American University students protest Israeli attacks on Gaza in Washington

Students of American University attend a campus protest against ongoing Israeli attacks on Gaza in Washington, D.C., United States on November 01, 2023.

(Photo by Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Understanding the Difference Between Anti-Semitism and Pro-Palestinian Activism

We must be as clear as possible about what is anti-Semitism and what it is not, so that real political differences are not transformed into existential confrontations. This is not always easy to do, but it is necessary nonetheless.

I am no expert on the topic of anti-Semitism—though few of those currently holding forth on the topic can claim expertise, and some who claim it might better be described as experts in special pleading.

But I am a Jewish-American political science professor who writes about American and world politics and has taught at one of the country’s major public universities, Indiana University, for almost four decades. I’ve experienced anti-Semitism; fought anti-Semitism as a co-founder of an anti-hate group called Bloomington United; and served as the volunteer security guard at my local synagogue from 1999—when there was a neo-Nazi murder committed here—until 2004—long after 9-11.

American campuses are now awash with controversy–some of it nasty and some even threatening—and the controversy is often framed as a conflict between supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine and also as a conflict between Jews and their supporters and the enemies of Jews.

Last week I published an essay arguing that “To Censure Rashida Tlaib Would Be to Censure Democracy Itself.” And the next day, quite predictably, I was called an “anti-Semite” who supports Hamas, promotes terrorism, and endangers my own Jewish students.

There is so much hyperbole flying across our screens and our cities and campuses these days. The stakes are very high, and the issues in some ways very deep, touching on questions of politics, morality, and identity itself.

Threats against Jews, harassment of Jews, violence against Jews—these are wrong, immoral, and often illegal, and they ought to be condemned and punished.

At the same time, the charge of “anti-Semitism” is pretty direct, and it prompts me to offer some very direct observations about the urgency of being as clear as possible about what is anti-Semitism and what is not, so that real political differences are not transformed into existential confrontations. This is not always easy to do. But it is necessary nonetheless.

First, some moral clarity.

The October 7 Hamas attack on Israelis was brutal, murderous, cruel, and terroristic, and all those on American college campuses and society at large who remain horrified or frightened or simply offended by it—and I count myself among them– have every right to feel this way and to express their feelings freely, in private and in public.

The Israeli military response to the Hamas attack has been brutal, relentless, and has already killed five times as many civilians as the Hamas attack. And all those on American college campuses and society at large who remain horrified or frightened or simply offended by it—and I count myself among them–have every right to feel this way and to express their feelings freely, in private and in public.

Threats against Jews, harassment of Jews, violence against Jews—these are wrong, immoral, and often illegal, and they ought to be condemned and punished.

Threats, harassment, and violence against Palestinians, Muslims, or Arabs are equally wrong, immoral, and often illegal, and ought to be condemned and punished.

Indeed, all racial, ethnic, religious, and even ideological bigotry ought to be condemned, especially on college campuses, whoever the perpetrator or the victim of the bigotry.

What I just expressed is a commitment to human decency and a belief in the rule of law and the basic principles of a liberal, constitutional democracy.

It would be nice if this were sufficient. But it is not.

And the question of anti-Semitism is very real, because anti-Semitism is very real, though its forms, settings, and consequences vary across time and place, and this is important (living in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 is not like living in Iraq in 1948 is not live living in Israel in 2023 is not like living in New York City or Detroit, Michigan in 2023). And precisely for this reason, it is imperative to speak clearly and honestly and to try to clarify difficult distinctions.

I write here as an ethnic Jewish-American who is a citizen of the U.S. and who is primarily concerned here about what is going on in the U.S. and how this impacts–and endangers–both American democracy and U.S. foreign policy.

It is obvious that anti-Semitism has long plagued the U.S. and the world at large. It is equally obvious that the current Israel-Hamas/Gaza/Palestine war has fueled a rise in anti-Semitism in many places—in the Middle East, in Paris, in Ithaca, New York, and in many other places in the U.S.–and that this is despicable.

It is also obvious to me that much of what is being called “anti-Semitism” on American college campuses, however callous, stupid, or politically foolish it may be, is not anti-Semitic, and that some of what is being called “anti-Semitism” is not even callous, stupid, or politically foolish—as the example of Rashida Tlaib, to which I will return, makes clear.

