Education and indoctrination

Ben Zygier was born in suburban Melbourne in 1976. He graduated from a Jewish school. Like a dream Jewish boy, he enrolled in law at Monash University. He then moved to Israel, where he completed military training and worked for Mossad. In 2010, he died a secret prisoner, about whom the Israeli military censor prevented the media from writing. How did this happen? Why did this young man choose such a dangerous career, rather than the easier, privileged life that stretched out before him?

Given Zygier was about nineteen when he moved to Israel, it makes sense to look to what in his childhood might have led to his attraction to the Israeli military. Zygier graduated from Bialik College. Bialik proudly displays its values as a ‘cross-communal Jewish Zionist school, embracing an inclusive approach to Judaism’ on its website. Under the heading ‘Inclusive Judaism’, it explains that it ‘develops a meaningful connection to the Jewish people, culture and traditions’. Under ‘Centrality of Israel’, it declares: ‘We are a Zionist school that inculcates a love of Israel. We recognise the centrality of Israel and Hebrew to the Jewish people. We support Israel and are committed to its well-being.’ Bialik College is not unusual. Another Melbourne Jewish school, Mount Scopus, declares a similar mission on its website. It ‘provides Jewish learning, values and experiences, within a Modern Orthodox and Zionist framework, that enable each student to make an informed choice as to the meaning of their Jewish identity’. Among the revolving images displayed prominently on its website is one showing a group of girls, wrapped in the Israeli flag, and wearing Israeli flag face paint. The principal of Mount Scopus is Rabbi James Kennard. To get a sense of the unabashed militarism one finds within Jewish educational institutions, consider an opinion article Rabbi Kennard wrote for the Australian Jewish News, in which he celebrates his son joining the Israeli military: ‘At the age of nineteen, my son has a gun. With the same excitement that he once presented to us with his Lego creations, he explains it is worth several thousand dollars and points out its special sights for day and night. And he has trained to be a marksman.’ Rabbi Kennard was filled with pride. He was ‘even proud of the sharpshooter’s gun that his particular skill has merited’. After all, Israeli ‘soldiers are trained to the highest standards, and … the IDF is the most ethical army in the world’. I noted his column on my blog at Independent Australian Jewish Voices; Rabbi Kennard couldn’t understand why I might find it objectionable. Just to stress: the principal of a leading Jewish school in Melbourne wrote about his pride at his son joining the Israeli military. What kind of education might one expect at his school, within its declared pro-military ‘Zionist framework’? In a Jewish Newscolumn in November last year, Rabbi Kennard co-penned, with his wife, a letter to his son during Israel’s attack on Gaza. They wrote:

We are proud that you have chosen to be part of the army of the people of Israel, to share their burden and even to risk your safety. We know this to be a natural outcome of your love for your country, and the fire of the dream of the redemption of the people through the redemption of the land which, while dimmed in the hearts of some, still burns so fiercely within you.

They went further in a passage explaining the glory of the Israeli army:

We are thankful to live in a time when the Jewish people has an army; when Jewish blood is no longer cheap; when our enemies who wish to murder with impunity will learn that there will be a consequence to their actions. No more will Jews cower in fear and rely on others for a salvation that never comes.

During the November attack on Gaza, Israel once again put into practice the doctrine that Jewish blood no longer be cheap: 158 Palestinians were killed, as opposed to six Israelis. Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai explained that the ‘goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages’. I emailed Rabbi Kennard about the columns, and asked if he regretted his comment about ‘Jewish blood’. Instead, he reaffirmed it:

My meaning is that for two thousand years Jews were killed, by Romans, crusaders, Christians, Muslims, Nazis and the rest because those murderers saw no threat of any retribution, and no-one prepared to defend the Jews. Now that there is a Jewish army, for the first time since Bar Kochba, that is no longer the case. Therefore Jewish blood is no longer cheap. This is about the change from no defence or deterrence to some defence and deterrence.

I then asked if he thought it inappropriate for a school principal to glorify the Israeli military. He replied: ‘No, I have no problem with being a Principal of a school in Australia which cultivates a close affinity with Israel, that encourages its students to consider living in Israel and [supporting] Israel in various ways, including serving in its army.’ I asked how he would feel if other Australian schools encouraged kids to join the Australian army:

Of course I’d have no objection with Australian schools encouraging students to join the Australian army as one of the ways of serving the country and its peacekeeping efforts. On the contrary, that’s what they, and we, should be doing.

