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The Two ‘A’ Words: Apartheid and Antisemitism

The following is a transcript of Episode 41 of the For Heaven’s Sake Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Donniel: Hi, my name is Donniel Hartman and I’m the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Today is Monday, January 24th, 2022. And this is for heaven’s sake, a podcast from the Hartman institutes. iEngage project. Our theme for today is the Israel discourse between antisemitism and apartheid in each edition of for heaven sake, Yossi Klein Halevi, senior research fellow at the Institute here in Jerusalem. And myself, discuss the current issue central to Israel and the Jewish world. And then Elana Stein Hain, director of the Hartman faculty in North America explores with us how classical Jewish source sources can enrich our understanding of the issue. Let’s begin. 

One aspect of our deeply polarized world is the way in which the most extreme positions on each side increasingly define the conversation about Israel and Zionism. On the one side being pro-Israel i’s very often characterized by the need to defend the Jewish state against antisemitism, especially from the BDS movement. To stand with Israel is to defend it against the bullies who unjustly attack it and work to de-legitimize it. 

On the other side, Israel’s critics increasingly reduced their critique of Israel’s moral failure by defining it as an apartheid. To be a critic of Israel then is not just to oppose specific policies, but to fight its evil essence. the two, a words anti-Semitism and apartheid are conversation stoppers. They’re fighting words, both demand that one either fight against Israel’s enemies or fight against Israel’s very being. These polar opposite calls to arms are increasingly undermining the center and defining, and in many ways, monopolizing the discourse over Israel for the good or for the bad. Yossi. It’s great to see you. and to be with you. How are you feeling? 

Yossi: Thank God. Feeling well. 

Donniel: Feeling well. 

Yossi: How are you? How are you feeling>

Donniel: I. I think we’re fine. I think they said that there’s now we’re the number one, you know, Israel were the chosen people. So we always like to be the best or the worst at whatever it is that we, I understand that there’s now 4 million out of the 9 million Israelis are now, currently in the last wave have Corona.You don’t have Corona, right? 

Yossi: No, but my daughter just came down with it today and she’s downstairs. So stay tuned.

Donniel: stay tuned. Okay. So you look good. You feel good. let’s delve into it because this is, I’ve been watching this. You’ve been watching it for a long time. We find ourselves sometimes on different sides, doesn’t matter, but there’s, there’s some flat, something’s going on where these two positions are defining the conversation..

What what’s your take what’s the price of this for this polarization? is it justified? Is it the call of the hour? Like what come on in, Yos.  

Yossi: Look, I love the way you frame this. I think Donniel, it’s an original contribution to the Israel conversation. And what you’re really calling on all of us to do is to, is to pause, take a deep breath and recognize the diminishment that we’re inflicting on the conflict by framing it this way on both sides.

My particular problem is that I am part of the problem in the sense that I can’t not join the fight. I’ll give you an example just recently the CEO of the Presbyterian church used Martin Luther King Day to send out an email to his church accusing Israel of committing modern day slavery against the Palestinians.

When you accused the Jewish people of slavery on Martin Luther King Day, that is the end point of demonization. So do I just pass over that in silence, even though yes. I realize that I’m stepping in it. I’m setting myself up. I’m diminishing my Israel conversation, but I am structurally unable to resist joining that fight. 

Donniel: So Yossi. Let me calm you for a moment. I agree with you. I agree with you a hundred percent. When somebody is bullying Israel or bullying the Jewish, people, of course I have to get up and fight. So I, by posing this question, I’m not, de-legitimizing a fight against abuses when they occur.

And just like, and I know what I’m not comparing, but I could also understand, I don’t agree, but I can understand that people who believe that Israel has crossed a line, can reach a coherent, moral, and even Jewish position to fight against it. and what happens if somebody believes that it is apartheid, they’re going to do something about it and they’re going to talk, I can understand that.

So I’m not talking about, and I see that, and here, I’m closer to you on the anti-Semitism side, because I don’t believe that Israel is an apartheid state, but I know that I’m not undermining or claiming that there is no place. For the polar conversation I’m asking what happens to the conversation when that’s all that it does, you know, you might have an inclination, like, so sometimes I could tease you, you know, I could say, Yossi, it’s like, can we talk about something else now? Like, let’s get over it. Like, let’s not talk about the Holocaust today. Or, you know, like, I, like we can joke with each other, but you’re right. Of course, when a statement like that happens, our responsibility, i’s to stand up and to say, no, no, I don’t take that crap, but still what happens when that’s all you do.

