Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 23, 2014

The Palestinians, the Pope and Peace

Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to the Middle East is fraught with political and religious symbolism and events on his itinerary are raising the temperatures on both sides of the Middle East divide. In Israel, some are upset about the way the Vatican is treating his stops in the West Bank as if it is a state visit to a sovereign “State of Palestine” that, in fact, does not exist. Others are upset about the Israeli government’s decision to allow Francis to celebrate a mass on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a site that Jews believe is the Tomb of King David and Christians think is the place where the Last Supper took place.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are up in arms over the fact that the Pope will visit Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery outside the capital, and lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. And therein hangs the tale not only of a pope caught in the middle of a bitter clash in which any seemingly innocuous gesture of good will can become a source of tension but the issue that lies at the very core of a century-long conflict.

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Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to the Middle East is fraught with political and religious symbolism and events on his itinerary are raising the temperatures on both sides of the Middle East divide. In Israel, some are upset about the way the Vatican is treating his stops in the West Bank as if it is a state visit to a sovereign “State of Palestine” that, in fact, does not exist. Others are upset about the Israeli government’s decision to allow Francis to celebrate a mass on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, a site that Jews believe is the Tomb of King David and Christians think is the place where the Last Supper took place.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are up in arms over the fact that the Pope will visit Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery outside the capital, and lay a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. And therein hangs the tale not only of a pope caught in the middle of a bitter clash in which any seemingly innocuous gesture of good will can become a source of tension but the issue that lies at the very core of a century-long conflict.

The context of the papal visit is the desire of Francis, a man already renowned for his caring persona and a desire to create outreach with all peoples, to plant a flag of ecumenism in the midst of a steadily worsening environment for Christians in the Middle East. The rise of Islamism has made the situation of all non-Muslim minorities in the region difficult and none are in a more precarious situation than that of Palestinian Christians, who have left the administered territories in large numbers since the Oslo Accords that handed over effective control of these areas to the Palestinian Authority. But, instead, a bogus campaign of incitement has sought to convince the world that Israel, the one nation in the region where freedom of religion prevails, is the problem for the Christians.

Nevertheless, tensions between Palestinian Arabs and Jews have at times bubbled over into religious tension. Far right extremist Jews appear to have been guilty of vandalism at some churches, a deplorable development that has generated international outrage that is notably missing when Jewish institutions are routinely given the same treatment by Arabs.

The dispute at Mount Zion is typical of the kind of disputes that develop at the holy places. The shrine there has been under Jewish control for decades. Indeed, prior to the unification of Jerusalem and the liberation of the Western Wall, it was considered by many to be the most sacred spot inside pre-1967 Israel. While the Israeli protests about the mass seem intolerant, they are generated by fears that the site will be handed over to the church, which would compromise Jewish sovereignty over the capital as well as possibly infringe on Jewish worship there. The Israeli government is clearly opposed to such a transfer and if they allow Christians more access to the site for their worship, it is to be hoped that both sides will live and let live.

Israelis would have preferred that the Vatican not jump the gun and recognize “Palestine” without the Arabs first being required to make peace. Such recognition lessens the pressure on the Palestinians to negotiate in good faith, but there is little rancor over the pope’s desire to visit what is, for all intents and purposes, a separate country in the West Bank. But the Herzl dispute is more serious than just another tit-for-tat argument.

In venting their anger about a wreath for Herzl, the Palestinians are once again demonstrating that their real problem with Israel isn’t West Bank settlements or where the border should be after a peace treaty. It is, instead, an argument about the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders wind up being drawn. Herzl, who died in 1904, isn’t connected in any way to the grievances Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders vent their spleen about. But he is, in no small measure, responsible for the birth of the movement responsible for the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty over the historic homeland of his people. If Palestinians have a problem with Herzl, it’s because they still can’t bring themselves to change a political culture that regards rejection of Zionism as integral to their identity as a people.