That is an example from but one Jewish school. There are other Jewish schools in Melbourne, including the more religious ones. For instance, Leibler Yavneh College announces its ‘commitment to Modern Orthodox values, Religious-Zionism and Australian citizenship’. Its principal is a man named Roy Steinman. Steinman was the principal of Moriah College for my high school years. Moriah College is Sydney’s largest Jewish school. It is modern orthodox, private, the Jewish establishment school in the Eastern Suburbs, where many of Sydney’s Jews are concentrated. The other major Jewish establishment school is Masada, on the North Shore. Emanuel is a third Eastern Suburbs school for Jewish kids. However, it is often regarded as tainted by its association with Temple Emanuel (now Emanuel Synagogue). Though most Jews in Australia don’t practice modern orthodoxy, they tend to be affiliated with it, and the modern orthodox look down their nose at Emanuel Synagogue, which hosts more progressive, less fundamentalist versions of Judaism. The major Jewish institutions – including the Jewish News– tend to exclude Emanuel and its rabbis. Mr Steinman was not abashed about sharing his political views with students. One assembly, he criticised those who made a fuss about the GST. At other times, he lectured students on what he argued was the biased treatment of the Israeli government in the Australian media.

One day, Steinman invited a guest lecturer to speak about Israel to my year. In the question period, a friend asked the speaker if he supported the creation of a Palestinian state. He said no, because the Palestinians were ‘permeated with evil’. Steinman looked on, disinterested. I asked a question, noting that he had told us how Palestinians were indoctrinated from a young age to hate Jews. I compared that to him saying Palestinians were ‘permeated with evil’. He affected not to understand the comparison, and then defended his claim about Palestinians.

Steinman never expressed regret over his choice of speaker.

There were different ways in which Moriah sought to encourage Zionism among students. There was the formal education – in subjects like Hebrew and Jewish history. There was the less formal education, like teaching us Israeli songs and dance. And there was Yom Hazikaron commemoration at school. Yom Hazikaron commemorates Israeli soldiers who have been killed. In the context of Moriah’s education, this meant remembering Jews killed by Arab anti-Semites who have been trying to drive the Jews of Israel into the sea for decades. There were also the off-the-cuff comments by Jewish teachers about Israel. When I was in year five, one teacher was asked what she thought about the peace process, which was then in full swing. She reluctantly offered her opinion: if you give the Arabs an inch, they’ll take a mile. These kinds of comments continued through high school, when Jewish history and Tanach teachers taught that Arabs were devious and Arafat was a snake. When I expressed dissent in class, the other students were outraged at me. The indoctrination was almost amazingly successful: one student even called me an ‘Arab lover’. This was meant as a genuine insult. It continues to this day: when I saw a former student from my year recently, he asked why I was ‘such an Arab’. The centrepiece of indoctrination was, however, Counterpoint. Moriah ran a religious camp for high school kids, from year eight through to year eleven. It was recognised by the other kids as ‘brainwashing camp’. Kids would often wind up religious for a few weeks afterward, before the demands of practicing Orthodox Judaism meant they gave up. While religious indoctrination generally didn’t sink in, political indoctrination was more effective. Students were taught to love Israel – and overwhelmingly they did. Counterpoint was particularly effective, because it was informal. It was young adults organising games and activities – mostly fun, sometimes thought provoking – with the not-very hidden goal of promoting religion and Zionism. These included chanting and songs to make the religious stuff more enjoyable. It included – unsurprisingly – Israeli army activities. For example, there would be activities in which we would be new recruits: yelled at, told to reply, in Israeli army fashion, ‘cen efakedet’ (yes, sir). We would be disciplined by doing push ups. There was very little reflection about the promotion of the Israeli army in the games. Though I was unusual in the extent to which I dissented at Moriah, it didn’t occur even to me that this glorification of the Israeli military to school kids was at all problematic. The general tone was not subtle. I recently asked a Jewish friend from my year at school about these camps. She replied:

I remember some pretty intense shit on Counterpoint camp about supporting the Israeli army by showing us a long violent video on suicide bombing victims. And then a piece of paper outlining how to donate time and money to Israeli charities … I remember such a potent Counterpoint indoctrination session about Israel where I went back to my room and cried for a while without understanding why I was crying or where I stood on the issues. No differing viewpoints offered. Either you’re with Israel or an anti-Semite.

