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International Socialist Review Issue 38, November—December 2004

Zionism and Anti-Semitism: Are Israel’s Critics Anti-Semites?

by HADAS THIER

ZIONISM—THE political movement to create an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine—has always accused its critics of anti-Semitism. Today, as the racism and brutality of the Israeli state reaches increasingly grotesque proportions, a Zionist propaganda machine is churning out a flurry of articles, books, and arguments that declare the rise of a "new anti-Semitism." This has served as a convenient smear against advocates of Palestinian rights.

In a front-page article called "The Return of Anti-Semitism," New York magazine opened with the lines, "Israel has become the flash point—and the excuse—for a global explosion of an age-old syndrome. Why has hating the Jews become politically correct in many places?"1 And in Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism, Abraham Foxman says, "I am convinced we currently face as great a threat to the safety and security of the Jewish people as the one we faced in the 1930s—if not a greater one."2 Foxman’s argument can be summed up as follows:

Zionism simply refers to support for the existence of a Jewish state—specifically, the state of Israel.… The harsh but undeniable truth is that what some like to call anti-Zionism is, in reality, anti-Semitism—always, everywhere and for all time. Therefore, anti-Zionism is not a politically legitimate point of view but rather an expression of bigotry and hatred.3

There is nothing "new" in these claims of a new anti-Semitism. Zionists have long used anti-Semitism and the Holocaust as emotional blackmail—their justification for Israel’s existence is that it is necessary to defend Jews from another Holocaust. Therefore, it is argued, Israel’s actions today, no matter how brutal, are always justifiable because the Jewish state is located in the middle of Arab peoples who "want to drive Jews into the sea." The end result of this propaganda is to stunt the growth of an international solidarity movement for justice for Palestine. At the same time, confusing anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism obscures the real root of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In truth, Zionism’s real history shows that it has never been about Judaism or saving Jews, and that its relationship with anti-Semitism is much more sinister.

To be sure, there has been a rise in anti-Semitism—particularly in Europe. The European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia concluded that there has been a noticeable rise of anti-Semitic incidents in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and England, ranging from hate mail to arson. There was a six-fold rise in anti-Jewish incidents in France between 2001 and 2002. And while physical assaults were rarely reported in Greece, Austria, Italy, or Spain, the report found that anti-Semitic ideas, such as conspiracy theories of Jewish world domination, have been gaining ground. The report notes that the majority of those behind the assaults in some countries are right-wing skinheads or neo-Nazis, while in other countries an increasing number of the attacks are carried out by Muslim youth. Overall, however, the majority of perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts continue to be white Europeans.4

This is an upsetting trend, which dovetails with a broader political problem—the growth of the far right. But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s ultra-right government has only contributed to this rightward trend in mainstream politics. More importantly, the most virulent racism of the right-wing parties in Europe is saved for Arabs and Muslimsthough unfortunately very little attention is being paid to it. In France, for instance, attacks on Jews are counted as hate-crimes whereas attacks on Arabs and Muslims, as well as other nonwhite immigrants, are not. As a Pew Research Center survey on global attitudes noted one year into the Iraq war: "As is the case with Americans, Europeans hold much more negative views of Muslims than of Jews."5

But the other important aspect of the rise in those anti-Semitic attacks specifically carried out by Muslim youth is that they also have to do with an unfortunate, but increasingly understandable, confusion in regards to the difference between Israel’s policies and Jewish people. For instance, anger at the massacres going on in Gaza today or the assassinations of Hamas leaders may be directed at a Jewish individual or a community. This confusion has been fostered by Israel, which claims to speak for worldwide Jewry. But in reality, Judaism and Zionism are distinct and separate issues. Their only connection is that one is used as a cloak for the other. That is, all of Israel’s policies are defended on the basis that they are necessary in order to safeguard Jews the world over.

