Antisemitism on the left and in Labour: a reply to Kitty S. Jones

Above: David Schneider’s response to the claim “there’s no evidence”

Dear Kitty,

The continuing row over antisemitism within the Labour party has tended to generate more heat than light: yours is one of the more considered and well-argued contributions, which is why I’m writing this response.

It’s usually best, in my experience, to start debates by establishing some common ground. You start your piece by describing the events leading up to the expulsion of anti-racist campaigner Marc Wadsworth following his denunciation of the anti-Corbyn Labour MP Ruth Smeeth at the launch of the Chakrabarti report in 2016.  You suggest that Smeeth’s response to the incident, and the accusation that Wadsworth’s intervention was antisemitic, was a put-up job by Smeeth and others on the Labour right and the media: I agree with you.

Having watched the video of the incident, I can see no evidence that Wadsworth’s behaviour (though it may have been ill-judged) was antisemitic and, like you, I oppose his expulsion (on the ground of “bringing the party into disrepute”, of course: not antisemitism).

But the fact that Smeeth is on the right of the party and outspokenly hostile to Corbyn, does not mean that she is just cynically using a false allegation of antisemism where there is none. There is no evidence that Wadsworth’s behaviour was antisemitic, but does that mean the Smeeth and others like her have simply invented the whole issue of antisemitism within Labour and more broadly on the left, for factional purposes – that they have, in fact “weaponised” a non-existent (or utterly insignificant) issue simply to attack Corbyn?

I don’t believe so. In order to “weaponise” an issue there has to be something there in the first place. I first heard the term used in the run-up to the 2015 general election, when the Tory press and media accused Ed Miliband (accurately) of having a plan to “weaponise” the issue of NHS underfunding. The point was, of course, that this could only work if there really was a crisis in the NHS. The same goes for antisemitism within Labour and on the radical left.

The first major problem I have with your piece, Kitty, is that you’re unclear – bordering on evasive – as to whether or not you accept that there is an antisemitism problem of any significance within Labour and the left. In the course of your piece you ask “Is antisemitism worse in the Labour Party than in others?” (giving the answer “The evidence suggests not”); then you talk about “the Labour Party’s alleged antisemitism” (my emphasis), before going on to say “I won’t ever claim that antisemitism is eradicated or negligible … I will maintain, however, that it is no greater problem within the Labour party than it is in wider society.”

You then go on to cite a survey (by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research) that found that (a) levels of antisemitism in Britain “are amongst the lowest in the world”, and (b) that (you say) “Far from being an issue for the left, the prejudice gets worse the further right on the political spectrum that you look.”

Do you not see, Kitty, what terrible arguments these are for a left winger to be using? How complacent it sounds to be saying, in effect ‘antisemitism in Labour is no worse than in society as a whole, the right is worse than the left, and anyway, antisemitism in Britain is a low level problem’?

Surely the left should hold itself to higher standards than that!

But in any case, the claim that antisemitism is a low level, minor and exceptional problem within Labour and the left, is simply not true.  The actor David Schneider (who seems to be quite sympathetic towards Corbyn) drew up the list of examples at the top of this piece in frustration at people on the left claiming there is “no evidence” of antisemitism on the left. A longer and more detailed list can be found here (yes I know: it’s from the Tory Spectator and it includes a few ‘examples’ that I don’t agree with – but the vast majority of examples, up to an including holocaust denial, are verifiable facts).

A large part of the problem that people like us, on the left, are having in discussing antisemitism on our own side, is because there is no generally accepted understanding of what left antisemitism is, and an assumption that it’s a form of racism and that, therefore, the anti-racist left cannot possibly be antisemitic.

No, indeed, apart from a few crackpots (although a surprising number of them do seem to have emerged of late), left-wing antisemites are in the main, not racist. But there was antisemitism before there was 20th century anti-Jewish racism. And there is still antisemitism of different sorts, long after disgust with Nazi-style racism, and overt racism of any sort, became part of the mental and emotional furniture of all half-way decent people, and especially of left-wing people.

For centuries, antisemitism was a Christian phenomenon: the Jews killed Christ (so the story went) and, as a result, Jews ever since have endorsed the rejection of the Saviour and the guilt of their forebears.

