Beyond a fringe: JVL in Jewish Experience and Tradition

Pictured with Vladmir Medem and Marek Edelman (discussed in this article), is Clara Lemlich whose Yiddish language speech started an uprising of 20,000 women garment workers in New York in 1909.

JVL Introduction

In this article written especially for us, JVL support officer Murray Glickman reflects on the Jewish experience of diaspora, oppression and struggle over the ages, with a focus on Europe.

He argues that the ‘dissident’ views of Jewish socialists are deeply rooted in our historical experience and ethical tradition or, as he puts it, “we are dissidents because we are Jews”.

Our status as an ethnic-religious minority and our experience of being oppressed have fostered an impulse among Jews to empathise with, and reach out to, others in the same position.

Centuries of being outsiders in society have left a lasting suspicion of ethno-nationalism.

These are the roots of the Bundist concept of “do’igkeyt” – “hereness” – encapsulated in the slogan: Right here where we live, that’s where our country is and in the Bund’s essential insight that the well-being of the Jewish population of any country is inseparably bound up with the well-being of that country’s population as a whole.

The values that JVL espouses are for all of us deeply rooted in Jewish history and experience, even including ethical traditions within  Judaism as a religion.


Murray Glickman writes

Introduction

Jewish socialists have ‘dissident’ views, by mainstream standards. For all that, our formative ideas are rooted in the Jewish experience and in Jewish cultural tradition. We are not ‘dissident Jews’ but ‘dissidents and Jews’. I’d even go so far as to suggest that we are dissidents because we are Jews. This is what I aim to show in the discussion that follows.

Diaspora

Jews have been an identifiable ethnic/religious group for close to two millennia, perhaps longer. During that time and for as long as the historical record exists, we have been a diaspora. By that I mean, we have lived all that time in geographically separated communities spread across different continents. Whether, originally, we were or were not scattered deliberately by imperial decree is not a question I need to go into. The points that matter are, first, that Jews have always lived in communities dispersed across different countries and, second, that in those countries they have always lived as an ethno-religious minority socially distinct from the rest of the population.

Jews are not only part of a border-straddling diaspora; they are very conscious of the fact. As a result, they have traditionally looked with suspicion and distrust on the narrow ethno-nationalistic attitudes that have emerged periodically within majority communities among whom they have lived.

This is not difficult to understand. As Jews, we find out at an early age that there are people in other countries — Jewish and non-Jewish — who are human beings just like us. furthermore, we are in no doubt that any xenophobia arising in the wider community within which we live can as easily turn against us as against ‘foreigners’ elsewhere. That serves as some kind of check on Jews readily identifying with nationalistic waves that may sweep through the community outside. To that extent, our Jewish experience cautions us against chauvinism and inclines us towards a view of the world that looks beyond the ‘nation’. Consciousness of being part of a diaspora can be salutary in moral, humanistic terms.

Oppression

A concomitant of diaspora has been oppression. It did not have to be like that. It is certainly not like that in Britain in 2021. But that is how it has been for most of Jewish history.

For the far-right today the internet is a ‘safe space’ from which to spread antisemitic hate. But as poisonous as they are, their outpourings do not bear mention in the same breath as the experience of inescapable hatred, contempt and prejudice endured by Jews of past generations. Furthermore, the core of the oppression that Jews have suffered has lain not in what was said to them or written about them but in the material mistreatment inflicted on them. Denial of basic rights has been the norm: violence, confiscation and expulsion have been dismally regular occurrences.

Spatially and socially segregated and all but powerless, Jews nevertheless had to engage with external political authority. A glimpse into what this meant in the seventeenth-century in the region around Hamburg is offered in the diaries of Glikl fun Hameln [Glückel of Hameln – Wikipedia]. In these, Glikl — a merchant’s wife and exceptionally rare as an educated female — provides a vivid picture of her family life. She also records the recurrent experience of unequal, often unsuccessful, negotiation with local rulers that Jews of her community had to undertake simply in order to live, work and trade where they needed to be.

The cultural impact on Jews of this existence has been significant. Long-term experience of asymmetric relationships with alien political authority has fostered an impulse among Jews to empathise with, and reach out to, others in the same position. More than that, long practice in engaging with hostile power in adverse circumstances has become a kind of cultural ‘capital’ that Jews can draw on to help others fight oppression strategically.