Jews rightly see the pope’s presence at Mount Herzl as a much needed act of historical justice. During his campaign to gain international recognition for the right of the Jewish people to return to their homeland and create their own state, Herzl visited Francis’s predecessor Pope Pius X 110 years ago. That pope contemptuously rejected Herzl’s plea, a response that was very much in keeping with Catholic doctrine at the time that regarded perpetual exile as an appropriate punishment for the Jewish people for their refusal to accept Christianity. Fortunately, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II have already changed the church’s attitude toward Judaism and Zionism. While most Jews may disagree with some of the Vatican’s policies with regard to the Palestinians, there is no question that the two faiths are now closer than they have ever been. By paying his respects to Herzl, Francis is solidifying that bond.

Until the Palestinians give up their war on Zionism and find a way to recognize Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, the papal visit may not change much about interfaith relations but, rather, that one stop on his itinerary demonstrates just how unlikely peace remains.

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Government Health Care: The VA Prequel

The scandal at Veterans Administration hospitals and the indifferent response it has generated from the Obama administration has outraged the public. More than Benghazi, illegal discrimination at the IRS, and spying on the press never did, the mess at the VA is raising questions about President Obama’s detached management style as well as giving the public the impression that his second term is sinking slowly into a morass of lame duck incompetence. But while we hope that once the president and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki manage to muster some genuine anger about the situation and begin the process of unraveling the corruption and mistreatment of veterans, there’s a broader lesson to be learned here.

We are told that despite the problems that have undermined confidence in them, many veterans get good treatment at VA hospitals. Let’s hope that’s true, though the notion that the problems were isolated to one institution in Phoenix were quickly dispelled and it’s apparent that efforts by corrupt and/or incompetent administrators to game the system at the expense of patients were far more widespread than initially thought. But while no one is proposing to scrap the current system, coming as it does just as ObamaCare began to be rolled out by the federal government, the VA scandal is a reminder that long waits—which in this case led to the deaths of at least 40 veterans—are the hallmark of any inefficient federal bureaucracy. If, as liberals hope, the misnamed Affordable Care Act is the thin edge of the coming wedge of government health care, then what we are seeing now is merely a taste of what is to come as a new era of liberalism begins to flower.

As Rich Lowry wrote earlier this week in Politico Magazine, “the VA is an island of socialism in American health care.” It is exactly what many liberals want for everyone else in that it is a single-payer system that purports to provide free care for those in need but, as Lowry notes, they pay for it with long waits that often endanger the lives of the very ill. Nor is it a coincidence that the only avowed socialist in the Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who chairs the committee overseeing the VA, seems to be the least outraged member of Congress about this disaster.

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The scandal at Veterans Administration hospitals and the indifferent response it has generated from the Obama administration has outraged the public. More than Benghazi, illegal discrimination at the IRS, and spying on the press never did, the mess at the VA is raising questions about President Obama’s detached management style as well as giving the public the impression that his second term is sinking slowly into a morass of lame duck incompetence. But while we hope that once the president and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki manage to muster some genuine anger about the situation and begin the process of unraveling the corruption and mistreatment of veterans, there’s a broader lesson to be learned here.

We are told that despite the problems that have undermined confidence in them, many veterans get good treatment at VA hospitals. Let’s hope that’s true, though the notion that the problems were isolated to one institution in Phoenix were quickly dispelled and it’s apparent that efforts by corrupt and/or incompetent administrators to game the system at the expense of patients were far more widespread than initially thought. But while no one is proposing to scrap the current system, coming as it does just as ObamaCare began to be rolled out by the federal government, the VA scandal is a reminder that long waits—which in this case led to the deaths of at least 40 veterans—are the hallmark of any inefficient federal bureaucracy. If, as liberals hope, the misnamed Affordable Care Act is the thin edge of the coming wedge of government health care, then what we are seeing now is merely a taste of what is to come as a new era of liberalism begins to flower.