This brand of love for Israel was not a quirk of Moriah. A friend who attended Masada explained their Jewish studies camp had a ‘war day’:

We got woken up early (basically were told to sleep in comfortable clothes/army fatigues). The night before we had been ‘briefed’ by the guys who do security for the shul [synagogue – ed] and taught some ‘really cool martial arts tricks’ and stuff to make it seem all exciting. Then we were divided into teams and the job was to conquer the other team’s land by seizing a flag that had been planted on a various point in the site.

Besides the Jewish schools, there are the Jewish youth movements. They are all called Zionist youth movements, because they are all Zionist. They range from the left wing and secular Hashomer Hatzair, the progressive Netzer, to the right wing Betar, and right wing religious Bnei Akiva. But the political differences can easily be exaggerated – the Left wing is not that left wing. For example, while Habonim Dror is nominally socialist (and does have some progressive members), it should be remembered that Israel’s founding prime minister declared himself a socialist, too. This ‘socialism’ simply represents Labour Zionism, which is as progressive as Ehud Barak. The various Zionist youth movements approach their Zionism differently. Nonetheless, they all have Shnat programs. Shnat lasts for about a year – Jewish school graduates spend twelve months in Israel, doing the programs of their chosen youth movements. The Australian Zionist Youth Council, which oversees the various movements, lists the components on its website. Betar has Marva as a compulsory component of Shnat. Bnei Akiva, Hineni and Netzer have Marva as options. Marva is described as ‘army program’ on the website. I emailed Netzer, Betar, and the AZYC for further information. I was told not to quote what I was told by Betar by AZYC spokesman, Reuben Bolaffi. He basically refused to answer my questions, though he told me about 150 kids do Shnat each year. I asked a former madrich (youth leader) about Marva. He estimated about thirty-five to forty Shnatties do Marva each year. He said, ‘It’s nothing really. It’s not volunteering. It’s babysitting in a uniform. They get yelled at for three months and do pushups and laps … They do learn to shoot.’ The Israel Experience website offers more information on Marva: ‘Israel Experience Educational Tourism Services Ltd. is a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency for Israel.’ It explains that Marva ‘is not an easy program, and military-style discipline is enforced in all activities.’ It is demanding, so ‘applicants are expected to be highly motivated’. A sample itinerary explains more. Week one includes ‘Weapon training and a shooting range’. Week two has camouflage and training exercises. ‘Week Six: Combat’. That means military training exercises, lectures and training with combat soldiers and the shooting range. Throughout the eight weeks, there’s lessons about ‘war, history, ethics, conflicts’. There’s also navigation lessons, obstacle courses, tours and lectures. Of the various youth movements, Betar is the only one to insist on Shnatties doing marva. The Betar Australia website proudly announces its foundation by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and their continuing respect for this ‘true man of the world … one of the leading literary minds of the early twentieth century … He is Rosh [Head of] Betar forever, his example and thoughts are alive in our hearts.’ Who was Jabotinsky? Shlomo Avineri describes his ideology in The Making of Modern Zionism. He notes that Jabotinsky wrote ‘the building of Betar is founded upon the principles of discipline.’ In response to the then dominant socialist Zionists in Palestine at the time, ‘Jabotinsky develop[ed] his views on social organisation, which call for the establishment of a corporate society, largely modelled on the Italian experience of Mussolini’s Italy, Salazar’s Portugal, and Dolfuss’s Austria.’ Jabotinsky’s ‘nationalism is imbued with ideas about race, leadership, hierarchy, and a vision of etatist corporatism.’ Among other writings on the subject of race, Jabotinsky explained:

You are forced to say: territory, religion, a common language – all these are not the substance of a nation, but only its attributes; true, these attributes are immensely valuable, and they are even more valuable for the stability of national existence. But a nation’s substance, the alpha and omega of the uniqueness of its character – this is embodied in its specific physical quality, in the component of its racial composition. [Avineri’s emphasis]