What’s happened when, like, that’s the point to, I want to analyze today. Yes. I want to put in front of our eyes, what is happening to us? What’s happening to us intellectually. What’s happening to us emotionally. That’s where I want to go. So my first part is yes. Great. I’m with you, but now what happens Yossi if that’s all you did?

Yossi: Now, this is why, this is why I think what you’re raising is an essential part of this conversation of the Israel conversation. Because to speak colloquially what is happening is a dumbing down of the Jewish conversation on Israel. And when we reach such minimalist terms. And, when we frame the Israel conversation in such stark opposites, we’re, first of all, we’re not engaging with the real Israel.

We’re not engaging with the, with the real moral challenges that, that we need to face. We are sliding toward a binational state. That’s where we are headed. But when you throw apartheid at me, I, I can’t deal with the moral issue. I immediately go into defensive mode and I imagine that the the same dynamic happens in the other direction when we throw anti-Semitism even at some Jewish critics or you’re enabling antisemitism, or also shutting down their ability to deepen the conversation. So yeah, yeah. 

Donniel: Let’s try to unpack the term you’re using, which I agree with. And that is the deepening of the conversation. Let’s start intellectually. And after we finished this intellectual round, I want to go to the emotional consequences.

Cause I, feel the emotional consequences might even be more significant. But when you are in fighting against mode, you’re not listening. not listening. it’s and in many ways, all you’re doing is punching. You don’t even need arguments. the whole other side has now been reduced to are you anti-Semitic or not?

And by the way, sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, you know, you have a technical definition of anti-Semitism and maybe they technically fit, but they themselves, you know, some of their best friends are Jews and that’s not, you know, that’s not, it, it just, and then they respond. Nobody’s listening to anybody.

Nobody is listening. You know, our aspiration for Israel. If Israel is going to be alive, it’s not going to be always a fight against, or a fight for there has to be some content to what this conversation is. So I think about how many people are being drafted to fight against the BDS.

This is if you’re a pro Israel fight fight, but who talked to them about what they care about about of Israel. Like, have you even thought about. What is the Israel you want to, you, you care about that you think about, and what are the nuances on the other side? And similarly, you know, we’re dancing between the raindrops because neither you, nor I believe that Israel is an apartheid state but both you and I believe that there are serious moral failures that Israel is, is expressing in its policies.

And when you throw the apartheid word, you’re, you’re no longer talking to Israel and you’re no longer talking to Israelis and you’re no longer engaging and trying to build. So I could understand that for a small segment of the community for whom apartheid is the relevant term. Okay. I can’t, I can’t tell you if that’s where you are, it’s I could, I could argue with it, but when that’s the paradigm for criticism against Israel, that’s the word that you call Israel. Those they’re conversation stoppers. And so flattens it dumps down the conversation. Not simply because it’s simplifies.

Yossi, because it doesn’t allow any other conversation to take place. So you’re anti-Semitic and as a result, I don’t have to engage with the content you’re apartheid. I don’t have to talk anymore about how do I improve and build the Israel I want. So the dumbing down is shrinking of Zionism in the American sphere, and I’m deeply concerned because for the people on the polar opposites, where they are is very meaningful, but for the vast majority of Jews, if that’s where the conversation is, then the Israel conversation dies by default. It dies because it’s about fighting and not about meaning. 

Yossi: Well, Donniel, you’ve just defined the essence of the institute’s iEngage work. And, and I, I loved your emphasis on one word, which is listening. And if you think about the culture of the Beit Midrash of the Jewish study hall, it’s not only arguing, you know, we talk about creative argument as, as the essence of the culture, but it, in some sense, in order to creatively argue to creatively, engage with your study partner, you need to listen.

You need to be able to hear and process what your study partner is saying. And that’s really what we try to do. And that’s what we’re losing in a again, to use your terminology, the a versus a parameters of the Israel conversation. And I’ll give you a small example, but for me, it’s, you know, I have this passion for Israeli music.

