job of state minister, who happens to be Jewish. I am not a quota; this is voluntary and from the people,” Mr. Trabelsi says from his office, flipping through Sukkot holiday text greetings in Hebrew from his Muslim friends and colleagues.

“But the fact that the Tunisian people chose an Arab Jewish minister to lead a critical ministry is a message to the world that we are a country of harmony and acceptance.”

The main factor shrinking the Moroccan and Tunisian communities – migration of young men and women to Europe and Israel for better economic opportunities – continues unabated.

The communities are aging, and renewed campaigns to rekindle interest in their ancestral homelands have yet to lead to significant returns of Moroccan or Tunisian Jews.

Officially there are no diplomatic relations between Morocco and Israel, forcing Israeli visitors to receive visas in a third-party country such as Spain. Israeli tourists to Tunisia must fly to the island of Djerba; there are no direct flights to Tunis.

But Israeli and European Jewish tourism to Morocco and Tunisia is on the rise; as is the demand for kosher foods and Jewish religious tourism experiences.

Locals hope visitors come away with a lesson as well.

“For the good of the community, for the good of the world, for the good of Morocco, and for the good of Judaism, we must remain to maintain this link between peoples,” says Mr. Berdugo, the Moroccan community leader.

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4. Is political compromise alive? Lessons from New Hampshire.

Politicians may often feel they have little choice but to appeal to the most liberal or conservative voters. Is there another way? Yes, but our reporter found that it’s not easy. 

David
Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
Sajid Khan from Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, asks how U.S. policymakers plan to support mental health care in a voter forum at the Problem Solver Convention on November 3, 2019, in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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The 1,500 people who attended a half-day event in Manchester Sunday represented those who yearn for a rebuilding of trust in politics. They want elected officials to be able to follow common sense – and their conscience – when it leads toward compromise.

But even at the Problem Solver Convention, it was apparent just how challenging it is to forge a “third way” between political extremes. One couple, a Republican and Democrat who arrived already sold on the problem-solving message, left partway through – disappointed that they had heard little about actual solutions to issues they both agree need urgent attention, such as health care and the environment.

However, many attendees say that the event, which was sponsored by the group No Labels, did bring out some encouraging news of progress. Eight members of the U.S. House’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus appeared onstage together to talk about bills they’ve co-sponsored and friendships they’ve forged.

David Stebenne, a history and law professor at Ohio State, sees some usefulness, though also limitations, in efforts like Sunday’s. “It’s almost like we need classrooms to teach citizens who’ve grown up in a more polarized age how not to think in excessively partisan ways,” he says.

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Is political compromise alive? Lessons from New Hampshire.

“We have a rule that’s kept us happily married,” says Chris Hagen, a Republican whose husband is a Democrat. “We live on a street corner, and we don’t allow any political signs on our lawn,” she says with a laugh. 

The Hagens represent a significant swath of Americans who fall in between the more vocal groups on the far right and far left. 

The bipartisan couple joined about 1,500 people Sunday at the Problem Solver Convention in New Hampshire’s largest city. Part pep rally, part voter and candidate forum, the half-day event was sponsored by No Labels, a group that promotes working across party lines for the good of the country.

With impeachment dominating the news cycle and polarization growing, this crowd represents a deep yearning for a rebuilding of trust – for human connection that breaks down the tribal mentality evident on cable news and even at family gatherings. They want elected officials to follow common sense – and their conscience – when it leads toward compromise. 

But the “how” of it can seem elusive.

Political and cultural structures – campaign funding, activist agendas, gerrymandered districts – often push candidates to appeal to the most liberal or conservative sides of the two major parties.

Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
Roger Hagen and Chris Hagen attend the Problem Solver Convention on November 3, 2019, in Manchester, New Hampshire. The Hagens, a bipartisan couple, represent a significant swath of Americans who fall in between the more vocal groups on the far-right and far-left.

