In today’s Daily we look at what Brexit doesn’t solve, why a Palestinian election seems more real, how human habitation is being rethought, how a commandment plays in academia, and why you should devour these December books. First, a look at where intolerance has flared into violence – and the prescription for a pushback.
We’re reporting on the spate of anti-Semitic attacks. We’ll have a story tomorrow.
The stabbing of five Jewish congregants Saturday at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, New York, occurred on the seventh night of Hanukkah. A suspect, said to have struggled with mental illness, was arrested and charged with a federal hate crime. That followed a string of recent incidents – more than a dozen this month – in which Jews were targeted. In a shooting at a kosher grocery store in Jersey City, Dec. 10, a half-dozen people, including a police officer, were killed.
“Jews have been living defensively for a long time,” writes Deborah Lipstadt in The Atlantic. But “we have reached a new level.”
Those who align themselves against such hatred often share the fundamental belief that people acting peacefully and in accord with their faith are pursuing connection to a higher power, and doing so as honest seekers. They have a core fellowship with humanity.
The unwavering recognition of that fellowship – empathy – can be an antidote to intolerance.
In early December, Rabbi Steven Moss was honored for his leadership at an event hosted by the Southampton (N.Y.) Anti-Bias Task Force. After that event – and just after the New Jersey shooting – he spoke to a local reporter about a harassment case in his county. A Muslim man had been targeted in a bank. The man charged was asked about his motivation. Muslims, he proclaimed, were Americans’ collective enemy.
Rabbi Moss’ reaction was immediate. “I said, ‘Do you [think] this man, who ... was at the bank making a deposit, this man who has a family, do you think we are at war with him?’”
In mid-November the United Nations marked the International Day for Tolerance, as it has since 1996. In her message, Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, stressed the importance of making right thinking a tangible reality.
“Tolerance is more than standing idly by or remaining insensitive to differences between ... cultures and beliefs,” she said. It is “a state of mind, an awareness, and a requirement.”
1.Britain leaves EU on Jan. 31. Here’s why Brexit won’t be ‘done.’
Think that Brexit, if it goes off as planned, will be a push-button political reset? Not so fast, reports our pond-crossing writer. A point that some have missed: Plenty of issues will persist.
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Brexit finally looks set to roll ahead. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s newly reelected government has a clear path to a Jan. 31 departure from the European Union. But the heated debate over how the U.K. exits the EU is only the prelude to what could be years of wrangling over trade between the two. Both sides have a strong interest in finding a post-Brexit deal. But clashing political agendas could make the next phase of Brexit just as difficult for the U.K.
Under Mr. Johnson’s deal, the U.K. stays in the bloc until the end of 2020 to allow negotiators to draw up new terms of trade. If no agreement is reached, barriers would go up to EU markets, where nearly half of British exports go.
EU officials warn it may be impossible to conclude a comprehensive agreement by December 2020. The exit deal allows for an extension, but Mr. Johnson has ruled this out. Any extension must be requested by July 1, setting up a crunch point early in Mr. Johnson’s term that could puncture his campaign promise.
“Far from Brexit disappearing from the news, it will be back with a vengeance,” says Alex de Ruyter of Birmingham City University’s Center for Brexit Studies.
When Brexit-weary U.K. voters handed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party a commanding majority in Parliament Dec. 12, they ended a withering political impasse over leaving the European Union that damaged the U.K.’s economy and its reputation as a stable democracy.
Days later, Parliament began to lay the legal groundwork for an exit on Jan. 31, nearly one year from its original deadline. On Feb. 1, the United Kingdom, which joined in 1973, would be out, finally.
Job done? Not exactly.
The heated debate over how the U.K. exits the EU is only the prelude to what could be years of wrangling over trade between the world’s fifth largest economy and its largest free trading bloc. Both sides have a strong interest in finding a post-Brexit economic equilibrium. But a lack of trust and clashing political agendas could make the next phase of Brexit just as difficult for the U.K. and expose its economy to further damage if talks break down.
Grace period or cliff edge?
Under Mr. Johnson’s exit deal, the U.K. stays in the European bloc until the end of 2020, a grace period to allow negotiators to draw up new terms of trade. If no agreement is reached, the U.K. would be out, and barriers would go up to EU markets, where nearly half of British exports go.
EU officials warn it may be impossible to conclude a comprehensive agreement by December 2020. The exit deal allows for a mutually agreed extension of the grace period for up to two years. But Mr. Johnson has ruled this out.
“In case we cannot conclude an agreement by the end of 2020, we will face again a cliff-edge situation,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said on Dec. 18.
Analysts say Mr. Johnson may ultimately go for an extension, but that the risk of a “hard Brexit” remains. For some of his allies, breaking with EU rules and regulations would unleash British capitalism in a low-regulation economy, a model known as “Singapore-on-Thames.”
Trade talks are expected to start by March and any extension must be requested by July 1, setting up a crunch point early in Mr. Johnson’s term that could puncture his campaign promise.