As CounterPunch editor Alexander Cockburn has correctly argued,

The left really has nothing to apologize for, but those who accuse it of anti-Semitism certainly do. They’re apologists for policies put into practice by racists, ethnic cleansers and in Sharon’s case, an unquestioned war criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct.6

There is no correlation between supporting Zionism and Israel on the one hand, and opposing anti-Semitism on the other. In fact, Zionism is just a particular Jewish brand of a nationalist, colonial project. Moreover, the Zionist project, as we shall see, has been at times willing to collaborate with anti-Semites to fulfill its goals—which themselves were based on racist ethnic cleansing.

Understanding Zionism

There are a couple of mistaken responses to the confusion (which Zionists have been careful to sow) about the relationship between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. One is to completely dismiss anti-Semitism as altogether irrelevant. A pretty outrageous example of this is Michael Neuman’s essay in The Politics of Anti-Semitism where he argues, "I think we should almost never take anti-Semitism seriously, and maybe we should have some fun with it."7 Neuman flippantly admits to the existence of some forms of anti-Semitism such as "the distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the myths about stealing the blood of gentile babies. This is utterly inexcusable. So was your failure to answer Aunt Bee’s last letter."8

Besides showing a complete disdain for anyone who might be genuinely worried about anti-Semitism, Neuman also shows a total misunderstanding of the nature and character of anti-Semitism and how it has been used historically. It has not always taken the form of systematic economic oppression, but more often has provided a convenient scapegoat for ruling elites during periods of capitalist crisis. Neuman ends up concluding that since "anti-Zionism is a moral obligation" and "if anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism" then "anti-Semitism is a moral obligation."9 This upside-down logic doesn’t challenge the basic framework that Israel’s defenders use. It just stakes out an anti-Zionist stance within their framework, which ends up concluding that anti-Semitism is non-existent at best, justifiable at worst.

Another response to Zionism, which blames the "Israel lobby" (sometimes more disturbingly referred to as the "Jewish lobby") for U.S. support of Israel, only helps to blur the distinction between Zionism and Judaism. Certainly, Israel has lobbyists in Washington. But the idea that the United States gives billions in military and economic aid to Israel out of an obligation to a particular lobby misses the real reason that the U.S., out of completely selfish reasons, supports Israel. Israel has long been America’s "watchdog" in the Middle East, helping to keep Arab nationalism and any other threat to U.S. interests in check. Fixating on the so-called Israel lobby, fails to appreciate this basic fact. The United States is not an otherwise neutral body that has somehow been manipulated by a particular interest group. The White House, through every administration, has always had an interest in maintaining a foothold in the most oil-rich region of the world. Israel is part of that equation—a "Sparta acting as a U.S. surrogate"10—which is why U.S. support for it will remain unwavering until those interests are challenged at their root.11

Zionism in no way represents the interests of the world’s Jewish population. This has never been more clear than it is today, as Israel has become the least safe place for a Jew to live. Furthermore, the history of the Zionist project reveals that the movement never had the interests of Jews at heart.

In fact, up until the rise of fascism in Europe, Zionism was a fringe movement. Most Jews were just not that interested in moving to Palestine, let alone colonizing it or driving out the Arab population. In fact, between 1880 and 1929, almost four million Jews emigrated from Russia and Eastern European countries. But only 120,000 moved to Palestine, while more than three million moved to the U.S. and Canada. In 1914 there were only 12,000 members of Zionist organizations across the entire U.S., while the Socialist Party had that many Jewish members in the Lower East Side of New York.12

Modern anti-Semitism was born out of the tumultuous period in Eastern Europe and Russia when feudalism gave way to capitalist development. As Nathan Weinstock writes, anti-Semitism was a product of the despair of the ruined petty bourgeoisie seeking scapegoats. "[T]he persistent memory of the Jewish usurer"—Jews had in earlier times been forced into petty trades and money-lending—was used to deflect anger against capitalism toward the Jews. "This confusion," writes Weinstock, "was denounced by [the German socialist August] Bebel in his famous aphorism: ‘Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.’"13