Such distinctions matter, intellectually, morally, and politically. To refuse to take them seriously is to promote hyperbole, recrimination and, ultimately, the closing of minds and the shutting down of freedoms at a time when reason and freedom are in too short supply.

Instead of speaking in generalities, I will elaborate through specific examples.

Bigotry and Endangerment

The October 30 edition of The Forward leads with a headline: “Cornell’s idyllic campus shaken by graphic threats against Jewish students.”

The article reports on anti-Semitic threats circulated on campus: “One post was titled, ‘eliminate jewish living from cornell campus,’ while another threatened to ‘shoot up 104 west,’ a reference to Cornell’s kosher dining hall. The graphic messages also echoed real atrocities carried out by Hamas on Oct. 7 in Israel. ‘If i see a pig male jew i will stab you and slit your throat,’ read one, with another stating: ‘i will bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot all you pig jews.’ A third post threatened, ‘If i see another pig female jew i will drag you away and rape you and throw you off a cliff. if i see another pig baby jew i will behead you in front of your parents.’”

These messages are outrageous and despicable, and they are manifestly anti-Semitic.

Jewish students on the Cornell campus—and other campuses where such messages circulate–feel understandably threatened by these messages, for they are bigoted, hateful, and threatening. University and criminal authorities have properly treated the threats as hate crimes to be investigated and prosecuted. Police are providing heightened security at local Jewish sites. And an arrest has now been made. It is worth noting that the arrested suspect appears to have nothing to do with “Palestine.” It is also worth noting that when the vicious messages first appeared, Cornell Students for Justice in Palestine immediately posted a denunciation on its Instagram account (last week the account was deactivated, and I can no longer furnish the link or the exact quote, which I read when it was up).

This kind of anti-Semitism is not uncommon on American campuses. And it has become more common in recent years, much of it associated with the ascendancy of the American far right and its connection to the Trumpist Republican Party. Think Charlottesville 2017 and “good people on both sides.”

There is no reason to doubt that current events in Israel-Palestine have played some role in some anti-Semitic incidents like this on American campuses, either by motivating them or by furnishing a “structure of opportunity” for them to be enacted by disturbed or angry individuals with no connection to the Israeli-Palestine issue—as appears to be the case at Cornell.

Such incidents are outrageous, dangerous, and deplorable. Period.

At the same time, there has also been a rise of anti-Muslim or anti-Arab incidents in the U.S. and on college campuses. My own university, Indiana University, has experienced a controversy about a Jewish student’s derisive social media comments about a Palestinian dorm mate—“I wouldn’t have opened my door if I had known he was Palestinian; he could have been a terrorist!”—and whether these nasty comments are being treated with sufficient seriousness by university administrators charged with “inclusion.” This is hardly an isolated incident. Others have been more threatening.

Much has been made of FBI reports of an uptick of “anti-Semitic incidents” since October 7. Much less is being made of the fact that the FBI, in the words of its Assistant Director, is reporting “an uptick in threats across the country. . . focused on Jewish people and people from the Muslim community (emphasis added).”

These threats–and all ethnically, religiously, sexually, or even ideologically-based threats—are dangerous and deplorable.

But recent FBI reports do nothing to support one very dominant frame: that Jews are being singled out for threats by Hamas-inspired terrorism that has come to the U.S. with the intention of harming Jews, who are uniquely vulnerable and indeed especially vulnerable to Arabs and their supporters.

If some recent anti-Semitic incidents may have been initiated by “pro-Palestinian” individuals, it is equally likely that some anti-Muslim incidents have been initiated by “pro-Israeli” individuals (and on the White Christian far right, there are some pretty crazy so-called “Zionists”).

Both vulnerable minority groups are experiencing heightened vulnerability. And there is every reason to believe that the primary source of this vulnerability is not either of these groups, but “lone wolf” haters or people associated with White supremacist groups.

When incidents like the Cornell threats happen in a community or on a campus, they are deplorable. And the relevant campus and community authorities have the means of handling them, and ought to be pressed to employ these means if they fail to do so on their own.