As Rich Lowry wrote earlier this week in Politico Magazine, “the VA is an island of socialism in American health care.” It is exactly what many liberals want for everyone else in that it is a single-payer system that purports to provide free care for those in need but, as Lowry notes, they pay for it with long waits that often endanger the lives of the very ill. Nor is it a coincidence that the only avowed socialist in the Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who chairs the committee overseeing the VA, seems to be the least outraged member of Congress about this disaster.

Though it has been plagued by scandal for many years—a point that presidential candidate Barack Obama seized upon but then promptly forgot about for the first five and a half years of his presidency—the VA system is a political sacred cow which both parties have sought half-heartedly to reform but none have dared question the wisdom of creating a parallel health-care system for veterans.

Even if a growing number of Americans are beginning to wonder about how smart the decision to create an empire of government-run hospitals is, the VA system is a classic example of something that is too big to fail. Too many people are already dependent on it and divesting the government of this problem waiting to happen simply isn’t on the table for the foreseeable future.

But if the public doesn’t like what it sees in the VA hospitals, it should think long and hard about what this portends for the future of American health care. Liberals confidently predict that we are heading inevitably toward more government involvement in this sector of the economy. Waving the flag of fairness and the need to ensure that all are covered by health insurance and can count on getting the care they require, there is little doubt that ObamaCare is merely one chapter in a long march toward government health care that could, if Obama’s Democratic successors are able to get their way, lead to the sort of single-payer system that exists in other democracies such as Britain and Canada. Those systems have their virtues but they also have their problems. And the chief of them is a scheme that basically rations care and requires those with serious problems to endure long waits for operations or special procedures.

That’s something that the left says it can live with, but if Americans are angry about 40 veterans being left to die because of an inefficient and corrupt socialist health-care plan created just for them, what does the public think will happen if we move from an already disastrous ObamaCare rollout to something far more ambitious?

The VA isn’t going anywhere, but a scandal that may do more damage to the Obama presidency than he could have imagined is more than just an example of the incompetence of his appointees and his inability to manage them. It is a prequel of the future of American health care if resurgent liberalism gets its way.

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Barghouti and the PA Succession Question

The Tower magazine calls attention to the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion’s latest survey, which finds that Marwan Barghouti would be the popular pick if presidential elections were to be held for the Palestinian leadership. Barghouti, a founder of an Arafat-era paramilitary wing of Fatah, is currently serving life sentences in Israeli prison for his role in several murders, though he is believed to be behind even more terrorist attacks than those for which he was convicted.

Two things about Barghouti have remained constant over his career: he is soaked in the blood of innocents, and he is exceedingly popular among Palestinians. The two are, obviously, not unrelated. Such a result is of course troubling, but it should be noted that, according to the poll, the Palestinians are merely choosing one terrorist over other terrorists. The problem goes much deeper: the pipeline for Palestinian leadership remains greased with blood.

An understandable reaction to the poll will be: So what. Mahmoud Abbas is now in the tenth year of his four-year term, so immediate succession doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue right now, and Barghouti is in prison anyway.

But there are a few differences this time around. First, the Hamas-Fatah unity deal means it’s more likely that there will actually be elections in the near future. Second, Salam Fayyad’s exit means there isn’t at least a competing pipeline to leadership. Had Fayyad stayed on, he probably couldn’t win an election himself, but he might have staffed the bureaucracy with future contenders who were also reformers, and he might have effected some sort of change in the governing culture. Third, it is not out of the question that Israel would release Barghouti in some sort of prisoner exchange if the Israeli government thinks he’d be a preferable successor than the others in the race.

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The Tower magazine calls attention to the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion’s latest survey, which finds that Marwan Barghouti would be the popular pick if presidential elections were to be held for the Palestinian leadership. Barghouti, a founder of an Arafat-era paramilitary wing of Fatah, is currently serving life sentences in Israeli prison for his role in several murders, though he is believed to be behind even more terrorist attacks than those for which he was convicted.

