Diaspora origin myths; defeat and the Israelite nation.

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Diaspora Myths
To the Editors:
Dara Horn is a wonderfully gifted writer (“The Myth of Ellis Island and Other Tales of Origin,” Azure 41, Summer 2010). Her intriguing piece on the apocryphal tales of name-changing at Ellis Island argues against taking such tales at face value, and in favor of seeing them as part of a genre of Jewish founding myths. Other myths propagated among American Jewish immigrant families and their descendants include the notion that young men who left Russia in the 1880s, 1890s, or even later and immigrated to the United States had “fled” from the harsh conscription laws that threatened to snatch lads like themselves into the Russian army for twenty-five years or more—this, despite the fact that conscription laws had been reformed by the 1870s, service was reduced and regularized, and there were no longer any special Cantonist battalions filled by underage Jewish boys kidnapped in the middle of the night.
Horn prefers to focus on the naming fable, since, she suggests, it bears a message for succeeding generations of Jews in American society—a message, that is, about the indelible imprint of Jewish origins, and with a subtext of resistance to the blandishments of assimilation. Her evidence is twofold: First, Jewish founding myths of ages gone by (as in Spain and Poland) were never based on the unvarnished truth; indeed, they were made up of whole cloth to suit particular cultural purposes. (We might quibble with the idea of placing kitschy family folklore on a par with Ibn Daud’s Sefer Hakabbala, but we can allow some excess for poetic license.) Second, the officials at Ellis Island were not hapless clods who summarily and arbitrarily inscribed whatever names they liked, but rather trained personnel who relied on written shipping-company records, spoke several languages, employed a large staff of on-site translators, and conducted lengthy interviews with each arriving immigrant.
Yet Horn might have simply mentioned that the clearest evidence that Jewish immigrant families were themselves responsible for the name changes—and not the Ellis Island immigration officers—is that no one whose name was altered either inadvertently or against his will ever took the obvious step of changing it back to the original, “correct” version!
A closer look at Jewish names in America would appear to bring up further evidence: Some family names were shortened, but were not “Anglified”; the ethno-Jewish base was left intact. Names like Gold (Goldstein), Stein (Steinberg), Klein (Kleinbaum), Lazar (Lazarovich), Rosen (Rosenberg), Bloom (Rosenblum or Bloomgarten), and Snyder (Schneider) are all examples of simplified but not ethnically neutered surnames adopted by some immigrant Jews. Other names retained their Jewish-European spellings (such as Katz), but acquired new pronunciations (“Kates”), as is apparently popular in New England. The ubiquitous and intentionally hilarious cases of the legendary “Sean Ferguson” type are, therefore, not to be taken as the norm among Jewish families.
Even more interesting is the matter of first names chosen by Jewish families for their American-born children. Fashions in baby naming come and go (where are the Seymours, the Barrys, the Fannys, and the Cynthias of yesteryear?), but Jews have consistently avoided typically Catholic names (think of Luke, Timothy, Anne-Marie, Francis, Xavier, Patricia, Anthony, and Christine). I recently suggested as much before an audience of visiting French Jewish academics, some of whom were affronted that I considered their names “non-Jewish”—which implies, perhaps, that in a Catholic-majority country, Jews have done as the Catholics, whereas in a Protestant-dominated society, Jews have adopted Protestant fashions.
The exposure of the Ellis Island name-changing fable as a fabrication—and especially, as Horn observes, its constant rehearsal as popular American Jewish lore—might be a way to gauge the discomfiting tension between the Jewish need to fit in and the opposing need to stand out. Horn argues that this sort of discomfort can be a means of group survival and a source of self-empowerment. One could, if one wished, read into such tales quite different meanings, such as an index of the alien character of the Jewish immigrant, in which case the “joke” is actually at the Jews’ expense, and is in truth a form of self-disparagement; or, alternatively, one could read these tales as a not very friendly disparagement of gentile intelligence. But certainly those readings make for a less interesting drasha.