As Avineri notes, this ‘detailed discussion of problems of race is accompanied in Jabotinky’s writings by a parallel debate about the superiority and inferiority of races’. One could go on about the shameless right-wing Zionism of Betar, which also celebrates the founder of the Irgun and LEHI. It fails to mention his (Avraham Stern’s) support for a proposal to the Nazis, suggesting a common alliance against the British. Betar is but one movement, and a relatively unpopular one. There are seventeen shnatties this year from Betar. Hineni, which is politically non-partisan, Bnei Akiva, the religious, and the purportedly progressive Netzer also have volunteers who take part in Marva. Volunteering for the Israeli army can only make sense in the context of major Jewish schools promoting the love of Israel in the way that they do. Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim Dror, the supposedly socialist movements, do not have Marva components for their Shnatties. Furthermore, I am told that they are starting to discuss the occupation. With that said, former Habonim chanichim (attenders) include Israeli army spokesperson, Guy Spigelman and Israeli prime minister spokesperson Mark Regev. And a former chanich of Hashomer Hatzair was a young Ben Zygier. How effective are the schools and youth movements in creating devotees of Israeli? As noted above, in my experience, dissenting from what the teachers told us about Arabs resulted in other students becoming furious. Whilst religious indoctrination was rarely effective, students often adopted the approved political views. Years later, a few students from my year said that they now thought differently, having freed themselves from the Moriah environment. Yet they would represent only a tiny fraction of the 120 students in our year. In 2008-2009, a Jewish population survey gave some indication of the effectiveness of the indoctrination of the young. It found that, for eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds, a little over 70 per cent feel either a special alarm, or as if their own life is in danger when Israel is in danger. About the same per cent were as concerned when they were twenty-four to thirty-four, or thirty-five to forty-four. For older Jews, this level of concern reached around 80 per cent. However, not all Jewish kids go to Jewish schools or youth movements, so it is difficult to speculate. It would appear that the Jewish community may be becoming less Zionist, but it is still true that many Jews are adopting the love of Israel taught in Jewish institutions. The survey also found that 74 per cent of respondents had relatives in Israel, 86 per cent had visited Israel, and more than 40 per cent had visited in the last four years. One can only speculate on Zygier’s case. Zygier comes from the heart of the Jewish establishment. His father, Geoffrey Zygier, was head of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, the major representative body of the state. Joining the Israeli army, and then the Mossad were Zygier’s individual choices. But those choices made sense within a culture promoted by the major Jewish educational institutions: a culture of Zionism mingled with chauvinism and militarism. Having attended Bialik College and Hashomer Hatzair, it cannot be surprising that Zygier moved to Israel, or thought it worthwhile to serve in Israel’s army, and ultimately in its intelligence. While there was only one Ben Zygier, there are quietly many more Australian Jewish kids growing up, being taught and adopting the values of gun Zionism. It is rather analogous to Australian school curriculums being designed by a committee comprised of Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman and Keith Windschuttle. My concern of the Zygier case is not about the so-called dual loyalties issue. It is about the dangers of inculcating right-wing nationalism in school students. Bertrand Russell once wrote:

Large-scale education is conducted, as a rule, by either a state or a church. In the former case, it teaches nationalism; in the latter case, bigotry. In the present state of the world, nationalism is the greater danger. School children are taught to reverence the national flag, and by the time they leave school, they have become incapable of realising what worship of the national flag means. The national flag symbolises belief in the superior excellence of one geographical group. If the geographical group is large enough, the school children will be expected to consider that it is justified in putting members of other groups to death whenever they interfere with its desires. The justification is derived from the pre-eminent merit of the group to which the school child belongs. And this pre-eminent merit is taught so pervasively and hypnotically that at the end of the school years hardly any child is able to question it.