Two things about Barghouti have remained constant over his career: he is soaked in the blood of innocents, and he is exceedingly popular among Palestinians. The two are, obviously, not unrelated. Such a result is of course troubling, but it should be noted that, according to the poll, the Palestinians are merely choosing one terrorist over other terrorists. The problem goes much deeper: the pipeline for Palestinian leadership remains greased with blood.

An understandable reaction to the poll will be: So what. Mahmoud Abbas is now in the tenth year of his four-year term, so immediate succession doesn’t seem to be a pressing issue right now, and Barghouti is in prison anyway.

But there are a few differences this time around. First, the Hamas-Fatah unity deal means it’s more likely that there will actually be elections in the near future. Second, Salam Fayyad’s exit means there isn’t at least a competing pipeline to leadership. Had Fayyad stayed on, he probably couldn’t win an election himself, but he might have staffed the bureaucracy with future contenders who were also reformers, and he might have effected some sort of change in the governing culture. Third, it is not out of the question that Israel would release Barghouti in some sort of prisoner exchange if the Israeli government thinks he’d be a preferable successor than the others in the race.

It’s interesting to note just how similar these stories have been throughout the post-intifada years. Contemplating the Abbas-Barghouti rivalry in the debate over succeeding Yasser Arafat, the New York Times noted in late 2004:

While it is not certain that Israel would release Barghouti if he won the election, the fact remains that whatever the outcome, he will present the Palestinians and Israelis with very difficult options. If he wins but is not set free, the Israelis and the Bush administration would be seen as depriving the Palestinians of democratic choice — something they have advocated as part of enabling Palestinians to create a democratic and responsible political system.

In such an event, Barghouti would become as much a symbol of Palestinian democracy and resistance as Arafat was the embodiment of the Palestinian nationalist movement.

If he loses the election, he will nevertheless have split the vote to the extent of depriving Abbas of a clear mandate to marginalize his radical Islamic opponents, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and to negotiate with the Israelis and Americans for a lasting settlement from a position of popular strength. And there is the additional possibility that a third candidate, like Barghouti’s cousin Mustafa, a human-rights activist, could emerge as the marginal winner.

Palestinians have always found Abbas somewhat underwhelming, and Barghouti has always presented this complicated challenge to Israeli political strategy. But the Israelis must also ponder whether their preference for Barghouti is worth releasing an arch-terrorist. Their dealings with Arafat may have convinced them that just because a Palestinian leader has the credibility to lead doesn’t mean he will. Yitzhak Rabin famously dismissed concerns about how Arafat would get his people in line as long as he actually did. In the end, Arafat was a coward, and Israelis have to wonder if Barghouti is as well.

This all demonstrates, once again, the steep hill to climb to strike a just and lasting peace deal with the Palestinians. It rests on the remote possibility that someone like Abbas or Barghouti would transform themselves into a Mandela or even a Michael Collins. It’s not impossible, sure, but no one would advise holding your breath.

The real path to peace would be a transformation of Palestinian society that didn’t elevate whichever candidate killed the most innocent men, women, and children. And such a society needs a government that doesn’t promote violence and hate; a government that provides services instead of no-show jobs; a government that empowers its own people rather than subjugates and steals from them; a government that allows real political competition so the people have a choice instead of a mirage of democracy or accountability.

If Marwan Barghouti is the best option to succeed Abbas and lead the Palestinian government, then Abbas is destined to leave the Palestinian Authority no better than he found it.

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For Want of a Camera

Last week’s incident in which two Palestinians were killed in the West Bank–allegedly by Israel Defense Forces soldiers who opened fire without provocation–is still under investigation. But the IDF continues to maintain that the video footage purporting to back this allegation was doctored.