As Jewish socialists, we embrace this tradition wholeheartedly and do all we can to continue it.

Out of the (European) ghetto

Patchily, in limited fashion and with many reverses, Jews began to acquire civic rights in many parts of Europe in the nineteenth century, starting with the reforms of the Napoleonic era. Rapid economic change assisted the process. Europe’s ghetto walls began to come down. These developments are part of the ancestral history of most JVL members, and the discussion which follows largely focuses on consequences of them. For that reason it is euro- and Ashkenazi-centric. Here I must admit my ignorance of the Mizrachi and Sephardi experience, but I am sure there is a parallel story to be told.

Judaism has traditionally prized learning and literacy (at least for males), though strictly for religious purposes. This had the result that a relatively large number of Jews received what was in effect a training in logical inference and close study of texts. From this cultural springboard, many ninetieth-century European Jews were quick to take advantage of any easing of restrictions to venture into the expanding spheres of secular, ‘gentile’ knowledge and related activity. There was even a ‘Jewish Enlightenment’ movement — the Haskalah.

The scientific outlook and ideas of rationalism, liberalism, humanism and the ‘Rights of Man’ found a ready audience in Jewish circles. This was due in large part — there can be little doubt — to prior Jewish experience of oppression. It is also true that, as excluded outsiders, Jews were not socially conditioned into ready acceptance of modes of thought deriving from the past that prevailed within the population as a whole.

For present purposes, a key development in nineteenth-century social thinking was that political emancipation became conceivable as a goal for which society’s lower ranks could strive. Jews, of course, fell predominantly into that category.

The Bund

Increasing social access led to large-scale Jewish engagement in social and humanitarian movements. My concern here is with just one such development, the rise of the Bund — or to give it its full title, the Jewish Labour Bund.

By the late nineteenth century, impatience for change, working-class consciousness and radical ideas were sweeping European society as a whole and having a major impact in the Jewish world in particular.

For reasons such as those already outlined, Jews were attracted to socialist ideas of all kinds. A key development was the foundation, in 1897, of the Jewish Labour Bund. At that time, a large majority of the world’s Jews lived in northern and eastern Europe. The Bund was created by and for this increasingly urbanised population. At the same time, the late nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century was also a period of mass emigration for East European Jews. The favoured destination was the USA.

The Bund, meanwhile, grew to become a dominant influence in Jewish political life in inter-war Poland and other parts of eastern Europe. Published estimates of the distribution of the world’s Jewish population for 1939 underline the significance of this. By then, mass emigration was long over. Yet, even at that late point, 45 per cent of the world’s Jews lived in Poland, the USSR (including the Baltic regions) and Romania — areas loosely corresponding to what had been the Pale of Settlement. 19 per cent still lived in Poland alone. By contrast, Jews living in Asia, North Africa, Greece, Italy and European Turkey (loosely, the Sepharad and Mizrach) together accounted for only 9 per cent of the total.

it is also worth noting that the vast majority of Jews living in Britain today are descendants of this immigration wave. Jewish socialists and trade unionists took their ideas — including their Bundist ideas — with them wherever they went (see, for example, the case of Clara Lemlich in the US). Their settlement in Britain coincided with the emergence of our Labour Party and trade unions as a major political force, a development to which these immigrants and their children made a significant contribution.

The Bundist view

The essential insight of Bundism is that the well-being of the Jewish population of any country is inseparably bound up with the well-being of that country’s population as a whole; in other words, that working for a better society and for the liberation of all citizens was the only way to achieve the emancipation of Jewish citizens in particular.

Out of this came the distinctive Bundist concept of ‘do’igkeyt’ [Yiddish, ‘hereness’]. This is powerfully expressed in the following statement by Vladimir Medem, Bund leader in 1920:

“[Zionists] speak of a national home in Erets Yisroel, but our organization opposes this thinking absolutely. We believe our home is here, in Poland, in Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and the United States.

Here we live, here we struggle, here we build, here we hope for a better future. We do not live here as aliens. Here we are at home! It is on this principle that our survival depends.”