In Russia, anti-Semitic scapegoating deliberately organized and provoked by the Tsar was used as a means of dividing and weakening workers’ struggles. A wave of pogroms—"anti-Jewish riots—spread like wildfire through Russia from 1881 onwards, spreading to Poland and other Eastern European countries. Another outbreak of anti-Jewish violence reached even more barbaric proportions in 1903. Not coincidentally, both 1882 and 1904 experienced waves of immigration to Palestine and other countries.14

Zionism is not an age-old Jewish idea. From its inception, it was a secular rather than a religious movement. It merely used Judaism as a means to bolster its nationalist claim. Zionists settled upon Palestine, instead of some other locations that they had originally flirted with, not for religious reasons but for purely propagandistic ones. Religious Jews, by and large, opposed the growth of Zionism at that time, and some Orthodox groups still do today on the basis of Jewish law.15 Judaism refers to returning to the Holy Land on a spiritual level. Jewish religious pilgrims had emigrated to Palestine in the past to form religious communities, but not to establish a state. Political Zionism—which sought to form an exclusive Jewish state—was a new phenomenon that arose in Eastern Europe in response to the growth of modern anti-Semitism. The leaders of the Zionist movement adopted and reflected many of the ideas of ultra-nationalism and colonial expansion that characterized the period.

But Zionism was just one minority response among many to anti-Semitism. Jewish nationalism grew, and within that Zionism was a particularly conservative variant. Many more Jews flocked to socialist and communist movements, which actually fought against fascism. Zionism’s response, on the other hand, was one of resignation to anti-Semitism and at times even collaboration with it.

How Zionists tolerated anti-Semitism

The basic starting point of Zionism was that anti-Semitism could never be defeated. Zionists raised the idea that Jews and non-Jews couldn’t ever live together to a scientific principle. Leo Pinsker, one of the early Zionist leaders, claimed that anti-Semitism was "a psychic affliction, it is hereditary and as a disease has been incurable for 2,000 years."16 Theodor Herzl, commonly referred to as the "father of Zionism," wrote of how his experience of anti-Semitism during the notoriuos Dreyfuss affair in France allowed him to achieve "a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to combat anti-Semitism."17 As a member of the (now-defunct) Israeli Socialist Organization put it, Zionism "accepts at least tacitly the basic assumptions of racism."18 That is, there is something inherent either in Jews or non-Jews that necessarily warrants a separation.

A number of leading Zionists concurred with many of the racist ideas aimed at Jews themselves. Herzl accepted the idea that Jews were an economic burden, and in this way brought anti-Semitism on to themselves anywhere they went.19 And Vladimir Jabotinsky, who represented a further-right strand of Zionism, wrote "the Jewish people is a very bad people; its neighbors hate it and rightly so…its only salvation lies in a general immigration to the land of Israel."20 Thus there has always been a disquieting symmetry between Zionism and anti-Semitism.

On an ideological level, Zionism had to battle both socialist ideas of fighting anti-Semitism and assimilationist ideas. As a result, Zionism was at the very least resigned to anti-Semitism, while some major strands within the movement consciously articulated a common interest, and in fact the benefit of anti-Semitic and even fascistic ideas to Zionism. One particularly nauseating example of this attitude was expressed by Joachim Prinz, a Zionist leader in Germany in the 1930s. Commenting on the recent accession of Hitler to power, he writes:

The theory of assimilation has broken down. We have no longer any refuge. We want assimilation to be replaced by the conscious recognition of the Jewish nation and the Jewish race. Only those Jews who recognize their own specificity can respect a state founded on the principle of the purity of nation and race.… From every last hiding place of baptizing and mixed marriage [the Jews] are being pulled out. This does not make us unhappy. In this coercion to acknowledge and clearly stand by one’s own community, we see at the same time the fulfillment of our dreams.21

Practically speaking, the most overarching reason that emerged for why Zionists looked to anti-Semitic regimes wasn’t necessarily because they actively preferred anti-Semites (though sometimes they did), but because one of the most important characteristics of Zionism was, and remains, its dependence on gaining imperial backing for their project. A minority settler community simply could not colonize a majority native population without the military support of one or more of the major powers. They looked to the Ottoman Empire first, then Britain, and now the U.S., any regime that might have power and with which they could gain a hearing. Zionists, including those in the more mainstream "Labor" camp, didn’t discriminate as to where that backing came from, even if it was based on a total disdain for Jews.