As Jonathan Tobin noted on Wednesday, this isn’t inconceivable; such things have happened before. Even Amnesty researcher Donatella Rovera recently admitted that Palestinians have been known to falsify evidence (though it doesn’t seem to stop her organization from treating every Palestinian claim as gospel truth). Nevertheless, the IDF’s claim would undeniably be more credible if it could produce its own footage showing what really happened.

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Last week’s incident in which two Palestinians were killed in the West Bank–allegedly by Israel Defense Forces soldiers who opened fire without provocation–is still under investigation. But the IDF continues to maintain that the video footage purporting to back this allegation was doctored.

As Jonathan Tobin noted on Wednesday, this isn’t inconceivable; such things have happened before. Even Amnesty researcher Donatella Rovera recently admitted that Palestinians have been known to falsify evidence (though it doesn’t seem to stop her organization from treating every Palestinian claim as gospel truth). Nevertheless, the IDF’s claim would undeniably be more credible if it could produce its own footage showing what really happened.

But of course, it can’t–because one of the most technologically sophisticated armies in the world has somehow proven incapable of equipping its soldiers with the kind of simple cameras found on every cell phone. And so, day after day, week after week, it’s confronted with Palestinian allegations to which the only response it can offer is its soldiers’ unsupported testimony.   

A year ago, I thought the penny had finally dropped: The IDF announced with great fanfare that it had finally decided to train soldiers to film operations in the field. But it now turns out this vaunted project comprises all of 24 cameramen–24 people to provide round-the-clock coverage of the entire West Bank plus the Gaza border. It’s a joke. And not a very funny one.

There’s no reason why every single soldier couldn’t be equipped with a small, wearable camera that would operate automatically. This would have the additional benefit of cutting down on real abuses, from which no army is completely immune. Indeed, several Western countries have experimented with policemen wearing such cameras, and they have generally led to reductions in both real brutality and false claims of brutality.

But what seems like a no-brainer to me evidently isn’t so obvious to Israel’s chronically public-diplomacy-challenged government and army. Otherwise, they would have done something about it by now.

Consequently, this is an issue on which American Jewish help is badly needed. Jewish groups and individuals frequently meet with Israeli officials, both in the U.S. and in Israel, but it probably never occurs to them to raise a minor issue like IDF cameras at those meetings. If they thought of it at all, it would doubtless seem too obvious to need saying.

Unfortunately, it isn’t. And therefore, U.S. Jews would be doing Israel a big service if they started raising this issue at every single meeting with Israeli government officials or army officers. If Israeli leaders keep hearing about it from American Jews, maybe they’ll finally realize how important it is.

Or maybe they still won’t. But it’s worth a try–because waiting for them to figure it out on their own certainly isn’t working.

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Solving the GOP’s Middle Class Problem

Yesterday the YGNetwork released a new book, Room To Grow: Conservative Reforms for Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. It includes essays by some of the top thinkers and policy experts in the conservative world, offering reforms in the areas of health care, K-12 and higher education, energy, taxes, job creation, the social safety net, regulations and finances, and the family. Yuval Levin articulated a conservative governing vision while Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a chapter on recovering the wisdom of the Constitution.  

(The New York Times story on the release of the book can be found here, a related event held at the American Enterprise Institute can be viewed here, and the book itself and chapter summaries can be found here.) 

For my part, I contributed an opening chapter to Room To Grow, the purpose of which is to define the middle class and summarize the attitudes of those who comprise it. Here’s what I found. 

When speaking of the middle class, there’s both a technical and a practical definition. The technical definition is households with annual incomes ranging from roughly $39,400 to $118,200. The practical definition is the broad base of Americans. Fully 85 percent of Americans consider themselves as part of an expanded definition of middle class (lower, upper, and simply middle class). It’s people who don’t consider themselves rich or poor and who can imagine their fortunes going either way. 

Any successful political movement and party need to be seen as addressing their concerns.

