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Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.

Being Jewish Today

Featuring Noah Feldman

What does it mean to be a modern Jew? How do Jews in America handle their relationship to Israel, especially after the atrocities of October 7 and the subsequent war with Hamas? Zachary and Emma speak with Noah Feldman, Harvard professor and author of the new book ‘To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People.’ The Israel-Hamas war, levels of Jewishness, and how Gen Z sees things are talked about in today’s conversation.

Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript

Noah Feldman: What I want Jews to do is not back down on their opinions, but just to remember that the other Jews, the ones who are on the other side of this issue, They’re also trying to be Jewish. They are still family, and they’re trying their hardest in good conscience to do the right thing and to think the right thing, and that can be maddening.

Zachary Karabell: What Could Go Right?. I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I am joined as always by my co host Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network. And What Could Go Right? is our weekly podcast, which echoes our newsletter of the same title, What Could Go Right?. And this is a way of

drawing attention to things going on in the world that are more constructive than destructive. But as many of our podcasts demonstrate, we are not relentlessly staring at sunny days and spring flowers. We are looking at hard issues. We are looking at things. Things that are often going wrong, but with an eye toward what are the kernels of understanding, or what are the kernels that we can tease out that will lead to a more constructive future.

We’ve done a few discussions of what’s going on between Israel and Palestine, which is clearly remains unanswered. Top of mind, legitimately, for many, many, many people. But we’re also going to look today about what does it mean to be Jewish in a world has had a very complicated relationship to Jews. Even though Jews are an incredibly small portion of the global population, there’s an outsized attention paid.

I’ve been looking forward to this conversation. We’re going to talk to someone whose work I have deeply admired and continue to. And. It is absolutely the right moment to have this conversation. So, Emma.

Emma Varvaloucas: Today, we’re going to be talking with Noah Feldman. He’s a law professor and the founding director of the program on Jewish and Israeli law at Harvard university.

He specializes in a few different things, including constitutional studies, but today we are going to be talking to him about his latest book. And he has written Nine previous ones, but the one we’re talking about today is called To Be a Jew. And we’re going to be exploring that question and questions relating to Israel, as Zachary mentioned.

Are you ready?

Zachary Karabell: We’re ready. Noah Feldman, or should I say Professor Noah Feldman? It’s a pleasure to have you. We both know you should say Noah. So we’re going to talk to you a bit today about your recent book, although we may organically talk about the other nine books and work that you’ve done. I personally found this fascinating.

Not sure I would have read it if I didn’t know you. I do want to plunge into this because it’s kind of the unfortunate elephant in the room. You wrote the book before October 7th and before the six month plus at the time of this recording and seven or eight month, whatever it will be at the time people are listening.

Conflict between Israel and Gaza, conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which certainly goes way before October 7th. I believe you had to change the title or you decided to change the title partly in light of that. If you had sat down to write this book now, would you have written a different

Noah Feldman: book?

I wouldn’t have. As you said, I was finished with a, not just a draft, but I thought I was done with the book before October 7th. I had a galley, a bound galley that was ready to be sent out to reviewers, which means that’s basically the final form of a book. And then October 7th happened and I did a fair amount of rewriting, but the rewriting was mostly aimed at recognizing the special sensitivities that everyone is feeling after October 7th.

Taking out some of them were lighthearted aspects of the book, including the title that you alluded to the original title of the book was going to be Bad Jew, which I thought was the best book title I was ever going to come up with in my entire life. And. Unfortunately, it will never be used now, at least not by me, although I’m sure someone else will use it at some point.

But I also tried to take on board in the rewrites, just the extent of what I would call intergenerational trauma that shapes the experience of interacting with the events of October 7 for so many Jews. And by the way, there’s also intergenerational trauma on the Palestinian side. What I mean in particular is the way that for so many Jews seeing footage of the Hamas attacks.

They didn’t experience this just as an attack on Israel, killing innocent people. They also experienced it through the lens of the Holocaust, through the lens of pogroms, and really, therefore, through the lens of a multi generational narrative and experience of pain and suffering and death. And that’s had an enormous effect on people’s emotional reactions, which is meaningful.