Eli Lederhendler
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Dara Horn responds:
I am grateful to Professor Lederhendler for his thoughtful comments, which have “fargresert un farbesert” (strengthened and complimented) my treatment of American Jewish names in my essay. It is true that many American Jews changed their surnames for the sake of expediency rather than to hide an ethnic identity. And it is also true that one never hears stories of newly minted American Jews who, upon leaving Ellis Island in a huff, headed for the nearest town hall to “correct” the immigration officer’s “mistake.” One does, however, occasionally hear of American Jews in recent years who have changed their surnames back to their family’s original, or at least pre-American, names as a point of pride. As Ibn Daud attests (and yes, I agree—lehavdil), it is indeed possible to bring lost things back from the depths of the sea.
The question of first names is a subject unto itself—and one that I’ve addressed in fiction. At the end of my first novel, In the Image (Norton, 2002), there is a large family tree in which one can trace the cultural paths of an American Jewish family solely through its members’ first names. It begins with the immigrant generation of Gitls and Mendls, who begat the first American-born generation of Seymours and Sophies, who begat the Nancys and Howards, who begat the Jasons and Alisons, until one arrives at the youngest generation—in which some branches of the family have Madisons and Morgans, some have Eitans and Elanas, and in one branch, the Gitls and Mendls have conspicuously returned. While my exploration of this subject was fictional, the topic has been studied by scholars. Linguist Sarah Bunin Benor’s and sociologist Steven M. Cohen’s “Survey of American Jewish Language and Identity” includes a segment that correlates choices of baby names to other markers of American Jewish identity. The common experience of discarding and then reclaiming one’s Jewish identity over the course of several generations in America is captured in a far more recent American Jewish joke, which acts as a kind of contemporary inversion of the old Sean Ferguson joke. At an American bris (and a brit mila in America is still almost invariably called a “bris”), the mohel announces, “The baby’s name is Shlomo. He is named after his grandfather, Scott.”
Defeat and the Nation
To the Editors:
Jacob L. Wright (“A Nation Conceived in Defeat,” Azure 42, Autumn 2010) offers us an intriguing account of the origins of Jewish nationhood. The biblical authors, he argues, fearfully anticipating—or keenly aware of—the decline and ultimate demise of Jewish statehood, constructed an account of the Primary History that established the priority of the Israelite people (Am Yisrael). The crucible of defeat forged a more lasting national consciousness, one that “would ensure the perpetuity of the Jewish people necessary for its eventual return to sovereignty in its land.”
I am in basic agreement with my esteemed colleague’s assessment, and have presented the case in a very similar vein myself, especially with respect to the idea of severe loss’ demanding some sort of larger narrative that would justify the catastrophic events of the recent past. The Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhists provide a vivid contemporary example of how the protracted loss of sovereignty requires the construction of an alternative consciousness of peoplehood, thus prompting the exploration and adoption of new strategies for survival sans statehood.
Three points bear mentioning. First, for any group undergoing this severe historical test, the conceptual tools available for the project are only those that are current in the culture, whether its own or that of its hosts. Thus, Tibetan Buddhists make use of such terms as “self-determination,” “ethnic cleansing,” “government-in-exile,” and “diaspora,” whether these are native to Tibetan or Buddhist social and political thought or simply because they help make their case against China in the world of public opinion. Similarly, Wright’s article forces us to consider the milieu of the Babylonian and Persian Empires (and perhaps the Assyrian Empire as well), and their categorization of peoples, ethnic groups, minorities, etc. These sociopolitical realities, together with native Israelite traditions, no doubt exerted an influence on the biblical authors; witness the persistence of other “nations” into the late Hellenistic period, such as the Edomites and Samaritans, who also endured defeat and yet survived for several centuries even in the absence, to our knowledge, of compelling narratives of identity. The accommodation or receptiveness of the wider culture must thus be considered when gauging the success of any strategy for conceptualizing a consciousness.
Second, the duration of historical circumstances in the formation of consciousness is crucial. As Wright notes, the protracted deterioration of the northern and southern states in the 130 years before the First Temple’s destruction likely induced the new orientation. Assaf Sagiv makes a similar point in his editorial in the same issue (“Politics’ Dark Energy”) regarding how the unending religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led the West to embrace its current set of values vis-à-vis religion and state. So while I concur that both the Primary History and the books of the Prophets (and some later Writings) make the Jewish people the plot’s main character, what helped this national consciousness “succeed”—that is, be seen as the most persuasive, compelling, and accurate account of historical events—was the Persian triumph over Babylonia and Cyrus’ proclamation for Judahites to return to their land a mere fifty years after the First Temple’s destruction. The fact that displaced Judahites could return to a province named Yehud, rebuild their Temple (with imperial funds), reinstate their cultic rites, and celebrate their traditional holidays in living memory of the First Commonwealth’s practices no doubt helped impress upon Jews of the time that they were a nation that had returned. One is left to wonder what the fate of Jews—even those who regularly recited the biblical narratives recorded on portable scrolls—would have been had the Babylonians remained in power another century or two.
