Israelis take to the streets
As a battle over the future of Israel’s judiciary — perceived by many as a fight for the soul of the country’s democracy — intensifies, roughly 100,000 protesters filled the streets outside Parliament in Jerusalem yesterday. Carrying Israeli flags, megaphones and banners, they chanted for democracy, freedom and judicial independence.
The demonstrators gathered to oppose a sweeping judicial overhaul proposed by a new government — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in the country’s history — that has bitterly divided Israelis. The changes would reduce the Supreme Court’s ability to revoke laws passed in Parliament and would give the government greater influence over who could become a judge.
The demonstration followed a televised speech on Sunday by Israel’s mainly ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, in which he warned that the crisis had left the country “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse” and possibly “a violent clash.”
Opposing arguments: Some say the judicial plan is a threat to the liberal Israeli state that could bring down the country’s democracy or result in civil war. The government, in response, says that the changes offer a much-needed overhaul of an unelected judiciary that has become too powerful. Leaders on each side have accused the other of attempting a coup.
Context: Rooted in a decades-old culture war between different parts of Israeli society, the standoff began after Israel’s new government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, entered office in late December and almost immediately sought control over judicial appointments.
A growing dispute over spy balloons
Diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and China escalated as the U.S. tried to explain its downing of three flying objects over the weekend and China accused the U.S. of sending its own unauthorized high-altitude balloons over Chinese airspace.
A White House official said the flying objects had posed a threat to civilian aircraft even though the military had not identified their purpose. The objects were not sending out communications signals, and there was no indication that Americans on the ground were in danger, he said. (The White House does not believe aliens are involved.)
In a jab at Washington, China’s foreign ministry said that it was “common” for U.S. balloons to illegally enter the airspace of other nations and that U.S. high-altitude balloons had flown over China without permission more than 10 times since last year. The U.S. denied the claim.
Context: China has growing ambitions for balloons in “near space,” a part of the atmosphere that is too high for most planes to stay aloft in for very long and too low for space satellites. Chinese strategists see near space as an arena of the growing great-power rivalry in surveillance: Both planes and satellites are vulnerable to detection, blocking and attacks.
Timeline: Catch up on the last 10 days, since the first detected Chinese spy balloon was shot down over the Atlantic Ocean.
Desperation in a stricken corner of Syria
On the first days after a devastating earthquake, the residents of al-Atarib, a town in northwestern Syria, sometimes had to dig through rubble by hand as survivors begged for help amid a long wait for international aid. Now they are scouring the ruins for personal possessions — and they describe feeling abandoned by the world.
For years, the area has been home to millions of people displaced by war, making it hard to say with certainty who had been accounted for and who was still missing after the quakes. Rescue workers say that without more help and supplies from the outside world, there is little they can do. Early promises of assistance from Western and Gulf nations did not materialize.
Getting aid to this stricken enclave of Syria, held by opponents of Syria’s authoritarian president, Bashar al-Assad, is extremely difficult. A single border crossing that had been used for deliveries of foreign aid was out of operation for the first two days after the earthquake, and shortages have been compounded by the area’s mutual hostility with the government in Damascus.
International action: The U.N. Security Council met yesterday to discuss opening up more border crossings from Turkey to Syria. “We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N. aid chief, said after visiting the border. “They rightly feel abandoned.”
Turkey: A week after the quake, more than one million people remained homeless in Turkey, struggling to survive in the ruins of cities and in extreme cold.
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ARTS AND IDEAS
A Valentine’s Day origin story
Where did the day now known for heart-shaped boxes of chocolates — or wine alone on the sofa — come from? Theories abound.
It could have been a Roman bacchanal. Some believe that Valentine’s Day is an offshoot from the ancient festival of Lupercalia, a raucous Roman fertility rite held in the middle of February. Eventually, as the Roman Empire became less pagan and more Christian, it was transformed into a celebration honoring St. Valentine.
We don’t know much about St. Valentine. The day may in fact celebrate two saints who were made into a composite character. One of them, according to popular legend, was arrested after he defied an order by Emperor Claudius that forbade Roman soldiers to get married. (He was later beheaded for his religious zeal.)
A chance to celebrate spring in February? At least one English professor believed that the romantic tradition linked to St. Valentine originated in the Geoffrey Chaucer poems “Parlement of Foules” and “The Complaint of Mars.” Britons in the 14th century thought spring commenced around this time, as birds started to mate and plants began to bloom.