[The text appeared in the journal, Di Naye Velt (2 July 1920, p. 12), quoted in Arthur Neslen, Occupied Minds, (Pluto Press, 2006)]

A traumatic century on, these words continue to inspire.

Ethical and religious dimensions

Over a century or more, religion has waned in importance for Britain’s Jews, mirroring changes in society as a whole. But Christian ethical ideas remain embedded in British culture as —I would argue — do Jewish ethical ideas amongst Britain’s Jews. And, of course, the ethical ideas of the two religions have close historical linkages.

Most members of JVL are secular in outlook: A large number have energetically thrown out the scriptural bathwater. But many of us nevertheless have taken care not to throw out the ethical ‘baby’ at the same time. Others, it seems to me, give this baby a place whilst not necessarily appreciating its parentage.

The Bundist generations embraced secularity, like numerous other Jewish contemporaries. Yet many did so from a position of deep familiarity with the Jewish religion and consciously retained what they found good in it. They built on and out of religious tradition rather that abandoning it totally. In this and many other ways, I believe, traditional Jewish ethical thinking continued to be a salient influence on Jewish socialists thereafter.

An outstanding example of this is the Bundist invention of the secular ‘Seder’.

Traditionally, the first two nights of Passover are given over to the formal Seder service and meal. During it, the story of the Exodus is told and, within it, the role of divine providential intervention is emphasised. The core of the story is one of liberation from suffering and oppression. This is a theme which lent itself readily to reinterpretation reflecting Bundist concerns in the here-and-now. And so, having taken part in the formal Seder at he beginning of Passover, Bundists held their own secular Seders later in the Passover week. At these gatherings, themes of political liberation took centre-stage. One such is described here.

In modern times, this Bundist tradition has been the inspiration for the ‘liberation Seders’ based around myriad liberation themes and held in many parts of the world during Passover. Google came up with nearly 4500 results for “liberation Seder” when I searched this term.

To illustrate further the influence of traditional Jewish ethics on the attitudes of politically progressive Jews, I go on to highlight some passages drawn from explicitly religious sources.

To begin with, Deuteronomy (Dvorim) 10:19, which is typical of many passages to be found in the Pentateuch (Chumesh). It reads:

You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

One doesn’t need to believe the Exodus story is history to appreciate the powerful message this verse sends to members of a now relatively comfortable group for whom awareness of centuries of being the hated ‘stranger’ remains painful and raw.

The Charedi community set great store by the following passage from Jeremiah(Yirmiyohu) [29:7]:

And seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for it to the Lord, for in its peace you shall have peace.

Again, one doesn’t need to believe that we live in ‘exile’ in the UK today to appreciate the underlying wisdom of the verse. It is not a million miles from the Jewish socialist insight mentioned earlier, that our wellbeing as a minority is inextricably bound up with the wellbeing of the country as a whole.

A final passage I will quote is known as Hiilel’s Golden Rule :

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

One JVL member recently told me that he was taught this maxim in religious classes as a youngster and that it left a lasting impression. He is not the only one to cherish this saying.

In the past, Jews in general spent their lives fervently hoping for the Messiah (Meshiach) to come, redeem the Jewish people and usher in an era of peace and plenty for the whole of humanity. This hope gave solace over centuries of persecution and helped fortify Jews to endure the struggle for life in a hostile world. For Orthodox Jews, this wait remains a key component of existence.

The influence of this patient waiting on secular Jewish socialists should not be overlooked. We can conceive of a much better world than the one we inhabit now, and we hold on to the hope of achieving it.

Concluding synthesis

As its website masthead, JVL proudly cites the following quotation:

“To be a Jew means always being with the oppressed, never with the oppressors.”

These are the words of Marek Edelman, a Bundist who was a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 1943 and who survived into old age, living and working in Poland. To my mind, they synthesise the values Jews have learned from their diaspora existence, from centuries of exclusion, persecution, expulsion and ultimately from genocide. It should be noted also that the sentiment expressed aligns with the moral teachings of our ancestral religion just as much as it reflects progressive, humanistic modes of thought that have flowered in societies in which Jews have lived over long centuries.

Postscript

With apologies to the creators of the stellar 1960s satirical review, the title Beyond A Fringe alludes to the contemptible demand made of candidates in the 2020 Labour-Party leadership election by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. This was that all the candidates should pledge themselves:

to engage with the Jewish community via its “main representative groups and not through fringe organisations” such as Jewish Voice for Labour.