“Far from Brexit disappearing from the news, it will be back with a vengeance,” says Alex de Ruyter, director of the Center for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University.
An extension of talks would require the U.K. to continue paying into the EU budget, an unpalatable prospect for the government. Mr. Johnson led the Brexit campaign in 2016 that claimed falsely that the U.K. paid £350 million a week (about $460 million), money that it could redirect to its national health service. The actual net contribution is £212 million, according to the U.K.’s statistics agency, which would likely be dwarfed by the cumulative effects of slower economic growth outside the EU under a free trade agreement.
Mr. Johnson’s supporters say a bare bones agreement for cross-border trade in goods can be agreed to next year – and that by refusing to extend, the U.K. is forcing both sides to find common ground.
Such an agreement would not, however, guarantee British companies full access to European markets. And it would exclude most services, which are the U.K.’s largest export to the EU, particularly in banking and insurance. EU regulators insist that non-EU partners must meet their exacting criteria for services if they want trading privileges.
Even if the EU shows flexibility, the 27 member states have their own agendas on thorny issues like fishing rights, state subsidies, and data protection. Any comprehensive trade agreement must be approved by lawmakers in each country.
“There’s no way that the EU could compromise on big policy areas where they want to be leaders and to ensure unity in the EU,” says Sara Hagemann, director of the school for public policy at the London School of Economics (LSE).
What does Boris really want?
Perhaps the biggest unknown is what exactly Mr. Johnson, a political chameleon famous for eschewing policy details, wants from a future economic partnership with the EU.
His exit deal differed from his predecessor Theresa May’s in watering down the U.K.’s commitment to mirror EU standards on labor, environmental protection, and other sectors in return for privileged market access. Mr. Johnson has insisted the U.K. can set its own rules and maintain its trading privileges.
“He would like to have his cake and eat it too, but he’s not going to get it,” says Mr. de Ruyter.
A looser relationship would allow the U.K. more flexibility to negotiate with the United States and other non-EU trading partners. President Donald Trump, a political ally of Mr. Johnson and a fan of Brexit, said he wants an “ambitious” free trade pact with the U.K. Still, economists say any U.S. pact wouldn’t make up for a rupture in ties with Europe, given the relative size of cross-border trade.
Mr. Johnson will face intense pressure from U.K. companies not to scuttle EU trade, particularly in industries anchored in the English equivalent of the Rust Belt.
“It could go either way. Don’t assume we’re going to end up with hardcore Brexit,” says Simon Hix, a professor of political science at LSE.
One reason is political calculus: Mr. Johnson won his majority by peeling away left-leaning voters in the Midlands and North who are more likely to work in manufacturing and food processing. “He has to deliver to those constituencies a Brexit that’s beneficial to them,” says Dr. Hix.
The size of Mr. Johnson’s majority also lessens his dependence on free market Conservatives who lionize a low-regulation economy.
In the West Midlands, up to 50,000 jobs depend on automakers who have warned of the risks that a hard Brexit creates for “just-in-time” manufacturing that relies on a web of parts suppliers outside the U.K., says Mr. de Ruyter. Toyota’s auto plant in Burnaston, for example, only stocks four hours worth of parts for the models it produces and relies on daily deliveries of parts from trucks that arrive from mainland Europe via the Port of Dover.
Even a trade deal that avoids tariffs and quotas on goods from Europe but adds to waiting times at ports is a setback. “I’m not sure that a bare bones deal would be enough for manufacturers,” he says.
Sir Ivan Rogers, the U.K.’s former top diplomat at the EU, has warned of a repeat of last year’s debacle if the U.K. fails to think and act strategically. “I believe the biggest crisis of Brexit to date actually still lies ahead of us in late 2020,” he said in a pre-election speech at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.
Sir Ivan, who resigned in 2017 over the U.K.’s handling of Brexit, said he believed a Johnson victory would play into the hands of EU negotiators who know the prime minister will refuse to extend trade talks. That creates a “huge, open goal opportunity” for the EU to lay out its preconditions for a close relationship and force Mr. Johnson to choose between an unpalatable trade deal and a hard break that could wreck the U.K. economy.
“We have lived in a European world where more and more of those barriers within Europe have been taken down, and where we have helped reduce the barriers between that European world and more other jurisdictions than has any other trade bloc in the world. All those barriers go up unless and until we agree with others to remove them,” he said.
The EU-U.K. relationship could end up as “thin, sour, and conflictual,” Sir Ivan said. “That is in neither side’s best interest. But it might require real vision from both to avoid it.”
2.For Palestinians, sudden wave of election talk rekindles hope
If a much-longer-sought political event, a Palestinian election, is held despite obstacles, younger residents of the territories might cast their first-ever votes. This piece puts a new optimism in perspective.
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The four-year terms of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, elected in 2005, and the Palestinian parliament have long expired. A generation of young Palestinians have not had the chance to cast a vote for national office.