Most important, based on a common assumption that Jews ought to be separated off, the Zionist movement made very practical and cynical links with European countries that were looking to get rid of their Jewish populations. Zionists wanted to populate Palestine with these same Jews, so they made sickening alliances towards that end. For instance, the British ruling class agreed with the Zionists that it would be mutually beneficial for them to support a Jewish state in Palestine, because a Zionist state could act as an important counter-weight to a growing Arab nationalism as well as against the tendency of many Jews in Britain to join radical and revolutionary movements against oppression.

Winston Churchill argued as much in an article called "Zionism versus Bolshevism," which argued that it was important to "develop and foster any strongly-marked Jewish movement" such as Zionism that could "lead directly away from" the "worldwide conspiracy" of "the International Jews" (and here he mentions Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Luxemburg) "for the overthrow of civilization."22

A leading Zionist, Chaim Weitzman, expressed a similar loathing for revolutionary Jews. He wrote to Herzl that in Russia:

The lion’s share of the youth is anti-Zionist, not from an assimilationist point of view as in Western Europe, but rather as a result of their revolutionary mood. It is impossible to describe how many became the victims of police oppression because of membership in the Jewish Social Democracy—they are sent to jail and left to rot in Siberia…and I am not speaking only of the youth of the proletariat.… Almost the entire Jewish student body stands firmly behind the revolutionary camp. This revolutionary movement has captured the spirit of the very young.… This is a terrible vision…and all this is accompanied by a distaste for Jewish nationalism which borders on self-hatred.23

This confluence of interests between the Zionists and often anti-Semitic governments led the movement to create the state of Israel. Zionists negotiated to win favorable immigration laws, which could allow Jews to settle in Palestine. This required not only permission to enter Palestine, but at times collusion to limit immigration into other countries to which Jews were trying to gain passage.

Though Zionists claimed that Palestine was a "land without a people for a people without a land," this was entirely a myth. For more than 1,300 years a Muslim Arab majority lived there. In 1882, Palestine had 500,000 Arabs and 24,000 Jews. International Zionist organizations bought up land for Jews to settle, but after five decades Jews still only made up 16 percent of the population.24 What’s more, these settlers were completely economically dependant on international funds to survive—not only rich donors and international Zionist organizations, but also from supporting countries.

This paid off in 1917, when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, formally declaring support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Lord Balfour, who wrote the declaration, was an anti-Semite who had sponsored legislation against Jewish immigration into Britain. British officials gave economic and political support to the burgeoning Zionist state. For instance, 90 percent of economic concessions were granted to Jews even though they made up a fraction of the population.

As settlers drove Palestinians from their lands and workplaces, Arab nationalism grew in response to what was clearly an unfolding disaster. This response was passionately anti-Zionist but was not characterized by anti-Semitism. In fact there are numerous examples to the contrary. One appeal to "all sons of the Arab nation" which was issued in 1913 by the Arab Union, invited Muslims, Christians, and Jews to unite behind the banner of Arab nationalism.25 In 1907 a couple of Jews who were disaffected by the anti-Arab organizing spearheaded by Zionist leaders took it upon themselves to help organize a strike of Arab laborers at Petach-Tikva against starvation wages. The strikers were arrested and tortured but refused to name the Jewish leaders who helped organize the strike.26

Zionism and the Second World War

It was not until the rise of fascism in Europe that the Jewish population in Palestine got a significant boost. But it was also in this period that Zionism’s ugliest face reared up in regards to European Jewry. Within months of Hitler coming to power, the leading German Zionist organization sent him a memo offering collaboration. In fact, while the Nazis were smashing socialist and Jewish resistance organizations, they allowed the Zionists to continue operating. The leading Zionist organizations, for their part, worked to undermine a worldwide anti-German boycott.27

Zionist leaders believed that the fight in Europe was a distraction from winning a Jewish state in Palestine. Time and again they chose to negotiate for the immigration of Jews to Palestine rather than saving Jews from the Holocaust. In the process they decided which immigrants were desirable. Chaim Weizmann for instance declared: "From the depths of this tragedy I want to save young people. The old ones will pass. They will bear their fate or they will not. They are dust, economic and moral dust in the a cruel world…. Only the branch of the young shall survive."28 Similarly, the chair of the Jewish Agency’s committee refused to divert funds from Palestine into rescuing European Jews. The agency decided to spend money on acquiring land in Palestine.