In Australia, it is desirable that students learn about the history of colonisation and its devastating effects on the Indigenous population of our country. To become good citizens, I think it would be desirable that students learn about the dangers of militarism, and graduate with enough critical faculties to be concerned about our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Similarly, Jewish students should be taught critical engagement with the Holy Land. According to a poll in October last year,  58 per cent of Israeli Jews think Israel either practices apartheid in ‘a few’ fields, or in many. Only 31 per cent said that there was no apartheid. Jewish kids learning to uncritically embrace such a country, and even becoming eager to fight in its army, reflects a severe failing of our educational institutions. If supporting Israel includes making it a just place, then the next generation of Jewish kids are being led astray.

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

More by Michael Brull ›

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  1. I’m grateful to Sol Salbe, who has brought some corrections to my notice.

    “You either meant to write Ken HaMefaked [Yes sir -literally yes, (male) commander] or Ken HaMefakedet [Yes Ma’am – literally yes, (female) commander]. Also there was a long article about Zygier in one of the Hebrew Israeli papers recently which put paid to Zygier Hashomer Hatzair past. He was in Netzer and his Madrich was Rafael Epstein (Yes the one from the ABC’s 774).”

  2. Hi Michael,
    Thought provoking article.
    Just a correction… You referred to all Australian Jewish youth movements as being Zionist. Skif and Chabad youth are two Jewish youth movements which do not affiliate with Zionism. Historically Skif was anti-Zionist.

    1. I was going to say the same thing, Nomi. I had quite a few Skif mates at school and a few at Uni. Incredibly marginalised, granted, to the point where most involved themselves only very marginally in progressive politics in relation to Israel (some seemed to be committed to maintaining membership in AUJS to keep an eye on them more than for direct confrontation – at Monash an option it is hard to criticise them for, considering the special attention and intimidation AUJS would reserve particularly for Jewish critics). But to an outsider, at least, Skif did seem to be part of a project of creating its own camps and its own system of indoctrination, for want of a better word. I seem to remember both Skif and the Hashis having banners at various anti-capitalist demos in the anti-summit acronym period. Even the Hashis were considered beyond the pale by AUJS types from memory, though I don’t think they did anywhere near as much ideologically to deserve that badge of honour, though they were probably more active in the sense of rally and protest activity than my Skif buddies. Nomi (or Michael) is Skif still active? I remember talking with a Skif school mate about the impact that the death of living Yiddish speakers (some old Bund members) whose grand kids were members of Skif might have on keeping that tradition (already marginal in Melbourne as nowhere else in the world) alive. That was 20 years ago, so… Is Skif still going? I don’t mean to hijack, Michael, but Skif does seem at least worthy of a footnote, even if its just to say, well, that failed! Or have they done better than that?

  3. Ken HaMefakedet [Yes Ma’am – literally yes, (female) commander]. Also there was a long article about Zygier in one of the Hebrew Israeli papers recently which put paid to Zygier Hashomer Hatzair PAST

  4. Very eloquent – and somethings he says early on in the piece are thought provoking. Although I can’t claim to know the man or his principals it seems to me the more you read on that he is another pathetic anti-Israel commentator. Sad that he is Jewish. One of the common threads of this as in other seemingly objective and well considered articles is that they all come from a lack of objectivity. Brull fails to qualify any of his points of view or acknowledge simply that Israel’s strong military obsession comes from a dire need not because of any inherent militaristic personality disorder. He knows only too well that Israel from the day it was legitimately recognized has had to defend itself from warmongering neighbours hellbent on its destruction. Why does he never preface his statements with any of that reflective understanding. How can he dare compare and criticise Israels ethical (mostly) and valient attempts at self opreservation with the barbaric murderous agendas of both neighbouring Arab countries and the Palestinian leadership. I can only surmise that he is either married to a similarly anti-Israel woman (or man) or that he suffered some unfortunate times growing up in Jewish societry that has marred his judgement and principals.

  5. “I can only surmise that he is either married to a similarly anti-Israel woman (or man)”… Well that’s pretty amusing.

    Nomi and Liz: I actually never heard of Skif or Chabad youth. I didn’t realise Chabad had a youth group. I looked up Skif now, and it appears to be a Bund group in Melbourne. Having lived in Sydney all my life, I think that’s why it flew under my radar. When I went to hadsem and madsem, I thought we saw all the groups (except Hashy). I’m actually quite curious. How big is Skif now?