There are many reasons for their frustration, not least of which is the infighting between Mr. Abbas’ Fatah party and its rival Hamas. Repeated efforts at compromise have failed despite overwhelming public sentiment on behalf of reconciliation. But a steady stream of pronouncements has put the topic of elections back in the national dialogue, and the two rivals have agreed in principle to hold a long-awaited election as a step toward mending their rift.
Recent polls show an uptick in optimism among Palestinians that they may finally go to the polls. To be sure, obstacles remain. On the streets of Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, talk of elections occasionally elicits cynical laughter.
“We need elections as soon as possible,” says Mustafa Barghouti, who ran for president against Mr. Abbas in 2005. “People have been deprived of their right to elections for more than 10 years, and that’s more than anyone can tolerate.”
For an entire generation of Palestinians, participating in national elections is something never before experienced. Many barely recall the last time a parliamentary vote was held, 14 years ago.
But with a steady stream of pronouncements about elections back in the national dialogue, there’s an uptick in optimism among Palestinians that they may finally go back to the polls to elect a legislature and a president.
And after years of infighting and acrimony between President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party and the Islamist Hamas that has paralyzed domestic Palestinian politics, the two bitter rivals have agreed in principle to hold a long-awaited election as a step toward mending the rift.
“Yes, I’m excited. I’m 25, and I’ve never voted before. I’m waiting to see who’s going to be the next president and who I’m going to vote for,” says Anas Tzahboub, a soccer coach. “It’s important for Palestinians to choose their leader.”
To be sure, formidable obstacles remain that may prevent a vote from ever getting off the ground. For one, despite Mr. Abbas’ vow at the United Nations General Assembly in September to issue a decree for elections, he has yet to do so – stoking concern he might not follow through for fear Fatah might lose at the ballot box.
Then there’s Israel, which has yet to say whether it will allow Palestinians under its control in contested East Jerusalem to participate. Mr. Abbas insisted Sunday that including Jerusalemites in the voting is essential for the elections to take place.
Finally, there’s the feud between Fatah and Hamas, which seized power in Gaza in 2007 from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.
For more than a decade, the leading Palestinian parties have failed at repeated efforts at compromise – preferring divided rule despite overwhelming public sentiment on behalf of reconciliation. The enduring bad blood could play a role in snagging the vote over unresolved procedural details of how the elections will be held.
“There is a lot of frustration that the Palestinian division was the reason for the stalemate, and the inability of the Palestinians to hold parliamentary and presidential elections,’’ says Mkaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Al Azhar University in the Gaza Strip.
“Elections were supposed to be the outcome of reconciliation,” he says. “But after repeated failures, the president said we should do it the other way around. Elections will be the key, the first step to Palestinian reconciliation.”
A December public opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research highlighted ambivalence among the Palestinian public about the prospect for a successful vote.
On the one hand, 52% of Palestinians said they expect elections to be held soon, up from 38% three months earlier. Some 68% said they would participate.
On the other hand, only 42% said they believe the elections would be free and fair. And about two-thirds of those polled said they doubted that Fatah or Hamas would cede power if defeated.
Years of mothballed domestic politics, stalemated peace talks with Israel, and violent upheaval around the wider Middle East have deflated Palestinian expectations for progress. In shops and on the streets in central Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, the suggestion of elections – or intikhab – occasionally evokes cynical laughter.
Some said reaching a peace deal with Israel is more important.
Willah Abdel Wahab, a 30-year-old lawyer from Ramallah, says that when elections are finally called, she’ll carefully consider her choice for a party, though she prefers one that isn’t Fatah or Hamas. Still, she is deeply skeptical that a vote would substantially change Palestinian politics – or that one will be called at all.
“Elected officials haven’t done anything,” she says. “I don’t think it’s going to change anything. Because it’s the same people. Even if the president is going to change it will be the same people.”
Indeed, elections have been few and far between since the Palestinians got autonomous rule in 1994 following the 1993 signing of the first Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
There have been two presidential elections: Yasser Arafat, the longtime PLO leader, was elected with 88% of the vote in 1996; and in 2005, Mr. Abbas received 63%. The 2006 parliamentary election counted as the one contest between Hamas and Fatah – a victory for Hamas. The four-year terms of Mr. Abbas and the parliament have long since expired, and last year the president said he would dissolve the legislature.
“We need elections as soon as possible. People have been deprived of their right to elections for more than 10 years, and that’s more than anyone can tolerate,” says Mustafa Barghouti, who ran for president against Mr. Abbas in 2005. “We have a whole younger generation – the vast majority of the voters – who have never had the chance to vote.”
Palestinians have long since grown weary of Mr. Abbas. Nearly two-thirds believe he should resign. At the same time, frustration has grown in Gaza with Hamas’ rule and the economic crisis caused by Israel’s blockade of the territory.
“If elections were to take place, everyone would be shocked by the results. Neither Hamas nor Fatah would win,” says Nashat Aqtash, who advised the pro-Hamas Reform and Change party in the West Bank in 2006. “If there’s a third party that was well organized, it could win.”