If the “vast center” of citizens who want a problem-solving approach would “get organized behind a movement and a core group of political leaders, then all of a sudden it would start to realign the incentives in our system,” Ryan Clancy, No Labels’ chief strategist, says in an interview explaining the group’s vision. 

A work in progress 

The Hagens were already sold on the problem-solving message when they arrived. But their mild disappointment on Sunday indicates just how challenging it is to forge a “third way” between political extremes while at the same time taking pages from the political playbook.

After more than an hour of being encouraged to shake yellow plastic pom-poms at various notables’ statements about the virtues of compromise, the Hagens had heard little about actual solutions to issues they both agree need urgent attention, such as health care and the environment.

When the music pumped up and the canned intro began for U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first of four presidential candidates to speak in the large room flanked with American flags, Mrs. Hagen said it was time to go home.

“For being nonpolitical, it’s turning out political,” she says. “I am encouraged that this organization exists ... But they’re preaching to the choir, so preach some substance.”

The Problem Solvers Caucus from the U.S. House of Representatives did bring some encouraging news of progress, many attendees say. The 48-member group, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, is a spinoff of the No Labels effort. Eight members appeared on stage Sunday to talk about bills they’ve cosponsored and friendships they’ve forged.

“Everybody says, ‘Why don’t you just?’... There is no ‘Why don’t you just.’ Every problem is complicated, and you cannot solve a complicated problem in an environment of fear and anger,” says Rep. Tom Suozzi, a Democrat from New York, to applause and a soft fluttering of sunshiny pom-poms. 

Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
Members of Congress's bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus speak on a panel on November 3, 2019, in Manchester, New Hampshire. No Labels, an organization working to promote bipartisan governance, hosted its Problem Solver Convention where voters asked questions in a town hall forum.

Whatever happens with the “wars” of impeachment and next year’s presidential election, several on the panel suggested that lawmakers like them will be needed to make peace and get on with the work of governing.

Appealing to young voters 

“Being in an environment like this was really cool for me, to see how many people are committed to bipartisanship and getting things done,” says Elias Kaul, standing with fellow students from the Brown University chapter of No Labels. Next to him, Brown student Isabelle Sharon adds that it’s a lot of work to persuade some liberal students to get past the barrier of “seeing the other side as anti-human, anti-gay, just sort of intrinsically evil in some ways.”  

That portrait of political hostility is a stereotype of young people, says Harvard student and Centrist Society co-founder Alexis Mealey. Many students want “to be able to talk about our values, the policies we believe in, what’s best for all of us as a nation,” she says, instead of being constrained by party loyalty.

Ms. Mealey, who stood out in her fuchsia dress amid a sea of dark winter garb, stopped identifying as Republican after the 2016 election, and now the philosophy major is hoping to help brand centrist positions in a way that appeals to young voters. 

The fact that the event did not draw any front-runner presidential candidates prompts some skepticism about whether a viable middle-ground movement is really getting underway. In addition to Representative Gabbard, Democrats John Delaney and Marianne Williamson spoke, as did former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, a Republican challenger to President Donald Trump. 

“Is there some naiveté about their belief that in the short run they can make a big difference? Perhaps,” says David Stebenne, a history and law professor at Ohio State University. “Is it still a useful thing to do? Probably. ... It’s almost like we need classrooms to teach citizens who’ve grown up in a more polarized age how not to think in excessively partisan ways.” 

Riley Robinson/The Christian Science Monitor
From left, Elias Kaul, Joel Kesselbrenner, and Isabelle Sharon, of the Brown University chapter of No Labels, attend the Problem Solver Convention November 3, 2019 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Culture shift

Another challenge: One person’s problem solver can be another person’s problem.

Before the 2016 election, Mr. Trump appeared at No Labels’ first Problem Solver Convention. To supporters, he’s always been a Washington outsider challenging the traditional party-dominated ways. To detractors, his style and decisions seem to tear the country apart rather than forge any useful solutions. 