But most of what is being discussed and denounced as anti-Semitism on American campuses and in the society at large does not fall into this category.

Callousness, Stupidity, and Political Irresponsibility

Celebrations of Hamas as “liberators” justly killing “Zionist oppressors” are cruel, stupid, politically infantile, and offensive. I have joined with many colleagues in deploring the outpouring of such statements on some segments of the American left in the immediate aftermath of October 7. Such language is insensitive and morally obtuse at best. It is hurtful to anyone who cares about Israel (and many others too), perhaps even intentionally so, and hurtful to others who simply are revolted by mass murder. It is also politically irresponsible, glorifying a group, Hamas, that seeks to enforce Islamic fundamentalism, pursues its political goals with murderous zeal, and whose charter is undeniably anti-Semitic.

I consider such celebrations and demonstrations politically noxious and I oppose them politically.

But they are anti-Israeli, not anti-Jewish (indeed sometimes their participants include Jewish activists associated with Jewish Voice for Peace or If Not Now When—groups that might be politically naïve, but are not anti-Jewish!); they typically do not denounce or threaten “Jews,” and are not linked to any effort to attack or kill Jews because they are Jews; and they are not per se anti-Semitic. Lots of bad, stupid and dangerous things, things worth opposing politically, are not “anti-Semitic.” And they deserve to be criticized without being demonized or legally sanctioned.

At the same time, such positions can easily come to take on a more insidious and hateful form—unless cooler heads prevail.

Recent events at Indiana University, widely reported in the national media, are perhaps emblematic. (Please note: I did not participate in these events.)

According to press reports, separate vigils for Israeli victims of Hamas and Palestinian victims of the IDF were held on October 10, each event interlaced with demonstrations of solidarity with Israel or with Palestine, respectively. There is no reason to doubt that real moral concern, mixed with authentic grief and fear, motivated those who organized and attended these separate events. And yet some of the interactions between the “Israeli side” and the “Palestinian side” became heated. Apparently some “pro-Palestinian” students shouted “from the river to the sea” at “pro-Israeli” students, and apparently some “pro-Israeli students” yelled “fucking terrorists” at the “pro-Palestinian” students (however unwieldy, it is necessary to use these quotation marks, because these terms are fraught, and do not map neatly onto the identities “Jewish” and “Muslim” or “Arab” or even “Israeli” and “Palestinian”).

Such confrontations can be very hurtful and, like many confrontations, they surely can get out of hand. And it is always possible and perhaps even likely, that wherever such confrontations occur, there are those, on either “side,” who are prone to escalate or even resort to violence.

It is essential that such escalations be avoided, and that provocateurs or violent participants be condemned and restrained.

But confrontations like this are not “anti-Semitic,” nor are they “Islamophobic,” even if they do engender fear among the Jewish or Arab or Muslim students involved, who typically do not really understand how their words and deeds might be experienced by their “adversaries.”

Many Jewish-American students and their allies do not realize how their emphatic celebrations of Israel while the IDF is bombing Gaza might trigger Palestinian-American students and their allies.

And many proponents of “Free Palestine” do not appreciate how their proclamations might trigger Jewish-American students who identify with Israel or have friends or family in Israel, perhaps even people who have been murdered or taken hostage by Hamas.

A Jewish student wearing an IDF tee shirt while grieving Israeli lives means something entirely different to her than it does to an Arab student across the street grieving Palestinian lives. A Palestinian student wearing a keffiyah and a “Free Palestine” tee shirt while grieving Palestinian lives means something entirely different to her than it does to a Jewish or Israeli student across the street grieving Jewish lives.

And profound misunderstandings, and genuine conflicts, can ensue from these situations, which are not really about anti-Semitism or racism.

It is the job of serious educators, administrators, public intellectuals, and elected officials to bring reason to these situations, to promote better understanding and, of course, to prevent such situations from devolving into violence. The rush of many U.S. college and university presidents to issue public statements of support for Jewish American students but not for Palestinian and Arab students does the opposite, exaggerating the anti-Semitic danger posed to Jews while simultaneously ignoring the moral and political experiences of Arab and Muslim community members who also are experiencing outrage, fear, and grief.