Why has Mr. Abbas renewed the election push after so many years?
Observers have offered several explanations. One is that the Palestinian Authority has come under pressure from European donor countries to hold a vote. Another theory is that the goal of elections will dominate the agenda because of its popularity, and distract from criticism of the PA. A third explanation holds that Mr. Abbas is seeking to pressure Hamas, which boycotted a recent round of municipal elections.
“His goal is not for better representation through elections, but rather his goal is to try to mitigate the competition from Hamas. I think he was surprised Hamas accepted,” says Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American businessman and political analyst.
An Israeli veto?
The Palestinian Authority formally notified Israel this month that it planned to hold the election in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians demand as their future capital in any peace deal with Israel. Though the city’s 341,000 Arab residents have participated in previous Palestinian elections – as required by the peace accords – Israel’s right-wing government has not given an answer. The push for Palestinian elections comes as their Israeli neighbors have been mired in a political crisis that has forced three general elections in less than 12 months.
On Dec. 29, Mr. Abbas told a meeting of the Fatah party that there would be no vote without participation of Palestinians who live “in the heart” of the city. But many Palestinians believe that elections are too important to be held up over the dispute over Jerusalem.
“I don’t agree with placing a veto in Israel’s hands by saying, ‘If Israel doesn’t allow elections in Jerusalem, elections won’t happen,’” says Mr. Bahour. “I think that that’s placing a strategic need in the hands of an entity that doesn’t have any interest in moving Palestinian internal politics forward.”
It’s still far from assured, however, whether Hamas and Fatah are ready to agree on the details holding one unified election. Over the years of estrangement, Mr. Abbas’ security forces have jailed Islamists in the West Bank, and Hamas has done the same with opponents in Gaza.
Once Mr. Abbas issues a decree, the two parties must reach an accord about what force will be responsible for securing the vote, and which court will preside over legal challenges. There’s also a rule that requires candidates to swear allegiance to the Palestine Liberation Organization in writing – which is problematic for Hamas members who are ideologically opposed to the PLO’s peace deal with Israel.
The stymied politics from all sides have “doused water on the fire” for change among Palestinians, says Murad Odeh, a 42-year old shopkeeper with a jewelry store on Ramallah’s Al-Manara Square. Palestinian leaders, like others in Israel and countries elsewhere, suffer from an addiction to power, he says.
“The bigger problem is that someone when gets in the chair, they don’t want to leave,” he says. “I hope it’s going to change.”
3.Etched in DNA: Decoding the secrets of the past
“Stones and bones” have long told one story of human history on Earth. Advances in DNA analysis keep revealing more. In this report, how a scientific quest for clarity keeps revealing more questions.
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The study of ancient DNA has enriched our evolving tale of early human history. In the field, it’s resolved long-standing debates, raised new questions, and added nuance to our perpetual quest to answer what it means to be human.
A decade ago, a team of scientists announced that they had pieced together the full genome of a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal. Their findings ushered in a new decade of discovery and understanding. The sequence was not only a marvel of new technology; it shed light on a debate about how these archaic humans may have interacted with our direct ancestors.
The two had interbred. The idea had circulated in some circles, but had long been considered the musings of a “lunatic fringe” by many in the field. But now, there it was, etched in the DNA. Paleogeneticists are also digging into ancient genomes looking for biological answers to those questions.
But piecing together a fuller story will take a multidisciplinary approach. “I’m done with ‘who’ questions,” says archaeology professor John Shea. “Ancient DNA is freeing archaeologists up to start looking at the really interesting questions. And the most interesting question is ‘how.’”
Human origins research. The phrase probably evokes an image of dusty scientists hunched over in the sun, combing the ground for scraps left behind by people of millennia past. The field has long been the realm of stones and bones, with test tube-filled laboratories playing second fiddle.
But that’s changing. Paleoanthropology has found a second home in the lab, as geneticists have joined the field, extracting DNA from fossils in search of new insights into early human history.
“It’s white coat science,” says John Shea, a professor of archaeology at Stony Brook University. “It’s not bluejeans and khaki shirt science.”
Over the past decade, the study of ancient DNA has enriched our evolving tale of early human history. In the field, it’s resolved long-standing debates, raised new questions, and added nuance to our perpetual quest to answer what it means to be human.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to rewrite lectures” because of new paleogenetics revelations, says Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Kansas. “I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings.”
A turning point
Ancient DNA, or aDNA, was just beginning to catch on when Dr. Raff finished her dual Ph.D. in anthropology and genetics in 2008. Fragments of ancient genomes were being sequenced, analyzed, and discussed. But Dr. Raff was unsure if science could ever recover full genomes from long back in time.
But then it happened. The following year, a team of scientists announced that they had pieced together the full genome of a 38,000-year-old Neanderthal. They published their findings in May 2010 in the journal Science, ushering in a new decade of discovery and understanding.