“There are different ways to solve problems – one is collaborative, consensus, put your chairs in a circle,” Professor Stebenne says, while another approach is that “politics should be a shouting match at the 50-yard line.”

After rising to their feet to sing choruses of “This Land is Your Land” with folk singer Peter Yarrow, convention-goers left with a voters’ issue guide, yellow T-shirts, and lapel pins to remind them of a call to action: Pressure their congresspeople to “get in the room.”

The room, in this case, is a monthly off-the-record series of meetings taking place in Washington where senators and representatives from both parties gather for constructive dialogue. 

Bipartisan problem solving is “an abstract idea to organize around,” Mr. Clancy, of No Labels, says. “Get in the room” is “a single provable thing that you can ask [them] to do,” he adds. If more lawmakers attend, they may find that “there’s more here we could work on if we bothered trying.”

Politics has become like religion for many Americans, and people in the middle need a place, says Renée, a former military chaplain who asked that her last name not be used because of the sensitivity of her work in places like Afghanistan. But like the Hagens, she’s still looking for something deeper.

“My larger concern is about truth and transparency,” she says. Without that, it’s hard to “deal with the issues and come to common ground. We need this baseline, which is a shift in culture, and culture is not easy to shift.”

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Difference-maker

Drivers of change

5. Rich in spirit: How Rev. Robin Hood fights for housing justice

As a housing scam rocks his neighborhood, we look at how a Chicago minister brings justice and rebuilds trust in the community (and, yes, his name really is Robin Hood). 

David
Kristen Norman
The Rev. Robin Hood stands outside the Greater Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago, Aug. 6, 2019. Growing up, he didn’t like his unusual name. Now he embraces it.

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When the Rev. Robin Hood is asked what’s important to know about North Lawndale, he calls it a “community of love.”

But his Chicago neighborhood is not without its challenges. When the minister talks about the scam that has cost African American women their homes, he’s filled with anger. Some $10 million in equity was taken out of his North Lawndale community, one of the poorest in Chicago, affecting around 125 homeowners.

But he’s committed to keep fighting. For several years, the Baptist minister has been a uniting force bringing together federal prosecutors, pro bono lawyers from a university law clinic, and victims who were wary of trusting anyone.

“In some cases where there was resistance, [Mr. Hood would] go and speak with the family and let them know they could trust us,” says Sam Tenenbaum of Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. “He’s really been tireless in what he’s done.” 

Mr. Hood has used any tools he can muster to help homeowners – community meetings, media connections, law enforcement partnerships. His work shielding the neighborhood from mortgage fraud has complemented his anti-violence work.

“Stuff like this is so hugely connected and important,” he says. He lists what’s needed to get on top of endemic violence: “Stabilized home, stabilized community, stabilized schools.”

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Rich in spirit: How Rev. Robin Hood fights for housing justice

As he listens to Barbara Herron’s concerns about her home, the Rev. Robin Hood is sympathetic and reassuring. The city of Chicago has been telling her she needs a back porch, she says, and she may have to go to court. Mr. Hood, sitting in her dark living room, gives her a number to call. The city has promised not to mess with the homeowners who were victims of a predatory mortgage fraud, he tells her.

Two years ago, Ms. Herron almost lost her home completely. Her mother, who had dementia, had signed reverse-mortgage papers believing she was getting home improvements. After her mother died, Ms. Herron was told she owed $80,000 on a loan that neither she nor her mother had ever received. The home was foreclosed, and her eviction was scheduled for the day after Christmas. 

Mr. Hood, who called in a news team as nearly 60 years’ worth of belongings were packed to go out the door, helped ensure that didn’t happen. But Ms. Herron, who lives with her great-nephew, still worries. “We’re still fighting it,” says Ms. Herron, who has lived in the house since she was 11. 

When Mr. Hood talks about the scam that almost cost Ms. Herron and so many other North Lawndale residents – almost all older African American women – their homes, he’s filled with anger. Some $10 million in equity was taken out of his community, one of the poorest in Chicago, affecting around 125 homeowners.