More Complicated Political Stances

I’d like to return for a moment to the awful anti-Semitism reported on the campus of Cornell University. In addition to the vicious threats reported, some accounts also mentioned graffiti that says things like “Israel is a fascist state” or “Israel is an apartheid state” or “the IDF is committing genocide.”

Are such statements incendiary? Yes, in the same way that the statement “Trump is a fascist” is incendiary, i.e., bold, provocative, and mobilizing. But are they anti-Semitic? I do not believe so.

Most of the clamor about “anti-Semitism” on American campuses today is not about hatred of Jews or violence against Jews. It is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the range of emotional, intellectual, and political responses to it...

Such statements simply do not describe or judge or even reference Jewish people or “the Jewish people” (please note, there is a tendency of certain people to speak of Jews as if they are a homogenous collective actor, a “people” who all live, think, act, and worry in the same way. This is wrong, and every Jewish person knows it—though most act otherwise when it comes to Israel). They are statements about a very powerful state—the Israeli state, which is called “Israel” and claims to “represent” all Jews past, present, and future, but does not—that, like all states, monopolizes and exercises violence, codifies exclusions, and is capable of doing very bad things. And when states do bad things, they deserve to be criticized.

While it is common to refer to Israel as “a liberal democracy,” many serious political commentators and social scientists characterize Israel, with good cause, as an “ethnonational” rather than a “civic” democracy. This is because of its illiberal features: in important ways it privileges Jewish over Arab citizens and indeed privileges religious Jewish citizens over secular Jewish citizens. It is similarly understood that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza involves many regular violations of Palestinian rights and seizures of property, of the kind that no “liberal democracy” would apply to its own citizens. These things are major topics of real debate among Israeli Jews within Israel, though in the U.S. to raise them is to quickly get labeled as an “anti-Semite.”

Does this mean that Israel is, in fact, a fascist or racist or apartheid regime because some critics say so? No! These descriptors are topics of real debate.

But it does mean that those who use these terms are not anti-Semites for doing so.

They are analyzing and criticizing the Israeli state. Some people disagree with the claims or would articulate them differently. Others agree with them. The claims are controversial—many political claims are controversial. But this does not make them “hate speech.” The proper response of any Jewish American student who is told that Israel is “an apartheid state” and doesn’t like it, is either to go about their business, or to become informed, to come up with their own conclusions, and to debate them in public. It is not to cry “anti-Semitism.”

The website of B’tselem, the much-recognized Israeli human rights group, says this: “Israel’s regime of apartheid and occupation is inextricably bound up in human rights violations. B’Tselem strives to end this regime, as that is the only way forward to a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty and equality are ensured to all people, both Palestinian and Israeli, living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

Does this make B’tselem an anti-Semitic “hate group?” Really?

Recent charges that the current IDF bombing is “genocide” raise similar concerns.

There is no doubt that the bombing is killing thousands of Palestinian civilians and destroying their lives and their world, even if IDF spokesmen insist that they wish all the people would just go away or not die when bombed. Does this qualify as “genocide”? I’m not sure, though I surely think it qualifies as a war crime. But Raz Segal, an Israeli Jewish expert on genocide thinks it is “a textbook case of genocide,” and he published a long essay explaining why in Jewish Currents, a Jewish journal edited by Peter Beinart. Is Segal an anti-Semite?

Is Jewish Currents—a Jewish journal that publishes a range of critiques of Israel written by Jewish people who actually identify with Israel—an anti-Semitic publication?

Obviously not–though the very fact that this question must be even rhetorically posed should make us very sad.

But a great many Jewish Americans who identify with Israel–along with their philo-Semitic allies and their Christian fundamentalist allies for whom the assigned role of Jewish Zionists is either to be converted or to die in a holy “rapture”—regard all talk of “apartheid” and “genocide” as not simply debatable but hateful and evil and no different than the rhetoric of criminals who send messages about “raping Jewish pigs” or carry Nazi insignias and Tikki torches through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia yelling “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”

The equation of such things is not merely a mistake. It is an affront to both intellectual credibility and political pluralism.