Finally, though Wright frequently mentions that the goal of constructing national identity was to help the Jewish people endure statelessness until the eventual return to its land, the logical implication of this approach stands at the ready: namely, that statehood and sovereignty are unnecessary for Jewish national existence. While we lack sufficient archival records of diasporic Jewish attitudes, especially at the time of the Bible’s formation, a return to the land does not seem to have been on the minds of most Jews living throughout the territories of the Babylonian and Persian Empires in the six centuries of the Second Commonwealth. If on a conceptual level national consciousness became primary before or immediately following the loss of statehood, then the establishment and perpetuation of large Jewish communities outside Yehud/Judea confirmed the truth and viability of that identity. Put another way, the ongoing existence of a vibrant Jewish diaspora together with a center in the Land of Israel lent vitality to the biblical concept of a landless Jewish people and the seeming superfluousness of national institutions—an attitude that no doubt helped many Jews endure the tumultuous and tragic years of the first two centuries C.E.
In this regard, Isaiah Gafni’s work on the post-70 C.E. emphasis on Torah and Jewish law is an apt parallel: The ascending importance and ultimate primacy of Torah as the source of Jewish identity, at least in rabbinic circles, may have been a consolation of sorts after the failed revolts against Rome. But that strategy (perhaps inevitably) produced conflicts between the rabbinic communities in the Land of Israel and those in Babylonia, who increasingly refused to recognize the primacy of their Western counterparts. For if Torah knowledge was primary, why should territory matter?
In a similar vein, some Jews in the early years of the Second Commonwealth may have continued to insist on the ideal of Jewish nationhood combined with sovereignty in whatever form. But once a national consciousness is fashioned that can endure the loss of statehood, it is hard to prevent that identity from becoming its own independent ideal. Statehood and sovereignty are lost and, in the minds of many subsequent Jews from late antiquity to today, either postponed to some messianic future or jettisoned for good.
Michael S. Berger
Emory University, Atlanta
To the Editors:
Jacob Wright deserves much praise for having outlined a model of biblical composition and transmission that sheds the well-worn garment of state sponsorship. Too often scholars have looked toward the Temple and the palace in their search for the origins and impetus of biblical literature. Not only have these many efforts been unoriginal, but they have constructed a biblical worldview wherein agency rests solely among the wealthy and powerful classes—this, despite the abundance of biblical passages arguing against that very wealth and power.
To his credit, Wright deftly avoids the statist trap by pointing out that concepts of nationhood independent of—or entirely at odds with—that of the state can be found throughout the Primary History. And indeed, between the primeval institutions described in the Sinai narrative (laws, rituals, and modes of excommunication) and the presentation of the monarchic period as a brief golden age followed by a sharp decline, one may easily be convinced of Wright’s argument that Israelite national identity does not rely on the fact of an Israelite state. So, too, with Wright’s argument that the nation of Israel arose precisely from the people’s confrontation with imminent defeat and the need to secure an enduring identity.
I must, however, disagree with Wright’s line of reasoning. For starters, he does a disservice to the formation of both the Hebrew Bible and the Israelite nation by positing that every author, redactor, and copyist had in mind some concept of Israel’s identity while performing his duty. Though Wright pays lip service to the idea of Israel as an emergent phenomenon by recognizing that there are competing views of the nation present in the text, to him, the evolutionary character of the process seems to end there. He never concedes the possibility that for some authors, an Israelite national identity may in truth have been tied to victory. Wright similarly glosses over the possibility that some authors may not have had a collective identity in mind at all. Indeed, the problem with his presentation of the biblical text as the product of an emerging nation is that he wants to limit that emergence to his own narrow context. In reality, however, this is not the way emergent phenomena work. This is not to say that Israel or the Hebrew Bible should not be seen as the result of an emergent order, only that “nationalism out of defeat” and “a collection of competing definitions of Israel” are simply too pat, and too convenient, to be the whole story.