But he’s committed to keep fighting. For several years, Mr. Hood has been a uniting force bringing together federal prosecutors, pro bono lawyers from Northwestern University’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, and victims who were wary of trusting anyone. He’s used any tools he can muster to help homeowners – community meetings, media connections, law enforcement partnerships. His work on the mortgage scam has complemented his anti-violence work in the neighborhood.

“Stuff like this is so hugely connected and important,” says the Baptist minister. He lists what’s needed to get on top of endemic violence: “Stabilized home, stabilized community, stabilized schools.”

Home as legacy

With his austere black clerical suit and graying beard, Mr. Hood is a larger-than-life figure in this community. His phone rings regularly with calls from people needing help, connections, or advice. His conversation is peppered with anecdotes about everything from local gang leaders and gang wars to Martin Luther King Jr. This neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side has history, and a reputation. King moved here in 1966. It’s also the birthplace of the Vice Lords, one of the oldest Chicago gangs. More than 40% of households live below the poverty line, and there have been at least 20 homicides so far this year. But the violence caused by the reverse-mortgage fraud was of a different sort. 

Mark Diamond, who is facing federal charges, allegedly targeted older homeowners, many of them with disabilities, and convinced them to sign over equity in their homes to him. He is accused of promising home improvements that were never delivered. Mr. Diamond’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Hood’s own aunt lost around $175,000 in the scheme. “These [homeowners] are the people who are stabilizing the neighborhood,” says Sam Tenenbaum, director of the Complex Civil Litigation and Investor Protection Center at the Bluhm Legal Clinic. Mr. Tenenbaum has been fighting many of the eviction and foreclosure cases that resulted from the scam. “For all these people, this was their only real investment; they viewed it as a legacy,” he says.

Mr. Hood says he first learned about the scams around five years ago, when a couple of young men he knew in the community were threatening to go after Mr. Diamond with guns. One of their grandmothers had apparently signed a reverse mortgage for more than $200,000 to the businessman. “The woman thought she was getting a free government program, and when she got the letter [saying she owed money to lenders], she had a massive heart attack and died,” one young man told Mr. Hood. He talked the young man down and promised to find a legal way to go after Mr. Diamond and his partners. 

Growing up in North Lawndale, Mr. Hood hated his unusual name. It wasn’t until he turned 40 that he asked his father why he gave it to him. “You’ll be Robin Hood for real. You’ll rob from the rich and give to the poor,” the minister remembers being told. Now, as he works to get restitution money for the mortgage fraud victims, “I tell people, ‘Be careful what you name your child,’” he laughs.

His ‘Jonah moment’

Mr. Hood for years has worked to connect his ministry directly to the community he lives in, working to fight violence and promote mentorship and jobs for youth. But at one point, the violence became too much even for him. His brother, sister, uncle, and two cousins had been killed in North Lawndale; he and his family moved to Florida for two years. He calls it a “Jonah moment,” referring to the Bible story in which Jonah flees rather than preach. 

But when he returned to Chicago, he had lost some of his connection with the community. The mortgage fraud crisis in some ways provided a reentry point. Fighting for justice, in this case, has required outside help. This is a neighborhood that is distrustful of institutions – police, federal agents, universities – often with good reason, says Mr. Hood. Working to shut down fraud and protect affected homeowners has called for strong partnerships. “It’s difficult to get trust after they’ve been cheated,” says Mr. Tenenbaum of the law clinic. “In some cases where there was resistance, [Mr. Hood would] go and speak with the family and let them know they could trust us. He’s really been tireless in what he’s done.”

Mr. Hood has held community events both to connect victims to help and educate them about reverse mortgages. The cases aren’t all resolved, and the Northwestern lawyers are still fighting on behalf of the homeowners. But so far, they’ve managed to keep all their clients – some 35 victims – from being evicted. Recently, they helped get a $10 million fund set aside for homeowners, including fraud victims who have been evicted, in the bankruptcy settlement of Reverse Mortgage Solutions, one of the lenders in the Diamond scheme.