Hard data do not exist, but all the indications are that the Board is entitled to claim to be ‘deputed’ by 30 per cent of British Jews at the very most. They are in fact a lobby group, no more and no less.

A demand of this kind has no place in democratic politics. But, apart from pointing to it as a backhanded acknowledgment of JVL’s important role, there is something else we can say as Jews. Being ostracised by powerful non-Jewish institutions is nothing new in our history. However, for a Jewish organisation to lead the attack on fellow Jews seems unprecedented. The values we Jews have learned from the oppression our ancestors endured include those of respecting and upholding the rights of others, tolerance and the prizing of open debate and free expression of opinion. In JVL, we hold these values dear because, as I hope I have shown, our roots in Jewish experience are deep and strong. In that, we are clearly beyond a fringe. By the same token, the rejection of these values by the Deputies of the Board is inherent in their conduct towards the Labour Party; in terms of Jewish values, it places them well and truly on the fringe.

 

Comments (16)

  • John Bowley says:

    This is a superb article. I sometimes feel alienated in the country in which I grew up, because of the soft-right-wing establishment media, similar establishment politics and crass assumptions of being within shallow groupings. Thank you, Murray, for writing this fine piece from a Jewish Socialist and internationalist perspective. It is full of meaning for me. JVL indeed upholds the best examples.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    I am wondering why there is not a word, not a syllable, about the huge number of London East End Jews who joined the Communist Party. This included Phil Piratin, one of the two Communist MPs elected in the 1945 general election. There is no doubt that Jewish CP membership arose directly out of the extreme poverty and discrimination experienced by the post first world war British Jewish working class, most of whom came from backgrounds ranging from extreme Orthodoxy (like my dad and several of his siblings) to ‘high days and holy day Jews’ (like my mum). Are these people too embarrassing to mention? How come they don’t fit into the ‘dissident because we are Jews’ narrative? When the mainstream press writes dissident Jewish members out of the Labour Party narrative, that is outrageous. So how come it’s all right to hide from history this segment of dissident Jewish/working class life – and in the JVL newsletter? I can’t decide whether my feelings of fury or hurt are greater.

  • Frank Land says:

    One missing element is that slice of the dispora which opted for assimilation, and was prepared to loosen or even dispense with its Jewish identity. Their size and impact throughout the ages must not be underestimated.

  • Jim Cooper says:

    Many thanks for this article.

  • John Spencer says:

    Naomi Wayne is right. One should also mention the many Jewish revolutionaries in Russia. Not least Leon Trotsky. Theirs is not a shameful tradition and it should be celebrated.

  • There is a danger of romanticising the history of the Jewish diaspora and treating Jews as simply victims of history rather than agents in their own right. We need to fight the idea that we were always and everywhere the victims of persecution. This is the Zionist idea of eternal anti-Semitism which is the other side of the eternal wandering Jew.

    Israel Shahak, the Israeli professor and human rights activist, wrote a lot about Jewish history and Jewish fundamentalism. He was surely right when he wrote that

    ‘there has been a great deal of nonsense written in the attempt to provide a social or mystical interpretation of Jewry or Judaism as a whole. This cannot be done, for the social structure of the Jewish people and the ideological structure of Judaism have changed profoundly through the ages.’

    Jewish identity changed many times throughout history. It was not an unending tapestry of persecution. We were oppressors too. The peasant in Poland in the 15th and 16th centuries would have rightly seen the Jewish tax collector in that light.

    The period of the Bund and the Jewish revolutionary related to the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century and as Naomi Wayne said Murray leaves out revolutionary and communist Jews (& anarchists too).

    Zionism only came to dominate the diaspora because it was sponsored by non-Jews and anti-Semites like Balfour coupled with the genocide of the holocaust.

    But even during the holocaust assimilation enabled the survival of hundreds of thousands of those classed as Jews. The Zionist idea that Jews should separate off from non-Jews isolated them when danger came. What happened to the Jews of Salonika as opposed to the Jews of Athens (or Italy) bears this out.

    We should therefore reject the Zionist idea that assimilation is another holocaust. As long as it’s not forced then it an equally valid choice as any other identity.