Genuine Political Disagreements

I’ll now return to the case of Rashida Tlaib, who has become a lightning rod of controversy on and off campuses across the country. The first thing to note is that, like all human beings, she is not one thing but many things.

She is a Democrat who has been an outspoken opponent of Trumpism and a strong supporter of constitutional democracy. She is a woman who strongly supports reproductive freedom and the civil liberties of all minority groups.

And she is a Palestinian-American, indeed the only one in the 435-member House of Representatives. Her mother was born on the West Bank and her father in East Jerusalem. Her elderly grandmother and other family members live in the West Bank village of Beit Ur al-Fauqa. This means that they experience Israeli Occupation and disenfranchisement daily. Let’s be frank: nothing about Zionism has been uplifting or empowering for her family and friends—nor was it intended to be.

Can it really be a shocking surprise that Rashida Tlaib is a harsh critic of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and its denial of human rights to Palestinians?

Tlaib denounces the IDF bombing of large sections of Gaza and the killing of many thousands of Palestinian civilians. She refuses to apologize for believing allegations that IDF bombing was responsible for the October 17 destruction of a Gaza hospital—though the evidence here remains inconclusive (see here and here). She has recently criticized President Biden for supporting the genocide of Palestinians. And she has even posted a video in which some protestors are chanting “from the river to the sea.”

It is possible to disagree with or object to some or all of what Rashida Tlaib says.

But her stance, however controversial or even offensive to some (and heartening to others), has nothing to do with anti-Semitic tropes or the promotion of violence against Jewish people.

And yet many public officials, journalists, and lobbyists describe her as an “anti-Semitic” or a “terrorist sympathizer.”

We are talking about a thrice-elected member of Congress who speaks out on a range of issues and whose views on Israel-Palestine are not only grounded in her personal experience, but also accord with what many of her constituents think.

Yes, many Jewish-Americans get triggered by some of Tlaib’s language, some for understandable reasons, and some because of a vicarious identification, from afar, with the historic vulnerability of Jews. Many good people might be made uncomfortable by Tlaib’s words. This happens in a complex, pluralistic democracy. And a similar thing happens to many Arab-Americans when they listen to the things Jewish-American Rep. Jared Moskowitz says about how the bombing of Gaza is necessary to “defend the Jewish people.”

These are real and consequential political differences, and they are necessarily fractious. But no good can come from elevating them into existential confrontations between people figured as malevolent haters. The “solution” to these differences is quite simple: public debate and dialogue. Politics.

Why Clarity is Now So Important, Especially on American Campuses

Anti-Semitism is real, and often results in real harm that must be addressed and repaired. So too Islamophobia.

But most of the clamor about “anti-Semitism” on American campuses today is not about hatred of Jews or violence against Jews. It is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the range of emotional, intellectual, and political responses to it, and the ways these responses are often overwrought or defensive or offensive and sometimes very heated and antagonistic but not necessarily bigoted or violent.

And these reactions are being enacted on American campuses, and not in the contested territories of Israel-Palestine, where very real violence is being enacted and a war is unfortunately threatening to rage out of control.

Pro-Israeli Jewish-American demonstrators are American citizens and not IDF soldiers.

And Palestinian-American demonstrators who support “free Palestine” are American citizens and not Hamas terrorists.

The people arguing and yelling and demonstrating and counter-protesting about Israel and Palestine on the streets and campuses of the U.S. are political adversaries in a functioning (if increasingly weak) constitutional democracy whose rhetorical battles are not real battles even if they involve real political contestation.

Framing what is happening as the eternal recurrence of anti-Semitism (or of anti-Arab racism) serves no good intellectual, moral, or political purpose.

But it does serve one very bad political purpose: it furnishes a strong tailwind for the MAGA Republicans seeking to destroy liberal democracy in the U.S, and who are now (as opposed to when actual synagogues are attacked by right-wing fanatics) eager to pose as Defenders of the Jews and Warriors against the Arab Hordes.

The cynical if failed effort of Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Green (D-Ga.)—she of the nefarious “space lasers” supposedly engineered by “Rothschild, Inc.”—to censure Rashida Tlaib, and to harass and weaken Progressive Democrats and Justice Democrats more generally, is one form this is taking, designed to turn Democrats on each other, to convert some into unwitting allies of the GOP effort to restrict civil liberties more generally and to sow divisions in the run up to the 2024 elections.