And I enhanced some of my recognition of that in the rewrite. And then the last thing that I really had to add was the ways that I had new examples of a general claim that I was making in the book. And one of the things that I say in the book is that for almost all Jews, almost everywhere, you have to have some relationship to Israel to think of yourself as a Jew, including possibly a negative relationship.

It could be a positive support. It could be A negative distancing, it could be a loving criticism and there are a lot of other options too. But the option of just not thinking about Israel at all and just trying to not engage it, which I think a lot of Jews honestly would like to be able to do psychologically.

Has gotten much, much harder to do in recent years. And October 7, I think has really brought that home. One of the other things that I try to say in the book is young Jews who are criticizing Israel, sometimes very, very harshly in the wake of October 7, are doing it really from a standpoint of their own Jewishness.

That’s a Jewish reaction. If your Judaism is a Judaism of social justice, of repairing the world, which I think is true for many, many progressive Jews, then you can support Israel if you see Israel as similarly standing up for those values. But when you think Israel isn’t standing up for those values, you sometimes feel a felt need to criticize Israel, but that’s a Jewish reaction.

And I think that’s important for people who are on the other side of this issue. And our instinctively, strongly in solidarity with Israel to remember that you might not disagree with the critics of Israel, and I’m not, nowhere in this book do I encourage anybody to change their views. What you really believe is what you believe.

But what I’m asking is for people to step back and see that both reactions are genuinely Jewish reactions.

Emma Varvaloucas: So Noah, maybe dive into that first claim. I was surprised and even friends of mine who are Jewish, I wouldn’t say like strongly, Spiritually Jewish. They were surprised by their own friends and family’s reactions to the October 7th attacks.

Like friends and family that were similarly kind of maybe lightly Jewish, shall we say, had a really intense reaction and it was curious even to them. So I guess the question is, Why is it so impossible to ignore Israel? Right. Like it could have been a different situation. It could have been Israel was created.

Everything went in one way and then it was just like, okay, Israel’s existing and that’s it. So how do we get where we are now?

Noah Feldman: Yeah, it’s a great question. And it is one of the reasons I wrote the book to try to answer that. A big part of how we got where we are goes back to what the original aspiration was of the people who founded Israel, the early secular leaning Zionists.

And then what actually happened in practice, which turned out to be pretty different from what they imagined. What they wanted was a secular nationalism, like the secular nationalisms of European countries. And in their picture, being Jewish was, it was kind of a bad state of being. It was associated with being weak.

Disempowered a minority living in diaspora, and they figured that the solution to the problem of being Jewish and they thought it was a problem was for Jewishness to kind of fade away and be replaced by a national identity of Israelis. So in their perfect world, every Jew would’ve moved to Israel and we would’ve all been part of a single nation, could have been called the Jewish Nation, could have been called the Israeli nation.

They weren’t particular about the name, but that wouldn’t have been a religious identity. And it wouldn’t have been a strange or an unusual identity, and it wouldn’t have been an ethnic identity, it would have been a national identity. And this is really characteristic of the period where they were coming up with these ideas.

You know, the late 19th century, the early 20th century, when nationalism was really riding high. And lots of people all over the world thought that having your own country was the solution to all kinds of problems. In the Balkans, for example, a lot of people thought the solution was if everyone can get their own country with their own kind of people, we’ll all be able to get along perfectly.

And that didn’t happen in the sense that part of it did happen. I mean, Israel came into existence and it became a real nation. So as a result, among other things, Jews aren’t really a nation today because Israelis are a nation. You meet an Israeli and. You’re a Jew is not Israeli. It’s obvious. They have their own language, their own culture, their own cultural style, their own experiences, their own TV shows, their own beliefs.

Not every Israeli is even Jewish. And so they’re a nation. So that happened. But what happened to the relationship between Jews and Israel was something more complicated. What happened was that Israel started to become very slowly and gradually and really 40 years, a reason for being Jewish in a world where the reasons for being Jewish are a little hard to figure out.