Overall, what is missing is a lack of recognition of the complexity of the process. Even if it were the case that the final product (the Hebrew Bible, or more specifically the Primary History) was born of a desire to create an Israelite identity, this would reflect only the desires and biases of those who transmitted the tradition. Furthermore, the fact that certain stories provide edification for an Israelite identity does not mean that the authors of these narratives intended such a reading themselves. In sum, while there may be an Israelite nation that emerges out of the literature he surveys, Wright has not proven sufficiently that this nation was a conscious, deliberate intention, much less the result of reflection on the loss of statehood.
Francis Borchardt
University of Helsinki
Jacob L. Wright responds:
I was pleased to read these letters, and welcome the opportunity to clarify my position and introduce several important points.
Berger, who happens to be a senior colleague at Emory University, is accurate in his formulation of my essay’s thesis—“The crucible of defeat forged a more lasting national consciousness.” Yet what I have attempted to argue is that the determinative factor in producing this national consciousness was not defeat as some raw historical fact, but rather the communities that identified defeat as a turning point in their collective histories. The Bible was authored by members of “mnemonic communities” or “communities of mourning” who assigned grave significance to political subjugation, societal destruction, and national dispersion. Defeat was indeed so essential to the self-understandings of the groups that produced the Bible that they occasionally even exaggerated its scope and consequences.
Why did they do so? The reason I would offer may be summed up by the word discontinuity.As Jewish communities began to emerge in the Land of Israel during the Persian and Hellenistic periods, they turned to the problem posed by the substantial differences between the societies of the times of the First and Second Temples. Some communities were concerned that the Temple in Jerusalem did not appear to stand in direct continuity with the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians. The same goes for the rituals practiced at this Temple, as well as for most other legal and political institutions established in the Second Temple period. Yet the ultimate question of discontinuity concerned the identity of the community as a whole: What is the relationship between the Persian province of Yehud and the former kingdom of Judah, and how do both relate to Israel?
My essay responds to two scholarly approaches to this issue of discontinuity. The first situates the formation of the Bible primarily in the context of statehood, and in so doing fails to take seriously the significance of discontinuities in Israel’s history for the biblical authors. The second approach does take this issue seriously; however, it distinguishes the “nation of Israel” that existed in the Iron Age from “the (Yahwistic) religious/cultic community” of the Second Temple period.
I adopt an altogether different approach. The Bible, taken as a whole and in its transmitted forms, represents in my view the efforts of various communities to affirm an essential continuity between themselves and the population of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They did so by collecting and redacting various ancient literary traditions from these kingdoms, which were in turn unified under two rubrics: the one People of Israel (Am Yisrael) and its one God. According to one of the principal messages in this literature, an originally united people abandoned its one God (as well as the way of life dictated by his one Law, in the one chosen place), and on account of its apostasy and heteropraxy became divided among various factious regions and ultimately into two warring kingdoms.
From this perspective, we can more readily appreciate the historiographical role assigned to defeat. The discontinuities between the societies of the First and Second Temple periods are ascribed to a major socio-political caesura, which is understood not simply as defeat, but more so as divine punishment by the one God of Israel. Defeat is therefore less a historical fact than a starting point for national historiography. Representatives of states emphasize triumph yet have difficulty admitting defeat, as it often means their factual cessation. Defeat is what a state inflicts on others, or at least something it has managed to surmount. In contrast, one can point to many cases in which defeat, as an ongoing condition, serves to bolster a collective consciousness among nations and peoples. Here, too, the biblical authors write from the vantage point of the vanquished, even long after their political and social conditions had undergone major change.
My use of the term “nation” is determined primarily by the lack of a suitable alternative. The promiscuously employed term “ethnicity” is sorely inadequate to the task: If anything, the biblical authors seek to transcend ethnicity by proffering an Israelite identity that embraces many different ethnic communities—throughout the Levant, in Egypt, Babylon, etc. Yet in addition to the problems inherent in the term “ethnicity” (at least as commonly understood), my use of “nation” is also motivated by a desire to call attention to the political innovation of the biblical authors. This massive and diverse corpus of literature is astoundingly consistent in drawing a basic distinction between what we would today call “nation” and “state.” Its historical narrative shows how the People of Israel existed long before it entered the Land of Israel, and long before its kings established their centralized rule there.