In the case of Ms. Herron, Mr. Hood says her near-eviction also gave him an opportunity to address gang violence. Her great-nephew had been in juvenile detention. When Mr. Hood helped her avoid eviction, he also got the nephew, a former gang leader, released, but with the promise that he return to school and get a job.

Mr. Hood notes how the community’s escalating violence and housing insecurity are connected. “When you got 120 people in the same neighborhood with the same issues, that’s a destabilizer in the community,” he says. He still gets discouraged every time there’s a shooting, but the steps forward keep him going. Most recently, he succeeded in getting the state to promise 375 youth jobs to the neighborhood. When asked what’s important to know about North Lawndale, he cites the challenges. But ultimately, he concludes, “this community is a community of love.”

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The Monitor's View

The struggle behind Iraq’s protests

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Over the past five weeks, as more Iraqis have taken to the streets in mass protests, the slogans of the demonstrators have pleasantly evolved. At first their placards revealed what they were against. Lately, however, demonstrators have shifted to this popular slogan: “I am going to take my rights myself.”

The idea that a people should be self-governing still faces obstacles in Iraq. The country is largely ruled by Shiite religious parties with strong ties to Shiite-run Iran, where autocratic rule by a religious scholar is the norm. In both Iran and Iraq, the denial of basic rights and accountability has contributed to mass corruption and economic stagnation. Now, by the tens of thousands, Iraqi protesters are demanding a rights-based state that respects religion rather than a religious state like that in Iran. They do not want spiritual guides to be spiritual autocrats.

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The struggle behind Iraq’s protests

Over the past five weeks, as more Iraqis have taken to the streets in mass protests, the slogans of the demonstrators have pleasantly evolved. At first their placards revealed what they were against: lack of basic services and jobs, corruption among ruling parties, and the powerful influence of neighboring Iran. Then the slogans began to demand wholesale change in government, such as allowing voters to cast ballots for individual candidates rather than for parties.

Lately, however, demonstrators have shifted to this popular slogan: “I am going to take my rights myself.”

The idea that a people should be self-governing still faces obstacles in Iraq 16 years after the United States planted democracy in the Middle East country. Iraq is largely ruled by Shiite religious parties with strong ties to Shiite-run Iran, where autocratic rule by a religious scholar is the norm. The late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who set himself as the “supreme guide” 40 years ago, once wrote that universal rights are merely “opium for the masses.”

In both Iran and Iraq, the denial of basic rights and accountability has contributed to mass corruption and economic stagnation. Now, by the tens of thousands, Iraqi protesters are demanding a rights-based state that respects religion rather than a religious state like that in Iran. They do not want spiritual guides to be spiritual autocrats.

To help their cause they have looked to the most revered figure in Shiite Islam, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who lives a quiet life in the Iraqi city of Najaf. He has not disappointed them.

In a sermon last Friday, he backed the protesters and said no one person or foreign power (meaning Iran) should impose its will on the Iraqi people. He also criticized “the abyss of the killings.” Since Oct. 1, when the protests began, more than 200 protesters have been killed, many of them by gunmen from militias controlled by Iran.

Following his sermon, Mr. al-Sistani was visited by Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps. The results of this meeting could influence the entire Middle East, where Iran keeps pushing the notion that only clerics can reflect the truth needed to run society.

Iraq’s elected leaders have already won a war against Islamic State, the Sunni-based group that controlled a large part of Iraq from 2014 to 2017. Now with protesters seeking a citizens-based democracy rather than a cleric-ruled theocracy, these leaders must side again with those who regard equality and self-governance as inherent rights. Such ideas are not mere slogans.

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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.

An appreciation that heals

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It can be tempting to dismiss others as unworthy or incapable of redemption. But praying to value everyone as made to express God’s goodness brings healing outcomes, encouraging all that’s good in us and the world to spring forth more fully.