The sequence was not only a marvel of this new technology; it shed light on a long-standing debate about how these archaic humans may have interacted with our direct ancestors.
The two had interbred. The idea had circulated in some circles, but had long been considered the musings of a “lunatic fringe” by many in the field. But now, there it was, etched in the DNA.
For decades, scientists categorized hominins based on the differences in the shape of their bones. But DNA has brought a faster way to get more definitive answers about the identities of ancient peoples.
“I’m done with ‘who’ questions,” Dr. Shea says. “Ancient DNA is freeing archaeologists up to start looking at the really interesting questions. And the most interesting question is ‘how.’” How did a group of ancient people move across a forbidding landscape? How did they survive through frigid winters?
Those questions can help to animate our view of the past, and deepen our understanding of where we come from. Paleogeneticists are digging into ancient genomes looking for biological answers to those questions, too, but piecing together a fuller story will take a multidisciplinary approach, says Dr. Raff.
“There’s a whole field of anthropology that talks about what makes us human, and that’s not just our biology,” she says. “It’s also culture and technology and behavior and ecology. There’s just so much that goes into understanding the past.”
One of us?
The revelation that Neanderthals interbred with early Homo sapiens has raised some fundamental questions about what it means to be human.
Traditionally, the line between species is defined by whether they can interbreed and produce viable offspring that can, in turn, produce viable offspring. But, due to similarities in the bones and now the genetic evidence, some anthropologists have labeled Neanderthals as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis and anatomically modern humans as Homo sapiens sapiens.
One such researcher is Fred Smith, professor emeritus of anthropology and biology at Illinois State University. He argues it from a morphological point of view, too.
“You would never mistake a Neanderthal for anything but a human,” Dr. Smith says. “It might not be a human that you’d like to go on a blind date with, but if you saw one, you wouldn’t think of it as not being human.”
By that logic, many researchers refer to other members of the genus Homo as “human,” too. But some say it might be our understanding of speciation that needs revising, not the distinctions among species in the genus.
“The pattern of evolutionary thinking is that you have a point in time where two lineages diverge,” after which they do not cross again, says Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Human Origins Program.
But that branching model of evolution and speciation is proving to be too simplistic across biology, with hybridizing appearing among present-day creatures, too. “Evolution and the formation of species are a process, not an event,” he says.
Regardless of whether we can call Neanderthals one of us, the revelation of prehistoric trysts between the two peoples has changed our perception of those other humans.
Before ancient DNA came on the scene, “Neanderthal” was often lobbed as an insult – and sometimes still is. When archaeologists suggested that they had found Neanderthal art and musical instruments, they were dismissed quickly, as the logic went that only Homo sapiens could have the cognitive abilities for that level of creativity. But with the revelation that we are similar enough to them that we could interbreed, that kind of research has been entertained and discussed more frequently.
“I think it gives a very important correction on those who would see the Neanderthal simply as incapable of thought, incapable of being clever,” Dr. Potts says. “And it also, I think, gives a bit of humility to ourselves for those who are willing to look at it.”
A decade of discovery
Our species is the only creature (that we know of) to have colonized the entire terrestrial globe. Why is that? There were a lot of other hominins at one point in time; what makes us so special? Over the past decade, the story of early human history has had chapters added and edits made, adding nuance to those questions.
The human family tree has sprouted new branches. In 2010, scientists introduced the world to Denisovans after finding a finger bone in a Siberian cave that resembled – but was clearly distinct from – that of a Neanderthal. Ancient DNA analysis confirmed that it was indeed a new species.
Hundreds of fossils that appeared distinct from any known hominin were discovered in a cave in South Africa in 2013. When the discovery was announced two years later, the new species was given the name Homo naledi. And this past April, researchers announced that bones of yet another previously unknown hominin had been unearthed in the Philippines. They named it Homo luzonensis after the island of Luzon where the fossils were found.
In the final weeks of 2019, another finding altered the human timeline. Researchers reported on Dec. 11 that they’d found cave art on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi dating back at least 43,900 years, depicting a hunting scene with mythical beings – the earliest such storytelling found. Other dates have also been pushed back. For example, fossils found outside Africa have suggested that some Homo sapiens spread into other continents more than 100,000 years ago – much earlier than previously thought.
These new players and shifts in the human timeline are simply the latest chapters in our understanding of the human story. What revelations will the next decade bring?
How people use the Commandments in daily life
4.How a law professor views the Tenth Commandment
In the academic setting, the opposite of covetousness is freely giving credit, and happily elevating others. This story completes our series on the biblical commandments applied to modern life.
Sabina Louise Pierce/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
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David Skeel, a professor of corporations and bankruptcy, advises a Christian law student group at his institution, the University of Pennsylvania Law School. A longtime member of a Presbyterian church in Philadelphia, he talks with the students in the group about putting motivations to the test.
“The question I ask myself, and I encourage my students to ask themselves: ‘Would Christ recognize who I am becoming?’” he says.
