Heroes of 2014: Reuven ‘Ruvi’ Rivlin, president of Israel | Jonathan Freedland

This rightwing member of Likud has become Israel’s conscience, challenging racism and standing up for Palestinian rights

Reuven ‘Ruvi’ Rivlin is an unlikely hero. He is a lifelong member of Israel’s Likud party, and on the right of that rightwing bloc. He is an advocate of Greater Israel, swallowing up the occupied territories that ought to form an independent Palestinian state. And yet ever since his elevation to Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency in June he has acted as something like his country’s conscience – both castigating what he sees as a national slide into racism and intolerance, and standing up for the civil rights of Palestinians.

In November the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, backed a “Jewish state” bill that would enshrine discrimination against Israel’s 1.7 million Arab citizens, denying them the national rights accorded to Jews. Liberals and leftists denounced it, of course, but the most potent attack came from the presidential mansion. Earlier Rivlin condemned surging bigotry as a “sickness” that needed to be treated.

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The Pope Francis stardust worked over Cuba. Could it work with Isis and the Taliban? | Jonathan Freedland

Francis had a diplomatic triumph this week. If only he could resolve the world’s bloodiest conflicts too

Stalin had quite a knack for the soundbite. “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” That’s said to be him. “The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election. It’s the people who count the votes who decide an election.” Him too. And, among the most enduring, the dictator’s mocking riposte on hearing that the pope was urging an end to the oppression of Catholics under Soviet rule. “The pope? How many divisions has he got?”

To a practitioner of realpolitik and respecter of brute force like Stalin, the bishop of Rome was a perennially toothless do-gooder, fine for a sermon about heaven but with no heft, or troops, to see his will done on earth.

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CIA torture: Homeland and 24 make great TV, but they’re no way to govern | Jonathan Freedland

The torture report lays bare what happens when our deepest, darkest urges prevail. The state has to rise above it

Reality rushes in where fiction fears to tread. The events of the real world constantly outstrip even the most creative maginations. As Philip Roth famously complained, “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents” – contriving situations that few novelists would dare offer, lest they seem outlandish and far-fetched. The latest proof is the US Senate intelligence committee report on the CIA’s use of torture in the course of fighting the “war on terror”.

Even a public reared on Homeland, 24 and Zero Dark Thirty were shocked by what they read. Viewers who had flinched at Jack Bauer’s brutal approach to interrogation learned this week that that was hardly the product of an over-active Hollywood imagination. On the contrary, it turns out the screenwriters underdid it.

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George Osborne may live to regret his rush towards Wigan pier | Jonathan Freedland

The chancellor has credibility. But the spectre of 1930s-style cuts may be too much for voters to accept

It’s on the edges of living memory now, but in the folk memory it lives on. The very words – the 1930s – instantly evoke poverty and the Great Depression. Slum housing, queues for food, dirt-faced workers, children without shoes. Little wonder George Osborne took such exception to the suggestion by the BBC’s Norman Smith that if the chancellor implemented the cuts promised in his autumn statement, Britain would eventually reach 1930s levels of public spending.

Smith’s starting text was this week’s report by the Office for Budget Responsibility projecting a fall in government spending to just 35% of GDP. But his concluding text was George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, with its harrowing descriptions of prewar destitution. You’d be back to that world, Smith said. “It is utterly terrifying.”

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Gordon Brown: without winning an election, he has left a legacy greater than Tony Blair’s | Jonathan Freedland

His predecessor was always seen as the winner, but Brown retires having saved the pound, the global economy and the United Kingdom

Even at the end, he still had them talking. For the best part of a quarter century, Gordon Brown has had the political press corps either scratching its collective head, trying to divine his latest tactical gambit, or else making a gag at his expense. As Brown formally announced his intention to stand down as an MP after a 32-year Commons career, some speculated that the timing was a classic Brownian ploy to sabotage preparations for George Osborne’s upcoming autumn statement, a last bit of partisan news management by a master of the art. Others said it was typically Brown in another sense: the re-announcing of news he’d already pre-announced last week.

And yet the word, when it came, was rather different from what Gordon-watchers have grown used to. It was more personal, for one thing. He delivered it in the Old Kirk in Kirkcaldy, in the shadow of the church where his father, one of the defining influences on his life, used to preach. At his side were wife Sarah and their two sons, the boys so rarely glimpsed that when they appeared with him on the day he left Downing Street in May 2010, the sight was a jolt to those who’d never before conceived of Brown as a father.

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