I think that the soul of Israel is expressed through its music. You can’t understand this country without understanding its soundtrack for years.

Donniel: Yossi can I just on that, just say something I’ve wanted to tell you for years, I so much appreciate your adding to the repertoire of the Hartman institutes Torah, Israeli. But I think the music you pick is not nice. 

Yossi: Donniel, those are fighting words, fighting words.

Donniel: you, you pick music on the basis of the meaning of the words. And I engage with music on the basis of the way the tune moves me. 

Yossi: Uh, Okay. Now we have, now we have the debate. 

Donniel: but for the record, you are right.

Yossi: We have the debate for the next, the next podcast. You and I have to debate Israeli music.

Donniel: No, we won’t, but for the record, but for the record, growing up in a Talmud, Maimonideian centered discourse, adding another window to help people understand what’s happening in Israel has been invaluable and Kol Hakavod to you.

Yossi: Thank you. 

Donniel: So now that I’ve complimented you, cause now we’re engaging, we’re talking to each other because I go on to, I sorry, go on.

Yossi: The frustration that I felt, I is that in trying to bring this music to Jewish communities the diaspora the argument that I’ve been making is that, is that not only is this an essential window into the Israeli soul, but increasingly Israeli music has become deeply Jewish music.

It’s no longer music that’s made for the Israeli campfire, and that excludes a diaspora. And, yet there’s been, there’ve been so few takers and this is a passion of mine. And what I find is that when the excitement over the Israel conversation is BDS and not something that’s so creatively evocative, and that tells us something essential about who we are.

That’s really the diminishment of the Israel conversation. So again, that’s just from my own small vantage point. This is, this is something that I’ve been experiencing. I can also expand it and I think we should, to this moment for the American Jewish community, which is a traumatic moment, it’s not only a moment of a bottom line conversation on Israel.

It’s also a time where the American Jewish conversation is focusing on anti-Semitism, obviously for understandable reasons. But when you go to shul in defiance of of the killers, rather than appealing to American Jews to go to shul because that’s an expression of our soul.

That’s another way in which I worry about the diminishment of the Jewish conversation. So it spreads, it spreads from Israel. 

Donniel: It spreads, Let me, let me expand on that. And cause I wanted to get to some of the emotional and I think you’re, you’re, it’s both spiritual and emotional. you know, we’ve spoken a lot and this is, you know, you don’t have to be Jewish. You don’t have to have a relationship with Israel.

You know, we’re Jews by choice. And we have so many different complex identities. and if Israel or synagogue for that matter is going to claim us, it’s going to claim us because it inspires us. What happens when psychologically you’re fighting. I’m worried because frankly, I have to tell you there’s fatigue, there’s a fatigue.

It’s like, that’s your like, and someone could very easily say I was speaking to a group of rabbis a week ago and someone said, you know, it’s like, I’m tired. I’m tired of always that Israel means fighting Israel means it’s. And by the way, you know, Israel means fighting against in Israel means fighting for it’s this fighting.

So this, this psychological modality, this emotional engagement of that level of intensity. It’s just unsustainable. Now I want to be really clear also, and this is, I have a huge amount of respect and a sense of gratitude to those who are fighting for Israel. I don’t want to be misunderstood. There’s Jewish organizations who get up and every single time somebody crosses the line are willing to spend their time and their money and their attention to fight and to say, okay, you did, you did BDS. Excuse me, that’s unacceptable. And I’m going to look at where you registered and who, what, how do I counter it?

And people who are, God bless you. God bless you. And the Jewish people are in your debt. But what I’m trying to say is I’m not trying to free ourselves from that. I’m trying to free ourselves from being exhausted by that. And we have to understand you remember, I, once I used the term, the Mark Twain line that you mean well, in the worst sense of the term, you know, when you want to draft everybody into that fight. I think we’re making a mistake. Some people have to fight that time, that battle all the time, and God bless them. All of us have to fight it some of the time, but the vast majority of us, if Israel. is going to be meaningful, it can’t be about fighting for. it just can’t be. 

It’s just, that’s not where it could be. In our last discussion we spoke about Liberal Zionism. In many ways. This is the other side. What’s stopping a liberal conversation about Zionism in America. It’s not just because we don’t know what liberal Zionism is and we have to talk about it.