Mr. Skeel tries to distinguish the passion for excellence from the quest for professional stature. “Am I working hard because I want something [my colleagues] have: Their publisher? Their agent? Their status?” he asks.
The professor spoke with the Monitor about the Tenth Commandment, which begins, “Thou shalt not covet.” The conversation was part of our series exploring how people of different faiths use the Ten Commandments’ ancient principles in their modern lives.
The job of scholars, Mr. Skeel says, is “to encourage one another” to give credit and honest feedback when due. “Spurring one another on,” he says, “is one of the joys of being a scholar, and isn’t coveting, in my view.”
Of all the things thou shalt not covet under the Tenth Commandment, thy brother’s bankruptcy theory may be the least of your temptations. But in the marketplace of ideas, the success of others – if not handled well – can get a scholar off his spiritual game, says David Skeel. Mr. Skeel, professor of corporations and bankruptcy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, describes the moral stumbling blocks of life at the highest levels of a profession he’s inhabited for the past 30 years, and for which he trains the next generation.
Unbridled ambition can blunt the joy of the work, Mr. Skeel believes. He helps keep his own competitiveness in check by trying to distinguish the passion for excellence from the quest for professional stature.
“Spurring one another on – when excitement about another scholar’s work makes me want to do something exciting myself – is one of the joys of being a scholar, and isn’t coveting, in my view,” he explains. “And sometimes it even leads to writing something together! But the temptation to undercut another scholar, or even not to help them when the opportunity arises, is a temptation that comes from coveting what they have.”
The professor spoke about the Tenth Commandment – Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s (Exodus 20:17) – as part of the Monitor’s series exploring how people of different faiths use the Ten Commandments’ ancient principles in their modern lives.
When colleagues shine
Drawing the distinction between the quest for excellence and the desire for stature was harder early in his career, says Mr. Skeel, speaking in his comfortable street-level office in Silverman Hall. He’s flanked on one side by the Ivy League’s womb of selectivity and scholarship, on the other side by busy Philadelphia street life. “When one colleague developed a grand theory of bankruptcy, I felt like I had to develop a grand theory of bankruptcy,” he recalls. Now, when he reads something impressive, he usually takes it in stride. But not always. Sometimes the ambition wins, at least for a while. He recalls being unable to sleep after reading one paper not long ago: “What was I going to write that was comparable?”
The job of scholars, he says, is “to encourage one another” to give credit and honest feedback when due, even if it might elevate a colleague and reduce one’s own stature.
Mr. Skeel puts his motivations to the test and suggests that the students in the Christian law student group he advises do the same. “In a big-picture sense, the question I ask myself, and I encourage my students to ask themselves: ‘Would Christ recognize who I am becoming? Is this what a follower of Christ might look like?’” He continues, “Am I working hard because I want something [my colleagues] have: Their publisher? Their agent? Their status? Then that’s more problematic.”
In secular settings, the professor suggests to all students that they monitor their priorities: “When you start practicing law, you have to think about your moral compass: Do you recognize the person you’re becoming?”
Mr. Skeel, a longtime member of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, is married, with two grown sons and a new grandchild. He augments the big-picture reflection with a daily habit of “confession of sin” as part of his morning devotional time. He reads the Bible in order, from a text that omits the usual chapter and verse notations, making the story feel more vivid to him.
Scripture in the back of a van
It was the Bible that made a believer out of Mr. Skeel. Not raised in a religion, he grew frustrated as a literature major at the University of North Carolina because he didn’t understand the scriptural references he encountered at every turn. He began reading the Bible in the back of a van one summer during a cross-country road trip. “I was convinced it was true before I got through Genesis,” he says. The Scripture was so powerful to him, he recalls, “it revealed myself to myself.”
Back at school, a fraternity brother asked him at a party, “You don’t actually believe that stuff, do you?” Mr. Skeel responded, “I do believe it,” and from that moment, though his college student persona might have belied it, he was a man transformed.
Professionally, Mr. Skeel is “very careful about the lines” between the religious and the secular, but he’s never felt the need to hide his Christianity, and his faith is no secret at Penn Law. He assumed he’d get pushback some years ago when he proposed a course about Christianity and the law. He found, instead, that his viewpoint was welcomed at the law school. Among his many writings is a book about faith: “True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense of Our Complex World.”
Robert Thrasher, a former student now practicing law in New York City, says Mr. Skeel is esteemed at the law school for his work and beloved for his engaging and generous personality. “One thing that was encouraging to me was the way in which he was able to excel in his industry as a scholar, and [at the same time] incorporate his faith into his leadership,” Mr. Thrasher says. “When you merge these two together, it makes quite an example of a Christian leader.”
Though he cautions against directly taking policy from Scripture, the principles of Mr. Skeel’s faith challenge his scholarship. He thinks about forgiveness of debt from both a literal and spiritual perspective. He sees in the Old Testament concept of jubilee (Leviticus 25) possible relevance to modern bankruptcy law. And he finds unavoidable questions, though not necessarily answers, in the numerous scriptural references to those who are poor.