  6. One can only wonder what happened to Michael Brull for him to become so embittered with the Jewish community, prompting him to interpret high-calibre educational programs in a negative way and to contrive to discern sinister motives in educational institutions which boast world’s best practice.
    The Australian Jewish schools to which Mr Brull refers are outstanding centres of educational excellence, with uniform academic results to prove it. At the same time, they take pride in imparting to their student bodies a principled Jewish ethos, encapsulating the core Jewish value of “Tikkun Olam” – Healing The World – while instilling understanding of and support for the right of Israel to exist in peace and security as the national homeland of the Jewish people, alongside a future state of Palestine.
    As for his litany of spurious claims, they don’t warrant the dignity of a response.

  7. Michael, thanks for this post. I am intetested in independent schools indoctrinating kids into all kinds of extreme ideologies. However, I would also say the mainstream public schools in Australia. seem to be fanatically indoctrinating a narrow range of middle class values.

  8. Hi Michael,

    Skif is pretty small in Melbourne, probably numbering around 100 members maximum. Apart from its non zionist platform, it is strongly socialist and left wing.

  9. As a graduate of Mt Scopus and Hashomer Hatzair I believe Michael’s article is unfair and biased. He takes things out of context and distorts. Whilst there is a strong education towards jewish identity and connection to Israel It is incorrect to say that jewish schools and youth movements educate towards gun zionism. And certainly the difficulties of the occupation are discussed in the youth movements of Hashomer and Habonim, as they are discussed widely and vocally in Israeli socitey and media as well.

  10. Thanks Jack, Gus, Tal and Esther. Gus: There has been some debate about Anzac Day, which I think is pretty great, but no real self-examination in the Jewish community, and no real forum IMO for us to do so.

    Tal: That’s actually surprisingly big. And I gathered a Bund youth movement would be left wing 🙂

    Esther: Thank you for your comment. I’d like to direct you to this quote: ‘Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim Dror, the supposedly socialist movements, do not have Marva components for their Shnatties. Furthermore, I am told that they are starting to discuss the occupation. With that said, former Habonim chanichim (attenders) include Israeli army spokesperson, Guy Spigelman and Israeli prime minister spokesperson Mark Regev.’

    With that said, saying the ‘difficulties’ of the occupation sounds a bit disheartening to me.

  11. Hi michael
    Some interesting points. I am a current leader at Habonim Dror in Melbourne, and i wanted to point out a couple of things.
    I dont know what your stance on Zionism is; whether you think it’s an immoral and oppressive regime, or whatever, but it appears you are inclined to criticise any of the movements, schools or institutions that promote an identification with Israel? correct me if im wrong.
    I was a student of Mount Scopus College. I, like you became disenfranchised with my schools blind love for Israel, and at times felt that the approach to Zionism was biased and uncritical.
    Last year i was in Israel, and although we discussed Zionism and Israel, it was not the kind of blind following and indoctrination you seem to despise. In fact, we spent a great deal of time and energy discussing whether Israel should hold a place in the hearts of diaspora Jews, as well as criticising and evaluating the actions of the Israeli military and the immoralities of the occupied territories.
    I think there is a difference between indoctrination and education, and sometimes a line gets crossed. I think the way to go about the question of Zionism is by educating, and critically questioning the relevance of Israel, while still fostering some kind of connection.
    Let me know what you think

  12. Hi Rapha. If you read the article, you can see that I express my concerns about the way in which Jewish kids are indoctrinated. Considering you discuss Mount Scopus’s teaching of ‘blind love for Israel’ and that it was ‘biased and uncritical’, I think you probably agree with me. As to whether some kind of connection needs to be taught – well I’m quite unpatriotic. But at a minimum, I think for those who are taught to love Israel, they should be taught to do so with eyes open.

  13. Hi Michael

    There is a wonderful Jewish primary school in Melbourne called Sholem Aleichem College (named after the writer) which teaches Yiddish and Yiddish culture as a principal component of its curriculum. Both my sons attended this school before moving on to secondary school in year 7.
    Skif gets many of its new members from Sholem and one of my sons has been a member for some years. He has been attending Skif camps twice yearly during his time as a member. I’m happy to say that both of my sons are free thinkers – they accept nothing and question everything – and many years after leaving Sholem, they still count many of their Sholem classmates among their closest friends.

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