And David Ben-Gurion, who was to become Israel’s first prime minister, opposed a plan to allow German Jewish children to emigrate to Britain. His explanation for this despicable stance was to say:

If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them to Israel, then I would opt for the second alternative. For we must weigh not only the life of these children but also the history of the people of Israel.29

Zionist organizations acted on these views, for example organizing against attempts to change immigration laws in the U.S. and Western Europe.

Israel—founded on racist expulsion

Even in 1947—on the eve of Israel’s foundation—Jews made up less than one-third of the population of Palestine. Settlement alone couldn’t create a Jewish state. The other arm of the strategy was the "transfer" of the Arab population (a sterile euphemism for ethnic cleansing.) This idea was expressed by the majority of Zionist leaders from Herzl to Ben-Gurion. As Joseph Weitz, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Colonization Department said:

Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples together in this country. We shall not achieve our goal if the Arabs are in this small country. There is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries—all of them. Not one village, not one tribe should be left.30

The UN partitioned Palestine in 1947, giving 55 percent of the land to Jews and leaving the Arab majority with only 45 percent of their own country. The Zionist leadership accepted the partition publicly, but drew up plans to capture the rest of the country and drive the Arab population out. In the months between the partition and the time that Britain pulled out, Zionist militias took the opportunity to terrorize the Arab population. It was during this time that massacres such as the one at Deir Yassin happened—in which every man, woman, and child in the village—254 in total—were killed.31

A report called the Koenig Plan laid it out plainly: "We must use terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation and the cutting of all social services to rid the Galilee of its Arab population."32 That is exactly what the Zionist militias proceeded to do in what Israelis call "the war for independence," but what is more aptly called "al Nakbah" by Palestinians—the catastrophe. Close to a million Palestinians were driven from their land. Ethnic cleansing was the only way to create a Jewish majority that would make an exclusively Jewish state possible.

The final irony

The final irony of Zionism is that it turned the oppressed minority Jews of Europe into an oppressor majority in Palestine. Rather than challenge oppression, Zionists accepted discrimination and separation as natural principles of humanity. As Nathan Weinstock has argued,

[I]n the final analysis, the Zionist is contaminated by racism. In asserting, not the specificity, but the essential otherness of the Jewish condition, and thereby postulating the incompatibility of nations, he internalizes the thesis of the anti-Semite, inverting albeit, the values of anti-Jewish racism.32

The rise of European fascism not only benefited the Zionist project in creating a massive impetus for immigration to Palestine, it also, in the eyes of many Zionists, legitimized ethnic cleansing of Arabs. The most right-wing strands of Zionism took on ideas of racial purity as their own. These elements are still represented by the fanatical settlers who occupy territory seized by Israel in 1967, and who are represented in government by Jewish fundamentalist parties. These settlers are armed and regularly take it upon themselves to shoot down and terrorize the Palestinian population around them. Today in Hebron, a city of over 100,000 Palestinians in the West Bank, which is bisected by a Jewish settlement of 500, you can find graffiti on the walls that reads "Arabs to the gas chamber."SUP FONT SIZE=1>34

Ultimately, the real fight against anti-Semitism has to be linked to the fight against all oppression. For that reason, anti-Zionism and the fight against Palestinian oppression have much more in common with the struggle against anti-Semitism than Zionism does. The socialist movement has a proud tradition of fighting anti-Semitism and racism within the broader fight against oppression and exploitation. Jews were disproportionately represented in the socialist parties of Russia and Europe at the height of those movements because socialists have always put the fight against oppression as the central component to a revolutionary struggle against capitalism. As Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin put it, the revolutionary party must be the "tribune of the oppressed."