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Yesterday the YGNetwork released a new book, Room To Grow: Conservative Reforms for Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class. It includes essays by some of the top thinkers and policy experts in the conservative world, offering reforms in the areas of health care, K-12 and higher education, energy, taxes, job creation, the social safety net, regulations and finances, and the family. Yuval Levin articulated a conservative governing vision while Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a chapter on recovering the wisdom of the Constitution.  

(The New York Times story on the release of the book can be found here, a related event held at the American Enterprise Institute can be viewed here, and the book itself and chapter summaries can be found here.) 

For my part, I contributed an opening chapter to Room To Grow, the purpose of which is to define the middle class and summarize the attitudes of those who comprise it. Here’s what I found. 

When speaking of the middle class, there’s both a technical and a practical definition. The technical definition is households with annual incomes ranging from roughly $39,400 to $118,200. The practical definition is the broad base of Americans. Fully 85 percent of Americans consider themselves as part of an expanded definition of middle class (lower, upper, and simply middle class). It’s people who don’t consider themselves rich or poor and who can imagine their fortunes going either way. 

Any successful political movement and party need to be seen as addressing their concerns.

As for what I discovered in my analysis of the middle class, let me start with their mood, which is anxious, insecure, and uneasy. National Journal‘s Ronald Brownstein, in analyzing the data from an April 2013 Heartland Monitor Poll, said, “The overall message is of pervasive, entrenched vulnerability–a sense that many financial milestones once assumed as cornerstones of middle-class life are now beyond reach for all but the rich.” 

These concerns are largely justified. Since the turn of the century, middle class Americans have been working harder yet losing ground. Wages are stagnant. (The typical household is making roughly the same as the typical household made a quarter of a century ago.) Meanwhile, the cost of living–especially health-care and higher education costs–has gone way up. For example, health-care spending per person, adjusted for inflation, has roughly doubled since 1988, to about $8,500. The average student debt in 2011 was $23,300. (For middle class families, the cost of one year of tuition equals about half of household income.)   

The middle class is also increasingly pessimistic, with two-thirds of Americans thinking it’s harder to reach the American Dream today than it was for their parents and three-quarters believing it will be harder for their children and grandchildren to succeed.

The middle class holds the political class largely responsible for the problems they face. Sixty-two percent place “a lot” of blame on Congress, followed by banks/financial institutions and corporations. 

If Congress in general is held in low esteem, the situation facing the GOP is particularly problematic. Middle class Americans are more likely to say that Democrats rather than the Republicans favor their interests. Polls indicate 62 percent of those in the middle class say the Republican Party favors the rich while 16 percent say the Democratic Party favors the rich; 37 percent of those in the middle class say the Democratic Party favors the middle class while only 26 percent say the GOP does. When asked which groups are helping the middle class, 17 percent had a positive response to Republican elected officials; 46 percent were negative. (For Democrats, the numbers were 28 percent positive v. 40 percent negative.) 

The challenge of the GOP, then, is to explain how a conservative vision of government can speak to today’s public concerns; and to explain how such a vision should translate into concrete policy reforms in important areas of our national life. 

“Policy is problem solving,” I wrote in the introduction:

It answers to principles and ideals, to a vision of the human good and the nature of society, to priorities and preferences; but at the end of the day it must also answer to real needs and concerns. And public policy today is clearly failing to address the problems that most trouble the American people.

Room To Grow suggests some ways forward, with special emphasis on what can be done to assist and empower those who are, and those who want to be, in the middle class.

Reactionary liberalism is intellectually exhausted and politically vulnerable. There is therefore an opening for conservatism to offer a different way of thinking about government, to move from administering large systems of service provision to empowering people to address the problems they confront on their own terms; to provide people with the resources and skills they need to address the challenges they face rather than to try to manage their decisions from on high. The task of the right isn’t simply to offer new policies, as vital as they are, but to explain the approach, the organizing principle, behind them. It is, as my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin puts it, replacing a failing liberal welfare state with a lean and responsive 21st century government worthy of a free, diverse and innovative society. It’s time we get on with it.

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