Puerto Rico expertise
In 2016, President Barack Obama named Mr. Skeel to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) board established that year by federal law to deal with the Puerto Rican debt crisis. “It was, by a wide margin, the biggest, single greatest privilege of my professional career,” he says. “I had been thinking and writing about Puerto Rico issues for 30 years. It was an extraordinary opportunity to use the ideas I usually think and write about to help solve the problem.”
The week of his appointment, his pastor happened to speak about the biblical Esther, and her cousin Mordecai’s famous challenge: “Maybe you have been put in this position for just such a moment as this,” he recalls, paraphrasing Esther 4:14. Listening, the new appointee thought, “Maybe that’s speaking to me.” In the three years since, the heady moment of appointment has passed, the task has become more complicated than anticipated, and the board is now seen as the “bad guys” on the island of Puerto Rico, with its very legitimacy now in the hands of the United States Supreme Court.
Still, Mr. Skeel is buoyed by the success of other such oversight boards, giving him hope that his will also ultimately succeed. Meanwhile, Esther’s own ultimate success, and the virtues of patience and hope that her story illuminates, remain with him. The professor, as is his wont, has a little reflection for his Christian law group students. This month’s talk, on his PROMESA experience, is titled “An Esther Moment?”
5.Plan to read more in 2020? Ten books to get you started.
Finally, shake the stocking for one more gift: Monitor reviewers recommend 10 notable books for December, including a new environmentalist’s manifesto, a biography of a modernist designer, and an ode to movie rom-coms.
1. This Is Happiness by Niall Williams
Electricity is coming to Faha, an apparently forgotten village in Ireland. With it arrives Christy, an outsider who seems to harbor secrets. In a tale infused with Irish charm, Niall Williams casts a gentle light on the villagers’ lives in a way that nudges the reader to slow down and appreciate simple details.
2. Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn
Meg is a calligrapher navigating the challenges of friendship, a fledgling business, and life in New York City. Her counterpart, Reid, could not be more different. Meg thinks in letters. Reid is a numbers-obsessed business analyst. She skillfully reads hidden signs, both literal and metaphorical. So how did she miss all that Reid was hiding?
3. The Clergyman’s Wife by Molly Greeley
In this poignant debut, Molly Greeley brilliantly extends the world of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” to Charlotte Collins, the vicar’s wife and now a mother. A neighboring farmer, Mr. Travis, unexpectedly awakens Charlotte’s dormant soul through a delicate friendship. The book’s deep characterizations, stunning landscapes, and lyrical prose create a resonant tale.
4. The German House by Annette Hess
It’s 1963 in Frankfurt, Germany, and Eva is hired to translate the testimony of Holocaust survivors. Mysterious memories surface, and Eva unravels the dark background of her early childhood. “It is hard to be human,” a character comments. The author’s tender depiction of Eva makes this book humane as well as unsettling.
5. Would Like to Meet by Rachel Winters
A delightful swirl of quirky British characters inhabits this uplifting (and surprisingly deep) contemporary ode to movie rom-coms. An overworked film-talent assistant helps a narcissistic screenwriter dislodge his writer’s block. This fiction debut refreshes and cheers the soul.
6. Heaven on Earth by J.S. Fauber
In a sweeping, evocative history, J.S. Fauber follows four key figures – Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo – showing how they built on each other’s work to create modern astronomy despite daunting sociopolitical and religious obstacles.
7. Land of Tears by Robert Harms
Belgium and France colonized equatorial Africa at the end of the 19th century. What started with promises of free trade and an end to the East African slave market morphed into resource depletion and the enslavement of the Congolese people. The book is a penetrating, engaging, and often troubling assessment of how this occurred.
8. Our Wild Calling by Richard Louv
Richard Louv returns to the theme of human-nature connection, this time delving into cutting-edge science, philosophy, and environmentalism to explore the complex connections between humans and animals. Ultimately a manifesto for a new way of living in the world, the book reveals a natural tapestry too often ignored.
9. Alice Adams by Carol Sklenicka
Drawing on extensive original sources, Carol Sklenicka gives us the first full-length popular biography of brilliant novelist and short story writer Alice Adams. For decades, Adams rendered believably three-dimensional female characters in beautiful, cut-glass prose in venues like The New Yorker.
10. Eileen Gray: Her Life and Work by Peter Adam
The accomplishments of architect and designer Eileen Gray are given their full due in a fresh edition of a classic biography. Peter Adam celebrates her stylish but highly functional creations, including art, furniture, and houses. Drawing on conversations and correspondence – and using beautiful illustrations – Adam brings Gray to vivid life.
The Monitor's View
Hello, who’s there? Maybe fewer scammers.
For many people scam robocalls may be no more than a minor nuisance, the price of being part of an ever-more-connected world.