  • Stephen Richards says:

    Which is why the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli gov’t is so perplexing; of all people to be without empathy.

  • Rob Ferguson says:

    I do think the Bundist tradition is an important reference point. And a history we should not allow to be buried. However it belongs to an era that has past. I agree with Naomi. The revolutionary tradition has likewise been buried also. Furthermore there are problems in overdrawing continuity between the pre emancipation condition of Jewry and the modern era. One of these is the question of assimilation. There was a strong current of assimilated Jewry, especially in Western Europe who identified with the nationalism of the states in which they were citizens. I think the attempt to identify an inherent identification with the oppressed flowing from Jewish history is problematic. Jews reacted in different ways to the rise of modern capitalist nation states and to modern antisemitism. They made choices. Those choices are still with us in different ways and to be sure they are of huge importance. But I sometimes think the is a danger of a form of political nostalgia that does not necessarily help us make them.

  • Leah Levane says:

    I really enjoyed this article – and, of course, there is much more that can be said, not least, as Naomi Wayne highlights, the significant number of Jews who became active members of the Communist Party -but I felt Murray was drawing specifically on the Bundist tradition to centre the importance of “being here” and, other than the specific reference to the concluding paragraphs that do touch on the current ludicrous (to say the least) situation in the Labour Party, I do not think he referred to any specific Parties. I see that Communist connection as falling well within this piece. As an aside, for a long time the Communist and Labour Parties worked closely together and certainly there were friendships as well as joint action. My own parents met at a Communist Party dance, to which they were invited by friends, even though they were not members. It is not possible to mention everything in one article and this was, of course, a personal reflection by Murray. I think what Naomi and John Spencer have included in the comments absolutely warrants a follow up article, which we would be glad to receive;
    and, if someone can write a piece on the Sephardi and Mizrahi experience, that would be wonderful. There was an interesting, short piece on the BBC’s Sunday programme about the very small but strong Iraqi Jewish community in London.

  • Jaye says:

    A lot of wisdom and history is packed into this wonderfully heart-warming article Murray, kol hakavod. I can certainly identify with that history. My very poor grandparents settled in the East End and brought up a family which was naturally drawn towards Labour. However having fled the pogroms, I doubt that they would have identified with the Bund philosophy of: “We believe our home is here, in Poland, in Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and the United States.”

    There is always a risk of a Jew-hater from the Far Left or the Far Right arising anywhere, and attracting a following, and love of and concern for the Jewish State will always have a prominent place among the vast majority of Jews. Socialist hearts and ethics are part of Jewish DNA, however I believe that the centrality of Jewish religious traditions and Jewish continuity must not be forgotten, or there will be no continuity. The Far Left has no monopoly on defining “ethics” or radical/dissident ideas. I see no ethical merit in the obsessive antagonism displayed in JVL, but commendably not in your article Murray, towards the well-being and future of half of the world’s Jews (in Israel). And this antagonism extends towards a further 45% to 50% of the world’s Jews who have a deep affinity with Israel and its people. I still await one word of sympathy on this site for any injured or murdered Jew in Israel, of any age at any time under any circumstances, or praise for any act or decision taken by the State of Israel, anywhere, anytime. Everything is treif. In my opinion this issue overrides any slight that may be felt by JVL for being identified as a fringe group in UK Jewish life and thought, whilst professing compassion and care for other Jews.

    Again I heartily embrace your outline of the Jewish experience and history that has shaped us, and thank you for the article Murray. Chag Sukkot Sameach.

  • bob cannell says:

    jaye do please provide examples of jew-hatred by the far left. as a non jew i really need to know what the far left is saying in this regard. all through the labour party debacle i wanted someone to give examples of an organised or even popular seam of jew hatred by far lefties in the labour party. i cant recall anything other than a few individuals saying hateful things on social media who claimed affinity with various groups. so please enlighten me so i can avoid them as a socialist. thank you.