“Who condemned Jesus Christ to death? Pontius Pilate did it as the desire of the Jews” — that response only recently ceased to be part of the catechism taught to Catholic children. The basic idea, and spinoffs from it, are still there.

But we’re not racists! We love the Jews! All they have to do in order to be accepted by Christian society is to reject their faith and convert to Christianity! It was not about race, eugenics, or (as Hitler would put it in the twentieth century), “blood”: contemporary left antisemites mainly recoil from Nazi-style anti-Jewish racism, but they do recycle earlier Christian antisemitism, in secular, ideological form: all the Jews of today have to do in order to be accepted is renounce and denounce Zionism and Israel. Once they’ve done that, they’re welcome into the fold of the left. The cry goes out, “We’re not being anti-Jewish when we denounce Israel, but anti-Zionist”. And sometimes, at this point, you get the addition: “By the way, I am myself Jewish”.

The militant anti-racist (and non-Zionist) Jew, Steve Cohen, in his pamphlet (that I strongly recommend) That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Anti Semitic  expressed his disgust at this “disloyalty test” set by the left (in this particular case, by the union NATFHE – forerunner of the UCU) for Jews, comparing it to the McCarthy “loyalty test”:

The question of course was whether [Ring Lardner] was or had ever been a member of the Communist Party. To which he replied “I could answer the question exactly the way you want , but if I did I would hate myself in the morning”.

I am sure Lardner, whatever his position on Zionism (if he had one) would have responded in exactly the same way to the resolution passed at the NATFHE conference which calls for a “a boycott of those that do not publicly dissociate themselves from” Israeli governmental policies towards Palestinians. It is this imposition of a loyalty test which is so reminiscent of McCarthyism. And of course Lardner did not stand alone. The playwright Lillian Hellman famously said “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions”. The fact that this year’s fashion – support for the Palestinians – is to be supported whereas old fashioned anti-communism is to be condemned – is irrelevant. The issue here is loyalty tests. It is being forced into making an open and public political statement not out of principle but out of blackmail.

Loyalty tests have a particular significance when forced on Jews. The significance is the assumption of collective responsibility, of collective guilt. Intrinsic to this is the requirement to grovel. Groveling, the humiliation of Jews, is fundamental to all anti-semitism. Degradation ceremonies are central to Jew-hatred. Remember those shocking images of Nazi Berlin where rabbis were forced to scrub pavements. Likewise it was central to McCarthyism.

I should add that this criticism applies (in my opinion) to “leftist” and “anti-Zionist” Jewish organisations like Jewish Voice for Labour and the Jewish Socialist Group (of which Steve Cohen was a somewhat dissident member), whose zeal in upholding the traditions of the Bund against Zionism often seems to blind them to real instances of antisemitism. It also seems to create a strange mindset in which these comrades seem to think that there’s something particularly sinister and/or outrageous when the Tories of the Jewish Board of Deputies act like any other Tories, or the Labour Zionists of the Jewish Labour Movement, act like Labour Zionists.

Now, lets deal with the question of Israel (although in your piece, I note that you scarcely touch on the subject): by “left-wing antisemitism” people like me emphatically do not mean political criticism of Israel and of the policy of Israeli governments. Certainly, not all left-wing critics of Israel or Zionism are antisemites, even though these days all antisemites, including the right-wing, old-fashioned, and racist antisemites, are avowed “anti-Zionists”.

Israel frequently deserves criticism. Israel’s policy in the Occupied Territories and its general treatment of the Palestinians deserve outright condemnation. The oppressed Palestinians need to be politically defended against Israeli governments and the Israeli military. The only halfway equitable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a viable, independent Palestinian state in a viable, contiguous territory, side by side with Israel, needs to be argued for and upheld against Israeli power and the present ultra-right wing Israeli government.

The difference here between left-wing antisemites and honest critics of Israel – a category which includes a very large number of Israeli Jews as well as Israeli Arabs – is a straightforward one of policy.