In this way, the biblical authors boldly affirm a national continuity between First and Second Temple periods. Israel can survive the demise of its kingdoms because it began as a people, and consequently must persist as such. Thus the communities in the Levant and throughout the diaspora may legitimately lay claim to this national heritage, and are indeed beckoned to do so. The prosaic affairs of these communities assumed new meaning as they came to be understood as the continuation of Israel’s long and illustrious national history.
A grand irony is that by assigning primacy to peoplehood over statehood and territorial sovereignty, the biblical authors may have ended up perpetuating the very problem they sought to solve. With an identity and the survival tools necessary for thriving outside their homeland, many communities that identified themselves with Israel became even more reluctant to return there. This situation endured into the Common Era and, indeed, throughout Jewish history until the present day.
Here I am in basic agreement with Berger’s statements. I would only argue that the biblical authors clearly recognized the nature of this tension. For while denying that Israel is coterminous with its land, they do not present an ideal of a de-territorialized polity (despite the fantasies of some contemporary scholars). Instead, they focus great attention on the residence in—and above all, return to—the land. In contrast to unmitigated territorial sovereignty, the condition of coming together in the land is understood to be indispensable to real national cohesion, especially in an age that did not know the benefits of modern travel and communication technology. While perhaps not ideal, what is presented as possible and realistic (in books like Ezra-Nehemiah) is a community in the land lacking full autonomy, yet dedicated to the study of Torah.
I am flattered by Francis Borchardt’s enthusiastic approbation of my model of biblical composition and transmission, which avoids the statist trap holding much of current scholarship in its thrall. Yet while he agrees with my conclusions, he disagrees with my line of reasoning. I must admit that I do not fully understand the nature of his critique and the alternative he is suggesting. Borchardt questions the importance of a “reflection on the loss of statehood,” but ascribes great significance to “the people’s confrontation with imminent defeat.” Similarly, his introduction of the concept of an “emergent order” into the discussion may only serve to confuse the issues.
Unfortunately, some of Borchardt’s comments misrepresent my views. For example, he claims that my essay “never concedes the possibility that for some authors, an Israelite national identity may in truth have been tied to victory.” Yet in several places in my essay, I argue explicitly that robust and ongoing experiences of statehood furnished a major, and essential, impetus for the emergence of a national identity, as, for example, when I wrote that this identity “owed its formation to a number of pre-existing factors, such as a confined and remote core territory, a history of tribal allegiances, a common language and culture, a set of shared laws and rituals, and ongoing military conflicts that fostered solidarity among allies,” and that “the golden age in Israel’s history was critical insofar as it enabled the consolidation of a diverse population, and the creation of such state organs as a unified calendar, festivals, music, laws, cult practices, and language.”
Moreover, according to Borchardt, I posit “that every author, redactor, and copyist had in mind some concept of Israelite identity while performing his duty.” This statement is inaccurate. As I made clear in my essay, when discussing the response of the “biblical authors” to the loss of statehood, I refer not to the actual sources, which to a great extent emerged in the context of statehood and in response to statist concerns, but rather to the circles that compiled and redacted these sources in the process of creating the Hebrew Bible.
Undoubtedly, it would be foolish to concern ourselves with “intention” when it comes to the composition of the ancient stories and accounts, not least because this received literature represents the work of many different hands, and evolved over an extended period. But I would argue that “intention” is not a fallacy, and is much less elusive, when it comes to the reception and interpretation of said literature by later readers. My approach to biblical analysis—which, by exposing multiple literary strata, can hardly be accused of failing to do justice to “the complexity of the process”—combines reader-response criticism with redaction criticism. It examines what the evidence of secondary shaping and editing (i.e., composition history) reveals about the way early readers interpreted the literature they transmitted and how they intended others to read it.
The book of Judges furnishes us with the most obvious case: Its authors collected disparate local accounts and presented them, by means of editorial framing, as episodes in the national history of the people of Israel. In so doing, they are undertaking the creative historiographical construction of a collective political identity. Of course, these authors would not describe their work in this way, but for that matter, neither would the pan-Germanic or pan-Italian historians of the nineteenth century.