And, you know, we spoke about, we tried to focus on, on one dimension or two dimensions of it, but what stops us that there isn’t even a place that if the pro is your community, if it’s fighting and this is what you’re supposed to do now, Just imagine you’re a college student. You come to campus, you’ve heard about all the dangers on campus and you yourself don’t have a very significant understanding of why Israel is important to you they haven’t heard your music Yossi, or they, they’re not singing. And they’re not thinking. There isn’t a joy and a place that Israel plays in their life.

And we’re told to them, come fight for it. Fight. come. Here’s the demon- like at some point, maybe the first time they’ll go in the second time and maybe the fight itself will be a little exciting, but after a time that fight, can’t be the end of what we do. And I’m frightened of the fatigue that the pro Israel community’s discourse is bringing on the rest of the Jewish people. 

Yossi: So Donniel, I agree with you that it can’t be the end-all and be-all of the relationship with Israel in the same way that I would critique those for whose entire relationship to Israel is based on condemning the occupation. That creates a different kind of fatigue. 

Donniel: That’s correct. 

Yossi: And so really what I think what I hear you saying here is that we need to figure out a way in which we frankly confront the threats when necessary. And I think that that needs to become in some way, a built in part of our relationship to Israel in the same way that Miluim, for an Israeli, defending the country is part of our makeup. But it isn’t the totality of my relationship with Israel.

If the army was my only relationship with Israel how many people would say. You know, and so given the growing assault on Israel. There needs to be some sense of Milium, of reserve duty in the American Jewish community. It is every Jew who loves Israel’s responsibility to defend this country. 

Donniel: You know, like a good analogy, you know, Israelis, after they finish the army, they need to leave Israel for two to three years to just want to be in Israel again, it’s like, look what, there’s a price, there’s a price we pay. And by the way, That’s also why, when somebody uses the other word, the apartheid word, I don’t think that everybody who uses the apartheid word is anti semitic. 

And I think that there’s real serious criticisms that I want to be able to listen to. But it’s when your relationship with Israel is no longer to talk to me, no longer to try to enable me to grow, but to cancel me, I’m gone. You want, if that’s where the conver, I, that, that those conversation stoppers. 

The apartheid word is also going to fatigue the Jewish community, because it forces us to fight and we need to go beyond. We need to talk about, like, we’ve talked all along, what is the essence of why Israel’s important? What are it’s spiritual complexities, what are its moral aspirations? Where are the places that it’s doing? And you’re right, it can’t just be about criticism. Where is it doing something good? Where is morality and values being expressed? Where is justice prevailing and where is justice not prevailing? It’s having those sides and it doesn’t mean I’m white washing.

It’s just it’s ladies and gentlemen, let the word get out right now. Stop fighting all the time. It’s not going to work. You can’t draft every pro-Israel person. Are you willing to fight? Are you willing to stay? Can’t be, it could be Miluim as Yossi says. It could be part of our life, but when that’s all it is, to fight for Israel, it’s almost anachronistic. It’s about, it’s almost like fighting for Israel before it existed. And now that we have it, we could actually live with it, but we’re still busy fighting. It’s almost as if we’re stuck in a pre state mode where, where there’s so many other things that we could experience right now.

Yossi, last word. before we turned to Elana?

Yossi: No. I think that there is no last word in this particular conversation because it’s a moving target. And uh, there are times when a critique one way or the other will be necessary. There’ll be times when a vigorous defense will be necessary, but in the heat of those conversations, even at that moment, maybe, especially.

At that moment, we need to remind ourselves that our relationship with Israel is about so much more than critiquing policy or defending Israel. It’s about a love affair. It’s about deep, deep engagement with Israel.

Donniel: you know what, I actually, as you were saying, this, your non last word word, it reminds me that there’s one last, non last, last, last word that I wanted to say. It’s it’s much hard. What you’re calling for is also much harder Yossi. It’s so much easier to draft into a war on either side. It’s so much easier to look and to call one, a word and another a word, and you don’t have to think, you’re drafted.