The left-wing antisemites do not only criticise Israel. They condemn it outright and deny its right to exist. They use legitimate criticisms, and utilise our natural sympathy with the Palestinians, not to seek redress, not as arguments against an Israeli government, an Israeli policy, or anything specifically wrong in Israel, but as arguments against the right of Israel to exist at all. Any Israel. Any Jewish state in the area. Any Israel, with any policy, even one in which all the specific causes for justly criticising present-day Israel and for supporting the Palestinians against it have been entirely eliminated. The root problem, say the left-wing antisemites, is that Israel exists.

The root “crime of Zionism” is that it advocated and brought into existence “the Zionist state of Israel”.

Bitterly, and often justly, criticising specific Israeli policies, actions, and governments, seemingly championing the Palestinians, left-wing antisemites seek no specific redress in Israel or from Israel, demanding only that Israel should cease to exist or be put out of existence.

The attitude of the “anti-Zionist” left to Israel brings with it a comprehensive hostility to most Jews everywhere – those who identify with Israel and who defend its right to exist. These are not just people with mistaken ideas: they are “Zionists”.

Finally, is a certain form of (usually non-racist) antisemitism a specific problem on the left, and, if so, why?

I would answer, yes it it. As to why:

Clearly, the Israel/Palestine conflict has a lot to do with it, together with crude concepts of “anti-imperialism” resulting in a de facto stance of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, as propagated by Stalinism and the likes of the Stop The War Coalition. But the problem pre-dates that, and runs deeper. Not for nothing did the late-19th Century German Social Democrats describe antisemitism as “the socialism of fools” (“Der Antisemitismus ist der Sozialismus der dummen Kerle“): the phrase is frequently attributed to August Bebel, but probably originated with the Austrian democrat Ferdinand Kronawetter; the important thing is that it was in general use among German Social Democrats by the 1890s (according to Wikipedia) and for a reason: they recognised that “left wing” antisemitism existed and was a problem.

The reason seems to me to be the lack of a proper understanding of capitalism as a system by many who identify as leftists, and the simplistic appeal of conspiracy theories (particularly about finance capital) that become (to use Marxist jargon) fetishes – forms of thought that relate to the superficial appearance of capitalist social relations, not the underlying dynamics of the system of generalised commodity production itself (see Moishe Postone’s detailed examination of this): thus the tendency of uneducated leftists to see the world in terms of “elites” (as opposed to the ruling class) who “rig the system” unfairly, rather than seeing and understanding capitalism as an essentially impersonal system based upon exploitation and the extraction of surplus value. Such pre-Marxist thinking (Marx called it, ironically, “True Socialism“) leads naturally to conspiracy theories about finance capital, cosmopolitanism, Jewish bankers, etc, etc.

In conclusion:  the antisemitism of significant sections of the left is not racist as such. It is however difficult to imagine what degree of extra hostility to Israel and to “Zionists” (Jews with a reflex identification with Israel) the “left” would generate if it were racist.

I very much hope you consider this a fair and reasoned response to your article, Kitty – even if you don’t agree with it all.

Best wishes,

Jim Denham

11 thoughts on “Antisemitism on the left and in Labour: a reply to Kitty S. Jones

  1. Hi Jim,

    Good to see we do have some common ground. Just want to make a couple of points here.

    Firstly, you say ” what terrible arguments these are for a left winger to be using”. Well I cited RESEARCH, which is evidenced to verify my comments. That isn’t a “terrible argument”, it’s a reasonable one. There is other research too, which says the same thing. Facts matter, inferences, moralising judgements and wild assertions reflect someone’s values, not facts.

    There are a couple of seperate issues here that I want to highlight. One is that there is antisemitism within the Labour party. Another is that there has been growing antisemitism within our society in the UK, and wider Europe for some years – and by 2014, it had reached the highest level since reords began here. It was quite widely reported in the media at the time. Back in 2014, I was also raising concerns in my own work about the dangers of racism, antisemitsm, a general growth in social prejudice – including a rise in hate crime and discriminatory policies directed against disabled people – and how toxic the encroaching political parochialism and narratives entailing strategic group divisions are for our democracy, how potentially dangerous and devastating for citizens’ wellbeing. I referred to Gordon Allport’s work a lot, too, which was based on his study of the cultural, social and political processes that resulted in the Holocaust.