  • Nick Elvidge says:

    loved the article – can not speak about the suffering of the Jewish diaspora – i celebrate the unconquerable response borne out of that faith and experience – the here-ness of inter-related-ness. Loved especially ‘…go now and learn’ thanks xx

  • George Wilmers says:

    While I enjoyed reading Murray Glickman’s article, I also completely endorse Tony Greenstein’s observation

    “There is a danger of romanticising the history of the Jewish diaspora and treating Jews as simply victims of history rather than agents in their own right. We need to fight the idea that we were always and everywhere the victims of persecution”

    and in answer to Naomi Wayne and others, I would go considerably further.

    The prominent and often heroic role in the history of many of the 19th and 20th century currents of socialist, anarchist, and communist movements played by Jews is truly remarkable. But this history also contains a dark side which we cannot afford simply to expunge, in deference to strong personal emotions and some romantic myths. The elements of fanaticism and totalitarian cruelty which afflicted Soviet communism and induced a pathological blindness in its fellow travellers outside the USSR also afflicted many Jewish communists.

    I will not make myself popular by writing this, but there is, for some who come from a Jewish communist tradition, a deep unwillingness to face uncomfortable historical truths, or even to discuss them, which I can only compare to the cognitive dissonance of many supporters of Israel who consider themselves leftwing, which latter phenomenon JVL members are all too familiar with.

    The idolatrous retrospective veneration of the totalitarian communist parties subservient to the dictator Stalin never ceases to amaze me. The personal heroism of those who fought the fascists under the communist banner cannot be denied. But the unconditional allegiance demanded by the totalitarian party had murderous consequences which in the USSR and its satellites consumed not only dissidents who doubted its infallibility, but in the end even its most faithful adherents and willing executioners. Amongst all these targeted groups there were a very large number of Jews. However in the USSR under Stalin, and in many communist countries of eastern Europe after WW2, there continued to be a disproportionate number of Jews at the highest levels of the repressive Stalinist bureaucracy long after the Moscow trials and antisemitic purges of the 1930’s.

    It is for example impossible to understand the continuing resonance of antisemitism in Poland or Hungary unless one takes into account the fact that after WW2 the highest levels of the Stalinist puppet regimes were largely occupied by Jews, who could of course profitably be purged when appropriate using antisemitic innuendo. I witnessed the latter process firsthand as a graduate student in Poland in 1968. This is just one of the tragic legacies of Stalinist rule.

    Unfortunately being poor and downtrodden does not automatically confer political wisdom; still less does it automatically confer sagacity on the following generations. Otherwise there would be no mass fascist movements, and Israel would not be an apartheid state with the support of the majority of its Jewish population.

  • Mike Scott says:

    For the benefit of Jaye and Bob Cannell, can I please repeat (yet again!) that in a lifetime of activism on the left, in various parts of the country, nobody claiming to be a socialist has ever said anything antisemitic either to me or in front of me – though a number of other people have!

    This does not of course mean there is no antisemitism on the left, but it does mean it’s pretty rare – and this is also the experience of my lefty Jewish friends. It’s no good passing on urban myths with no evidence to back them up – and if you’ve got evidence, let’s hear it!

  • Richard Hobson says:

    A well written and argued analysis which, as a non Jew, I found fascinating and compulsive reading. OK, it didn’t mention East End Jews nor Leon Trotsky; neither did it have references to Rosa Luxemburg or Robert Oppenheimer to mention two others. Surely it wasn’t intended as a comprehensive history of Jewish socialists but as an analysis of the roots of JVL and Jewish socialist thinking.
    My thanks go to the author. This piece should be disseminated more widely.

  • john clark says:

    I am not Jewish but my parents had many Jewish friends who visited us from Israel, (which my mother insisted on calling Palestine). At secondary school most of my friends were Jewish boys – possibly because many held progressive views and found themselves at times on the margin of the school community. When I came to live in London I was adopted (did I need it ?) by many Jews who had left Vienna in the 1930s. It never occurred to me that they were not as British as I was. So I have always associated Jewishness with open minded and progressive views, and a determination to broadcast these quite persuasively. Later – in the 1970s – I came across Poale Zion, now JLM I think, and their narrow pride. This was in such contrast to the Jews in my Newham Labour Party (whose being a Jew always seemed to take second place to being a socialist). No categorisation of people is safe but racism feeds on that approach. Whether the Labour Party is still a place for open minded and progressive ideas I now wonder, but JVL still is ! Thanks Murray for making me think and express some ideas.

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