We have a particular responsibility in the U.S. to challenge Zionism, because Israel would not be able to exist and continue to keep Palestinians dispossessed and brutalized without $5 billion a year in direct U.S. aid and loan guarantees, and without U.S.-made Apache helicopters, M-16s, and Phantom jets. The role of the Left in building solidarity with the Palestinian struggle and demanding an end to U.S. aid to Israel is therefore critical.

In order to do that, we need to know the history of Zionism, what relationship it has had to anti-Semitism, and why the Left has no reason to be defensive. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of confusion within the Left around these questions, which has hampered our ability to build an effective movement. This struggle desperately needs to be clarified, strengthened, and built so that we can one day live in a world where the brutality of pogroms and occupation are consigned to the dustbin of history.

Hadas Thier is an Israeli-born Jew who is an activist in New York City.


1 Craig Horowitz, "The Return of Anti-Semitism," New York Times, December 15, 2003.

2 Quoted in Brian Klug, "The Myth of the New Anti-Semitism," Nation, January 15, 2004.

3 Ibid.

4 "Manifestations of Antisemitism in the EU 2002-2003," European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), available online at http://eumc.eu.int/eumc/as/PDF04/AS-Main-report-PDF04.pdf.

5 The Pew Research Center’s survey also drew somewhat different conclusions about anti-Semitism in Europe than the EUMC report: "Despite concerns about rising anti-Semitism in Europe, there are no indications that anti-Jewish sentiment has increased over the past decade. Favorable ratings of Jews are actually higher now in France, Germany, and Russia than they were in 1991. Nonetheless, Jews are better liked in the U.S. than in Germany and Russia. As is the case with Americans, Europeans hold much more negative views of Muslims than of Jews." "A Year After the War," available online at http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=206.

6 Alexander Cockburn, "Israel and ‘Anti-Semitism’," CounterPunch, May 16, 2002.

7 Michael Neuman, "What is Anti-Semitism," in Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, eds., The Politics of Anti-Semitism (Oakland: AK Press, 2003,) 1.

8 Ibid., 7.

9 Ibid., 3.

10 Cheryl Rubenberg quoted in Gilbert Achcar, Eastern Cauldron: Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 19.

11 For fuller discussion see Lance Selfa, "Israel the Watchdog State," in The Struggle for Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002), 29—46, or Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle (Cambridge: South End Press, 1999.)

12 Lance Selfa, "Zionism: False Messiah," in The Struggle for Palestine, 5.

13 Nathan Weinstock, Zionism: False Messiah (London: Ink Links, 1979, 14.

14 Ibid., 43.

15 For instance, Neturei-Karta, meaning "Guardians of the City," was formed by religious Jews that lived in Palestine in 1938, and still organizes international Jewish opposition today. Their Web site is available at http://www.nkusa.org/index.cfm.

16 N. Israeli, "Zionism and Anti-Semitism," in Arie Bober, The Other Israel (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1972), 167—68.

17 Ralph Schoenman, The Hidden History of Zionism (Santa Barbara: Veritas Press: 1988), 47.

18 Israeli, 175.

19 Annie Zirin, "The Hidden History of Zionism," International Socialist Review, July—August 2002, 39.

20 Schoenman, 47.

21 Quoted in an interview with Moshe Machover in Weinstock, xxi.

22 Zirin, 41.

23 Moshe Machover, "Borochovism," in Bober, 152—53.

24 Weinstock, 77.

25 Ibid, 85.

26 Ibid, 87.

27 Schoenman, 48—49.

28 Ibid., 51.

29 Ibid., 50.

30 Ibid., 31.

31 The massacre at Deir Yassin is the most well known of a number of such massacres. It was carried out by the right-wing militias, but other massacres like the one committed at Dueima were committed by ZAHAL, the Labor Zionist army.

32 Schoenman, 31—32.

33 Weinstock, 44—45.

34 Bill Glauber, "Israeli Veterans Show Occupation’s Ugly Side," Chicago Tribune, June 14, 2004.

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