But for a more vulnerable minority these calls can result in real harm. Older Americans, in particular, are being targeted with impostor calls claiming to be from government agencies, most often the Social Security Administration. They’re told their account has an urgent problem. Unwittingly people give out sensitive information about themselves.
Nearly 73,000 people reported these impostor scams in the first six months of 2019, the Federal Trade Commission reported, resulting in some $17 million in losses to individuals.
Robocalls to U.S. phones numbered 48 billion in 2018, according to YouMail, a robocall blocking service. The 2019 total is expected to be much higher, perhaps near 60 billion.
While listing a phone number on the federal government’s Do Not Call Registry will filter out some sales calls from the legitimate businesses that abide by it, criminal scammers ignore it.
But help is on the way. The United States House and Senate have each passed a bill, with strong support from both sides of the aisle, that clamps down on robocall scammers. While it’s far from a perfect or lasting solution, it’s a worthwhile step in the right direction. The legislation is expected to be signed into law by President Donald Trump.
Robocalls often arrive displaying fake telephone numbers that use area codes and exchanges similar to those of a person’s friends or family. That can entice the person being called to answer.
Among the provisions in the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act is a system called STIR/SHAKEN that identifies when the displayed phone number and the real number of origin don’t match. The Federal Communications Commission will also be able to levy fines of up to $10,000 per call on scammers, and it will no longer have to first issue a warning to the scammer before taking action, speeding up enforcement.
The legislation also addressed “one ring” scams in which the robocall rings just once and disconnects. These mysterious calls cause some people to call the number back, only to be hit with expensive overseas long-distance fees.
Not all automated calls are evil. Some can be from legitimate, even welcomed sources, such as a local government or utility providing emergency information, or a business giving an update about a real purchase. Efforts to stamp out bad actors must make sure these calls still get through.
Eliminating robocall scams altogether may take years to accomplish, coordinating the efforts of government agencies and phone companies. Until then, the last line of defense will always lie with the consumer.
People can block calls from obvious scammed numbers. But the most effective deterrent is the simplest: If a number isn’t familiar, don’t pick up. Any legitimate caller can just leave a message.
A Christian Science Perspective
A new way to start your day
The transition to a new year often represents freshness, renewal, progress toward goals. But these don’t need to be confined to the changing of a calendar. Through prayer, we can find in God a continual source of freshness and newness, bringing right ideas each and every day.
New Year’s can bring enthusiasm for new beginnings, starting fresh, taking stock of progress, and embarking on goals. This is great, but it doesn’t have to be confined to the changing of the calendar. We can find inspiration, freshness, and progress throughout the year.
For a long time, my best version of the morning was sleeping as long as possible, grabbing a cup of coffee, and getting on the road to school or work. But then I took a course in Christian Science healing, where I learned new things about God and the relation we all have to God. I began to wake up enthusiastically, wanting to discover through prayer more about my true, spiritual identity as the child of God. I would rise earlier than needed so I had time to pray before starting my day.
To me, this special time to pray each morning has been one of the greatest gifts. Each time is different; it’s about listening for the way God is revealing Himself to me each day.
And what I found was that an honest desire to learn more about the nature of God and our inseparable unity with the Divine brings inspiration that lights our way. We discover more of God, the divine Spirit, as the infinite source of goodness, joy, and productivity. We feel the love of our heavenly Father-Mother wrapping us up in comfort and safety. We come to realize that God, our Shepherd, the one true Mind, is ever present to lead and guide us with ideas that renew us and bring solutions to challenges that may arise throughout the day.
The inspiration I’ve gained from God, divine Life and Truth itself, during these mornings has given me such peace, confidence, and joyful expectancy that it’s totally changed my outlook for the day. It’s also brought healing of illness and injury, and resolution to problems. And my dependency on caffeine, which I’d felt was a necessary part of my waking-up and energizing process, naturally fell away, replaced by a deeper, spiritual renewal and energy that brought greater freedom than my morning cup did.
Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science, writes a lot about how recognizing our relation to God, divine Mind, enables us to surpass limitations and make meaningful progress. Mrs. Eddy turned to God constantly throughout the day. She found in God physical healing, guidance in decision-making, and renewed energy. In “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” she wrote: “The human mind, imbued with this spiritual understanding, becomes more elastic, is capable of greater endurance, escapes somewhat from itself, and requires less repose. A knowledge of the Science of being develops the latent abilities and possibilities of man. It extends the atmosphere of thought, giving mortals access to broader and higher realms. It raises the thinker into his native air of insight and perspicacity” (p. 128).
Through the prayer that brings to light such spiritual understanding, we can find in God a continuous source of freshness, newness, and right ideas. This can inspire real change in our lives and in the world around us because it changes the way we think. The book of Romans in the Bible says: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (12:2, New Living Translation).
We can let daily inspiration and prayer be a New Year’s goal that we stick with and a foundation for impelling progress that will endure throughout the year!
High in the saddle during low tide