Fighting, punching, it’s at least initially it feels so exciting. You know, I you feel noble. You feel it’s it’s after a while though, it’s very, very draining. And that’s why I have such respect for those who do it. But at the end of the day for the majority, we’re going to have to spend the much more difficult work, asking our rabbis, asking our teachers, asking our institutions not when you condemned something, but what is the Israel that you want to inspire me to have a relationship with let’s take a short break. And when we return, Elana will join us. 

Donniel: Hi, Elana, post Corona, we’re hoping to have avoided it, but last time we missed you. How are you feeling?

Elana: Thank god, I’m doing great actually. And now we really want to enjoy those three months of resilience. So we’ll see what kind of activities we get to take our kids to. So. 

Donniel: You mean three months where you have a get out of jail free card. 

Elana: exactly, exactly. I mean we had people in our house. 

Donniel: Don’t worry, there will be a new variant, which has some, I don’t know, whatever don’t, don’t. 

Elana: Yeah. Yeah, no I’m saying I want to get in that space between now and the new variant.

Donniel: So maybe like for the next two weeks, go to Disneyland. like oh, I’m going to Disneyland 

Elana: Exactly, exactly like that. My kids had friends over without masks on for the first time in two years. So. They were quite happy. I have to say. 

Donniel: Ah that’s a moment. Elana. Where are you? You heard the two a terms, whether it’s our conversation, where does it hit you and what do you want our people to think about at this moment. 

Elana: It’s so interesting because I, I think the role of emotions runs very, very deep here. And you know, as I was thinking about this topic, it’s like, oh, you can introduce complexity, complexity, complexity, but bottom line, if, if we don’t actually address the emotions that people are feeling on different sides of this debate, We’re going to miss it.

And so the Torah that I want to bring here is actually it’s from Pirkei Avot, ethics of the ancestors chapter four, section 18, Mishna 18 and Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar, Rabbi Shimon son of Elazar says, do not appease your fellow at the time of their anger and do not comfort them when their dead lies before them, and do not try to dissuade them at the time that they are making a vow. 

Now. I find this absolutely fascinating because what Rabbi Shimon is recognizing. Is that there are times when people are feeling incredibly, emotional, passionate, invested and, and it’s everything. And if you come along in one of those times and try to say, you know, maybe we can think about this differently.

Don’t worry, calm down, forget about it. Forget about it. And what’s gorgeous is that Rab Ovadia Bartenura, you know Bartenura, Italy, he actually finds a connection to God’s conversations in this moralizing where even God, when Moses tries to appease God after the golden calf. God says, you know, can you wait a little bit, can you wait a few minutes?

Or when the angels try to say to God, look, well, don’t worry. After the destruction of the temple. don’t worry. We’re here to comfort you. And God says get out of here. I don’t want you here right now. Right? There’s there something about this moment where passions are running so high. And I’m a big believer as I think, you know, in not just looking at passions as something that’s irrational, but looking at passions and emotions as something that is deeply, actually indicative of what your values are. I think right now we have people who they’re saying, they’re a word because they are feeling like this is the most important thing in the world, and nobody is listening to me. So I think this, this fighting is actually indicative of a split in what people value and it is the most emotional visceral version of it.

And as an educator, I got to say it is A, hard not to get pulled into it. And B it is hard to know how to talk to people when they’re in that zone. Right. That’s what we’re talking about. 

Donniel: But Elana, you know, if I would just play on that and I really appreciate that. But part of it is, is that we’re not talking. Part of what happens is we’re just fighting against them. And that’s part of what you’re doing is you’re explaining is that there’s probably nothing that you could even talk to.

And that’s why we fight against at this moment. You’re maybe challenging us to say maybe there is a way we could talk.

Elana: Look it’s, we, we play different roles in Rabbi Shimon’s perspective. Sometimes we’re the person who’s angry. Or who’s mourning or who’s making the vow. And sometimes we’re the person who’s looking at, the person who’s angry and mourning and making the vow and say, could you stop that? What are you doing?

You stop that. And I think figuring out how to actually find a different way to engage where you’re actually not going to convince each other. that’s what I’m struggling with. And I want to put that on the table. Second thing though, I want to put on the table tables, you know, you put two A’s, I’m gonna put two P’s.