    Labour have the highest party membership. Among that membership are people with antisemitic views. I have seen some of the conspiracy types of antisemitism myself during the 2015 GE campaign among the left. However, a group of those were then in the Green party (as members). Going off research and the most recent parliamentary inquiry, there is no evidence that antisemitism is any higher in the Labour party than it is in society, that’s despite a high level of scrutiny, that none of the other Parties have been under. Again rigourous evidence is important, rather than opinion. Demanding rigorous evidence does not mean I am denying a problem exists.

    The evidence is important because it is needed to support the Party in addressing how to best deal with genuine complaints and bogus complaints. We have already seen Marc Wadsworth expelled from the party, and we both agree that from the footage, he did not make an antisemitic comment, as he was originally accused. His expulsion does nothing to help us address antisemitism. Nor does the continued jeering, smearing and discrediting of the Party, members and the leader.

    My saying that does NOT mean 1) I don’t care about antisemitism 2) I’m denying it exists or 3) I am trivialising it. It’s a logical fallacy to make those accusations of reasonable and evidenced observations and to make such irrational inferences from them. This is an ad hominem fallacy, a variant of “guilt by association”: nformal inductive fallacy of the hasty-generalization or red-herring type and which asserts, by irrelevant association and often by appeal to emotion, that qualities of one thing are inherently qualities of another. For the record, I feel very strongly about antisemitism, challenge it wherever I see it, and treat other kinds of prejudice in the same way. I don’t tolerate prejudice. Ever.

    I care very much about antisemitism and those people in the Party who have antisemitic beliefs must be dealt with as they have no place in a Party that is founded on principles of equality and diversity.

    Yesterday, I someone flagged up a person on Facebook who claimed to support Corbyn. He had attacked one of my friends (a Jewish writer), making offensive antisemitic comments. A group of us found a few accounts by the same person, and on further examination, he was previously a Margaret Thatcher supporter, he is very racist, and was clearly setting up accounts to troll people. I reported him, nonetheless, to the Party, but doubt very much he is a member. He blocked me when I challenged him. I reported him to Facebook, too, and warned others about him via a status update.

    Another important issue is that the debate about antisemitism IS being politically exploited. By the government, by the complicit media and by several Progress MPs. Saying that does NOT entail denying antisemitism exists within the Party. I have already acknowledged it exists. It is a discrete issue. However, the way this has been played strategically – and you’ve done it yourself, Jim – whatever the response is from the Party and members, it is immediately put into the same contexts of either “denial”, “justification” or “trivialising”, and even worse of “collaborating” and being an “apologist”. Yet those are fallible inferences and not rational and evidenced arguments. They are often also politically loaded and motivated.

    The truth is that 1) antisemitism exists within society 2) antisemitism exists within the Labour party 3) the response we give, no matter how reasonable or well-evidenced, is strategically condemned 4) the antisemitism is being used politically by those who don’t approve of Corbyn’s left of centre politics. ALL of those things are discrete truths. They co-exist. Pointing them out does NOT mean I am denying antisemitism exists in the Party, and how dare you or anyone else imply I don’t care about it.

    Those who don’t like Corbyn have bent over backwards to make all of this his fault. Yet the problem existed before Corbyn became Party leader. Again, that is evidenced. It seems to me that both Corbyn and members are being bullied into “confessing” that the Party is “rife” with antisemitism. If we present rational debate and evidenced, reasoned comments, we are then accused of denying the problem. If we focus on discussing what we are doing about antisemitism, both personally and within the party, that is taken as an admission of guilt – that antisemitism is “rife” in the Party. Either way, the outcome of all this is being manipulated, and no matter what the Party does or says – no matter what evidence arises, too, that supports what is siad and proposed – we are condemned. There is no outcome that does not entail a condemnation.

    It’s a form of polical entrapment and bullying.This is being carried out on the basis of political beliefs. People on the left ARE being attacked and bullied on social media and in the mainstream media. Apparently this behaviour is acceptable. However, attacking people on the basis of their political beliefs is NOT OK. Our Human Rights Act – Article 10 – outlines this. One form of prejudice, discrimination and harassment does nothing to address another.