A second, and more dangerous, effort to advance authoritarianism is being pioneered by Florida Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis, who recently joined with Ray Rodrigues, the Chancellor of the University of Florida system that he appointed, to deactivate, i.e., expel, two University chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine at University of Florida campuses; called for a broader banning pro-Palestinian student groups from Florida campuses; and promised to revoke pro-Palestinian student visas and deport the students if elected President (moves that have been criticized by FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a centrist campus civil liberties organization). These moves, of course, are of a piece with DeSantis’s broader effort to purge Florida higher education of all traces of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” “gender studies,” and “critical race theory,” and to promote a form of “civic education” mapped by the far-right and conservative Christian Hillsdale College.

DeSantis is hardly alone. The U.S. Senate has passed a Resolution, sponsored by right-wing demagogue Josh Hawley, that condemns Hamas and “denounces the rhetoric of anti-Israel, pro-Hamas student groups as antisemitic, repugnant, and morally contemptible for sympathizing with genocidal violence against the state of Israel and risking the physical safety of Jewish Americans in the United States.” Hawley, and many other legislators, have called on the department of Homeland Security and the FBI to investigate the ties between such groups and “terrorist” organizations.

These efforts are unfortunately—no, deplorably–being promoted by the Anti-Defamation League (“We Stand With Israel”), which on October 20 published a report on a range of “dangerous” campus groups that included Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and If Not Now When, explaining that “each of these groups has expressed inflammatory rhetoric about Israel and/or Zionism. Many have a history of promoting classic antisemitic themes on social media, at rallies, on webinars and more. Many have also long expressed support for terror against Israel.” The implication is clear: these groups aid and abet Hamas terrorism. On October 27, the ADL followed up by joining with the Louis B. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to send a letter to over two hundred U.S. colleges and universities accusing Students for Justice in Palestine of supporting anti-Semitism and Hamas terrorism, and calling on administrators to “investigate the activities of your campus chapter of [SJP] for potential violations of 18 USC 2339A and B, and its state equivalents, that is, for potential violations of the prohibition against materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization.” This week Brandeis University became the first private university in the U.S. to comply with this call, banning Students for Justice in Palestine from campus on the grounds that it “supports Hamas.”.

To read harsh political discourse as “hate,” and to inflate very real political differences into existential antagonisms, is to undermine the robust and fractious public disagreement that is at the heart of a pluralistic democracy.

To be very clear: what is being proposed is not simply that university administrators work to limit or ban “pro-Palestinian” student groups—bad enough–but that such groups be investigated for violating federal anti-terrorist law.

Where will such a 21st-Century McCarthyism end? And what role will be played in it by people, alas including some otherwise liberal American Jews, who claim to be supporters of civil rights and believers in democracy and who even claim that they support Israel because it is a democracy?

The logic of these calls to investigate and to ban is clearly hostile to basic principles of both academic freedom and freedom of expression.

They contribute to a hysteria about “terrorism” and “the woke left” and the need for “patriotic” education that has proven quite effective when promoted by illiberal authoritarians from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to India’s Narendra Modi to Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis to Benjamin Netanyahu himself—who until a few weeks ago was being widely denounced for his authoritarianism and extremism and his support for extremist, racist settlers engaging in a concerted effort to harass and attack Wester Bank Palestinians and to seize their land, but who now is apparently an ally in the defense of–“democracy?”

Finally, they contribute to the kind of defensiveness, and dogmatism, that can do no good for the management of real differences on university campuses, or the regulation of real political conflicts in society at large, or the effort to promote peace and justice in a world of violence and injustice.

Anti-semitism is very real—just as Islamophobia is very real–and it ought to be opposed in ways that do not violate the civil rights and liberties of others.

But to read harsh political discourse as “hate,” and to inflate very real political differences into existential antagonisms, is to undermine the robust and fractious public disagreement that is at the heart of a pluralistic democracy.

Those who are doing this ought to know better. And, if they are at all serious about freedom, democracy, or peace, they ought to stop.

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