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An appreciation that heals

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What most stood out to me about the man I sat next to at a community center volunteer dinner was how much he delighted in showing appreciation. When the program director shared a few words about each volunteer’s contribution, my seatmate joined in heartfelt clapping with the rest of us but also joyously added something like “Way to go! Thank you!”

He equally and sincerely praised everyone in this diverse group of givers – those he knew and those he hadn’t met yet. This man was a chaplain, and as we chatted that evening he said to me “The good you do matters.” It was clear that his radiant sense of appreciation for the goodness he saw expressed was far more than just a positive attitude. It grew out of a life dedicated to loving and honoring God.

Inspired by his bright example, I more freely and consciously valued everyone at the dinner. And I realized that in doing so, I was also praising the ultimate source of good: the one infinite Spirit, or God. It was a joyful and practical way of living Jesus’ foundational teaching to love God and our neighbor as ourselves (see Luke 10:27).

It’s not always easy to do this. In current public discourse and behavior it seems pretty common for people to be dismissive of those in other “camps,” whether political, racial, religious, or whatever else. I’ve been praying to understand how a more God-inspired sense of appreciation can play a healing role.

And my prayers have led me to the Bible story of two men from rather different “camps.” Peter (a Jewish disciple of Christ Jesus) gained a whole new appreciation for Cornelius (a Gentile, or non-Jewish person) when it dawned on him, “God plays no favorites!” (Acts 10:34, Eugene Peterson, “The Message”). It’s occurred to me that the same divine power and presence that led Peter to genuinely appreciate Cornelius as equally and fully included in God’s goodness is still present today to move and heal our hearts as well.

Peter’s realization beautifully resonates with a definition of God given by Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, who wrote: “God is universal; confined to no spot, defined by no dogma, appropriated by no sect. Not more to one than to all, is God demonstrable as divine Life, Truth, and Love; and His people are they that reflect Him – that reflect Love” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 150).

I think this holds the key to a sense of appreciation that’s truly healing. That is, what naturally gives us a fuller appreciation for each other as the very expressions of God is a fuller appreciation for the infinite, all-inclusive nature of God as universal Love itself. We are not mortals in separate camps, but each a unique spiritual manifestation of one divine Life.

A friend recently shared an inspiring experience at a midweek testimony meeting at our branch Church of Christ, Scientist. Many years ago she and her daughter were at a local park, and another little girl started saying mean things about the color of her daughter’s skin. My friend comforted her daughter and said they could pray to love this girl’s inherent goodness as God’s child – that the meanness didn’t represent her true nature. Together they prayed in this way, and not long after the girl came over to apologize, and the two kids happily played together.

Hearing this experience has given me so much hope for healing in the world. It’s helped me better see how transformative it can be to appreciate the good God knows we are, even when it’s not apparent. Jesus gave the ultimate example of what it means to truly appreciate others in this way. He loved and valued everyone in the spiritual light of Christ – the purely good nature of divine Spirit he embodied – which awakened others to their genuine, Godlike identity as well, with remarkable healing effect.

When we’re tempted to dismiss others as unworthy or incapable of redemption, we can instead pray to value them in their true, spiritual nature as the expressions of God’s goodness. This isn’t ignoring ugly traits or bad behavior, but rather acknowledging it as unworthy of how God has really made us.

Divinely based appreciation like this can heal, encouraging all that’s good in us and the world to spring forth more fully. We’re all essential to the full expression of God’s goodness. That’s to be appreciated!

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Viewfinder

Emissary of the forest

Virginia Mayo/AP
A leader of an indigenous community in Brazil protests rainforest destruction in front of the European Union headquarters in Brussels Nov. 5, 2019. Demonstrators were demanding that EU and national leaders act to stop the deforestation and related human rights abuses in the Amazon, Cerrado, Pantanal, and Mata Atlantica.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( November 6th, 2019 )

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: Our Monitor Breakfast guest is Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez and we’ll have a story about the challenge of party unity. 

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