And I’ll explain what that means. The two P’s are Poland and Poughkeepsie. I saw a piece of Torah from rabbi Joshua Falk, who started off in Poland and moved to Poughkeepsie. So, you know, if you want to think about Jewish life in the 19th century, now he’s looking at a statement in tractate Tamid.

Okay. Page 32 A, who is wise? One who foresees the consequences of their actions. And what he says is he says, you know what we’re talking about as a person who can see what’s going to happen in the future and based on that makes calculations as to what’s worth engaging in, and what’s not worth engaging in. And in this moment, this idea of consequences like foreseeing actually, it’s really foresight, foreseeing, I think is what you’re talking about. You’re asking, can we, we definitely are in the moment and it’s really important to be in the moment and those emotions matter and the actions matter, but what are we supposed to foresee will come out of this, right?

What’s on the horizon. If this is the way we go. And that is, I mean, That is really hard, but getting people onto the balcony about their own dance steps of like, what dance are you doing here and where is it going to go? And I will also add that people who are working, you know, for the betterment of Israel, my family members, I’m actually going to give a shout out to my mom.

My mom spends a lot of time defending Israel in lots of different arenas. And it’s incredible, actually the kind of stamina and resilience and ability that she has to do that. And she’s doing it because she’s saying I foresee what’s going to happen if I don’t help. So it’s different kinds of foresight that we need.

It’s a foresight of why are we doing what we’re doing vis-a-vis Israel. And then it’s a foresight of what happens when we turn the whole thing just into a fight. Right. it’s important to have both tracks, I think.

Donniel: It’s true, you know, too. How does at one moment, are you able to engage in something and still ask yourself, is this going to be, if we win, have we won or what other prices and it’s really hard. And when you combine the two things you said, when there’s a profound emotion, it makes it even harder.

And that’s why I know that what Yossi and I what we’re talking about is counter-cultural in the pro-Israel community right, now, but we need to find a new space because I can’t tell you, our rabbis, our educators. They’re tired.

Elana: Yeah

.Donniel: and they don’t have to talk about Israel, frankly. They don’t have to, there’s an exit, 

Elana: right.

Donniel: there’s an exit.

And, and even for those who want to their souls have to be nurtured. Any last word, Yossi? 

Yossi: Just to give you an idea of how schizophrenic so many of us are in this conversation. As soon as this podcast is over, my next task is to deal with the Presbyterian statement. I’ve got back loads of emails and I am going to have to engage in that fight. 

Donniel: to do your Miliuim, Yossi.

Yossi: I have to do my Miluim. So I loved this conversation. I love the chance to breathe and to express nuance, but now it’s time to get back to the fight.

Elana: As you should, Yossi.

Donniel: Okay. I want to tell you, I had a really hard time, Elana. just, well, the minute you started to talk. I just got an email that my wife Adina has Corona. So I been, I’ve been holding on. and now I have to go. She doesn’t know. So I have to call her and tell her that she has Corona. 

Elana: Wait. It is Adina finding out on this podcast that she has Corona. Good thing. We’re not live. 

Donniel: Good thing we’re not live. 

Elana: Oh Refuah Shlema, I hope everybody feels well. 

Yossi: Mesorot Tovot. 

Donniel: yeah. Now what does that, yeah, what does it mean towards me now? We’re going to see, because she didn’t get the fourth vaccine. Cause she said it doesn’t work. I got the fourth vaccine. So now we’re going to see we’re going to be our own little laboratory here.

Elana: Oh gosh, please. 

Donniel: Just watched. Now I’m going to get the. Whatever.

Ladies and gentlemen, For Heaven’s Sake is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute, it was produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M. Louis Gordon. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online at We want to know what you think about the show, you can rate and review us on iTunes. Tell more people, discover the show. You can also write to us at [email protected].

Subscribe to our show in the apple podcast app, Spotify. SoundCloud audible and everywhere else that podcasts are available. I think I got everything in, cause I got to go, but I just want to tell you Adina’s not feeling she’s Okay, She’s like a feeling a little bit under the weather, so I’m not, this is, we just wanted to know what the name was and now I’m going to go, I’ve got to go home and get, and get Corona and to all the rest of you see you in two weeks.

Elana: Okay good. Oh gosh. 

Donniel: And thanks for listening to our show everyone. 

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