    My article also explores how all of this has split Jewish communities further, too. That split is marked by ideological differences, and I have seen right-leaning Jewish groups going out of their way in discrediting and outgrouping left-eaning ones. I have seen moderates and media commentators make antisemitic comments about left-leaning Jewish groups in order to discredit and silence them.

    That kinda evidences my point.

    Hope I have clarified my thoughts on this a little more. If you need any more evidence – I found an article about Luciana Berger’s experiences of antisemitism on social media, dated 2014, for example, let me know.

    Best wishes, Jim.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t touched on the Israel/Palestinian conflict in my own piece. It’s an article, rather than a book… (!) However, I will say that I have observed the conflation of “Zionism” with the conflict. However, whenever I encounter this I point out what Zionism is, and why it is wrong to equate the actions of the Israeli government and military with Zionism and with Jewish people more widely. Some people don’t understand what Zionism means.

    I think in your haste to portray some on the left as “uneducated”, with no grasp of Marx and capitalism, you have also stereotyped working class people on the left more widely, and as I said previously, you cannot fight assumption, prejudice and stereotypes by presenting more assumption, prejudice and stereotypes.

    We have to take a prefigurative position – you know, be the change you want to see. If you want to live in a world where people are treated with equal respect and regarded to have equal worth as human beings, regardless of their group characterisics, and where diversity is valued, you have to practice those principles yourself, first.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I find myself agreeing with you until start going on about Israel and Zionism. I think Kitty is subtly underplaying the problem, but she didn’t say anything about Israel. Why shoehorn this crap in? Wouldn’t it be nice if discussions about anti-semitism were focused on Jews and not conflict in the middle-east for a change?

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    1. As Jim points out, I cited research, so if I am “underplaying” anything, it is based on evidence presented by others: “You then go on to cite a survey (by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research) that found that (a) levels of antisemitism in Britain “are amongst the lowest in the world”, and (b) that (you say) “Far from being an issue for the left, the prejudice gets worse the further right on the political spectrum that you look.”

      Jim then goes on to say “Do you not see, Kitty, what terrible arguments these are for a left winger to be using? How complacent it sounds to be saying, in effect ‘antisemitism in Labour is no worse than in society as a whole, the right is worse than the left, and anyway, antisemitism in Britain is a low level problem’?”

      In other words he holds me personally responsible for the research I cited, and the comments I quoted. He accuses me of “terrible arguments”, and of being “complacent”. I’ve been writing about the growth of prejudice in the UK for the past few years. I’m a campaigner and researcher. I am not known as a person who presents “terrible arguments”. I am known for writing well reasoned and evidenced articles and for my analytic skill more generally. Jim’s ad hominem on the other hand was neither evidenced, nor a rational conclusion. He simply hammered what I’d written into the very framework of responses I outlined, and he fails to see the logical gaps there.

      Jim also discusses the “disloyalty test”. Then applies exactly the same principles to me. Apparently I am too “complacent”, and not condemning enough of my Party, and in particular, of its leader. I’m not playing the game. And what I see time and time again is outrage. Not reasonable discussion. Apparently my reasonable responses – based on evidence I have gone to the trouble of researching – make me a “bad leftist”, who, because my response doesn’t conform to the binary schema of entrapment – laid out here – I don’t say what you DEMAND I say – either: “Sure, the party as a whole is rife with antisemitism” or “there is no problem with antisemitism” – in which case I am then branded as being part of the problem, (which is also a McCarthyist strategy, I am told my reasoning isn’t compatible with being a “leftist”. Because I have not condemned the the party I support to your liking.

      I don’t permit people with agendas to define me, my responses or my politics. I have always had a mind of my own.

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      1. Kitty: I’ll reply in more detail soon, but for now I’ll just respond to what seems to be your main (and most strongly-felt) objection to what I wrote: my objection your use of the research showing that the level of antisemitism in Britain is “amongst the lowest in the world” and that “the prejudice gets worse the further right on the political spectrum you get”; I’m afraid I can only repeat that these are terrible arguments for a leftist to use, and can only be interpreted as truly dreadful complacency.