Now of course, not every book is concerned to the same degree with the nation’s collective identity. Nonetheless we can with good reason claim that the Bible as a whole seeks to set forth a sustainable identity for Am Yisrael—by delineating the people’s origins and future, identifying the continuities connecting the epochs of their history, and reflecting on the relationship of this people to its ancestral land, deity, kings, cultic institutions, etc. To deny creative political intention to the historiographical constructions of the biblical authors is to be overly positivistic and to yield too much ground to “modernist” prejudices in political theory.
Education’s Forsaken Vision
To the Editors:
Avner Molcho’s article (“Education’s Forsaken Vision,” Azure 42, Autumn 2010) describing Israel’s original—and to today’s academic, cultural, and political leadership, “outdated”—educational ideals could not have come at a better time. I commend him for introducing an intuitive, historical, and even unique explanation for the subpar state of Israel’s school system, and for offering moral education as the solution. I only wish that he could have also provided working objectives for putting his theory into practice, for the cultural and moral decay that currently plagues the Jewish state has resulted in real professional and societal schisms.
Let me begin with a contemporary example. On January 12-13, 2011, the Reut Institute, a think tank designed to provide long-term, strategic policymaking support to Israeli leaders and decision makers, and The Marker, a subsidiary business publication of Haaretz, co-sponsored a conference called “Israel 2021.” One of the main topics of the conference was the future of Israeli education. According to a speaker from the International Monetary Fund, Israel is ranked no. 1 “in resilience of the economy, central bank performance… and skilled labor.” According to a speaker from the World Economic Forum (WEF), it is ranked no. 6 in innovation, and according to the speaker from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (oecd), it is positioned at no. 15 in its socioeconomic index. Yet as Molcho points out, our secondary-education ranking, according to all three organizations, stands at around 46, below Slovenia. In 2008, Israel’s science and math scores ranked even lower, toward the bottom of the list of 57 countries (although, to be fair, the innovative New Horizons educational scheme is pushing Israel ever so slowly up the latter).
After the presentation, I approached the chief economist of the WEF and asked why she thought that Israel’s education system wasn’t in line with the impressive results the state had garnered in the areas of business, economics, and high-tech. She turned to me with a disappointed smile and said, “I can’t explain it. Do you have any idea?”
On the face of it, this dissonance indeed doesn’t make sense—unless, that is, we look at the state of Israel’s culture, and its approach to morality. True, 15.1 percent of Israel’s annual budget is allocated to defense, inevitably causing shortfalls in many other social services, including education. As the oecd cited, Israel suffers from “underpaid teachers” and “oversized classes”—just two of the many concrete issues that a bigger education budget could address. But there are surely other factors at work here, ones that none of these organizations factored into their reports. These factors include: students’ lagging (or absent) reverence for their teachers; dipping attendance rates; a lack of parental involvement in children’s education; and, as Molcho points out, a failure to teach morality and strive for the social edification of the student in the classroom—all goals that were paramount for Israel’s early leaders, but which now warrant nary a line item on the education policymakers’ agendas.
I would like to posit another reason: Israel’s current quest for success has turned competition into the quintessential virtue. As such, there is no room left for the teaching of such “inefficient,” “impractical” subjects as civics and morality. It’s no wonder students don’t view their teachers with respect, or class attendance as critical: When education is considered merely a means to an end—in this case, moving up the socioeconomic ladder—and not an end in itself, why should we expect students to imbue their educational experience with any importance? Moreover, when the skills needed to get ahead in today’s world come primarily from the spheres of mathematics and science, what incentive do teachers—or parents—have to invest the same educational effort in students who show little aptitude in these areas, and who prefer, instead, history, literature, or art?
The results of this educational mindset are both depressing and visible to all. In an age in which the measure of professional success is the high-tech yardstick, very few of the country’s elite postgrads are entering the world of government or politics. Hardly surprising, then, that the halls of the Knesset resonate with corruption, and that the public has lost all confidence in its leadership’s intentions. Until we start focusing not only on competitiveness, but also on respect and civility, we may have the most advanced weaponry or sophisticated gadgetry, but will lack the character necessary to determine how best to use it.
Guy Seemann

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