        OK this is as you say (in capitals) RESEARCH: yes, but you go on to say (in your reply) that it’s “evidenced to verify my comments”, by which I understand you to mean that this report, which I paraphrased (I think fairly) as “‘antisemitism in Labour is no worse than in society as a whole, the right is worse than the left, and anyway, antisemitism in Britain is a low level problem’ backs up the rest of your *political* case.

        Can you not see just what a wretchedly bad basis for a leftist argument that is? How complacent it is? Can you imagine yourself or any other leftist ‘contectualising’ (ie minimising) any other form of prejudice or bigotry in that way?

        If you’d merely cited the research as background information and then immediately made it clear that despite this, *any* level of antisemitism in Britain or anywhere else is unacceptable, and if you’d made the obvious point that to say antisemitism is worse on the right than the left, is hardly something the left should be proud of, then fair enough. But you don’t make those points. Indeed your follow-up comment that the research was “evidenced to verify my comments” can only reasonably be understood as a statement that this ‘contextualising’ (ie downplaying) of antisemitism and specifically, antisemitism on the left, is an important element in your case. Therefore, I believe my concerns about as to whether or not you accept that there is an antisemitism problem of any significance within Labour and the left more generally, is entirely justified.

        To be absolutely clear on this, Kitty, I do not doubt your genuine abhorrence of antisemitism: but I *do* doubt whether your consider it a particularly significant problem on the left and within Labour, and your most recent comments, I have to say, do nothing to clarify this.

        Richard Seymour (not someone I often find myself in agreement with) puts it very well in a piece he wrote recently for the US Jacobin magazine:

        “[E]ven if antisemitism is not especially concentrated on the Left, and even declined among Labour supporters between 2015 and 2017, polls show it to be more pervasive than might have been imagined. Beyond the hardcore of antisemitism in Britain, which tends to be around 2 percent of the population, there is a surprisingly large number of people who hold to at least one antisemitic trope. For example, about a fifth of the population, and 14 percent of Labour voters, think Jews are more likely to “chase money” than others, while 14 percent of Britons, and 11 percent of Labour supporters, think Jews believe they are “better” than others. These are the results for the stereotypes that people will openly confess to; unconscious biases are likely to be more widespread.

        “While this research, conducted for the Campaign Against Antisemitism, confirms the CST finding that antisemitic prejudices are more prevalent on the Right, it also suggests that the Left is not exempted from antisemitism. Indeed, it is not much better than the political mean, and that is itself something to think about.”

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      2. “can only be interpreted as truly dreadful complacency.” is the telling comment. No, it can be simply read for what it actually is.

        This is precisely the kind of entrapment strategy I outlined previously, based on simplistic binary schema that aims at discrediting and condemning responses whatever they may be, by interpreting them as negative. It is possible to say that the level of antisemitism in the Labour party is no higher than among other parties or in wider society and NOT be “complacent”. You describe my response as a “terrible argument” but fail to detail exactly why you think it is terrible. You seem to have a taken fro granted assumption that the responses you expect from me are themselves reasonable. They are not. I have NEVER trivialised or “minimaised antisemitism, I have a long written record of campaigning against all forms of prejudice and discrimination, yet you imply several times that I have. And there is the trap. I made a reasonable point which you have turned into something else – you are claiming that my motive is to trivialise antisemitism on the left. It is not. As I said previously, I stated facts drawn from more than one piece of research.

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      3. I think the problem in the Labour Party (and beyond) is not the casual anti-Jewish sentiment that the surveys you site look at but rather anti-establishment politics that happily share or tolerate far right or conspiratorial ideas as well as leftist ones. I think your analyse misses this political angle. Btw p
        lease stop whining.

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      4. My analysis is at least based on a wide base of research, unlike your rather personal, prejudiced comment. Your own political preferences underpin your comment, rather than a reasoned analysis of the evidence.

        “Whining”?

        Btw please stop trolling.

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  4. Kitty, you say: “You describe my response as a “terrible argument” but fail to detail exactly why you think it is terrible”:

    I reply: Kitty, I’ve told you *exactly* why it’s a terrible argument, at least twice now: to repeat myself, *the left should have higher standards than that* OK? Geddit?

    Like

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