So let me say just a quick word about what I mean about that. In every era of Jews, going back at least 2000 years, Jews had to answer the question, why am I doing this? Sort of like a version of the Passover question that the simple son asks on Passover, you know, what is this? Why am I doing this? It’s a logical question to ask.

And the answer sometimes was, well, I believe in a specific kind of personal God who appeared on Mount Sinai and made a covenant with my forefathers and. It gives me these rules. And that was one reason to be Jewish for lots of people. Today, fewer people, the Orthodox would certainly answer it that way, but fewer people would answer it solely in that way.

And people would talk about their values, their spiritual connection. And in Jewish synagogues, especially progressive ones, camps and youth movements, and even in sort of the general culture in America, Jews started to say there are really two reasons to be Jewish. One is to commemorate the Holocaust and make sure that Jewish lives were not lost in vain.

And the second is to support or be in some positive relationship to Israel. And those go alongside their other Jewish values, like following the law if they’re more Orthodox, following the tradition if they’re conservative, and pursuing social justice for many, many progressive Jews. So Israel kind of snuck in there in a serious way, and it started to be a reason to be Jewish.

And it’s in the nature of being Jewish that, since it’s a community, If other people are thinking about part of it in a certain way, you’re influenced by that. And that’s what happened. Israel became a reason to be Jewish for a lot of Jews. And so that’s why even Jews you’re describing, Emma, who, I like your phrase, they sort of were lightly Jewish, found out in this moment that they weren’t lightly Jewish.

That they actually had much stronger feelings as Jews than they thought, and that Israel was the trigger for those feelings for them as Jews.

News Clip: The U. S. in particular, we’re seeing thousands of American Jews, you know, showing up to rallies, calling for a ceasefire, seeing the, the violence in Gaza and, and, and feeling echoes of violence that has, you know, That our people have experienced in the past and, and saying that the lesson of what we have learned from the fight against antisemitism is a universal message of fighting against racism and discrimination and state violence, not just for us, but for all people.

Zachary Karabell: When I investigate my own reactions to all this, that this was not a trigger at all. The trigger was the absence thereof. And look, you know, we’re all just one person with one story. It’s like enough about me. Let’s talk about me. And I am struck and have, I think increasingly been struck as I’ve gotten older in a way that I kind of knew intellectually, but it’s become much more something else that there are 16 million Jews in a world of nearly 8 billion people.

And Even in a narcissistic way of like, we all want to pay more attention to our own tribe. It is still increasingly bizarre to me how much attention Jews get negative and positive relatively. And it’s not just in the United States. I mean, I grew up in New York city, which until the early two thousands was the largest Jewish city in the world, right?

There were more Jews living in New York city than there were in Tel Aviv until I don’t know, 2010 or 2005, something like that. And so you had the luxury. I think growing up in that environment of you didn’t really have to think much about your identity as being Jewish because Zbars did it for you.

There was no other right. There was no otherness. But it is odd, you know, and I do find some of the reactions in the past six months to what’s going on between Israel and Hamas. One of the things that seems out of proportion is while all this is going on between Israel and Hamas and Israel and the Gaza and the Palestinians.

You have this like massive civil war in Sudan that has disrupted 3 million people, the entire city of Khartoum has emptied out, and I would challenge anyone to find much in the way of news about this globally.

Noah Feldman: So,

Zachary Karabell: there’s

Noah Feldman: a reason for that, and the reason is stories. Jewishness is embedded in the foundation stories of Christianity and Islam, and together they account for nearly 4 billion people around the world.

And so, that’s the first stage. If you’re a Christian, you’re a Jew. or a Muslim of any kind, you grew up with stories about the ancient Israelites, the patriarchs, the Jewish people, and your religion is incomprehensible without some relationship to them. That’s point one. And point two is that Israel is bound up in the stories of Jewishness because he grew out of the stories of Jewishness.

And so Israel then becomes part of that narrative. And if you want like a nice little proof that this is the real reason, The proof is if you compare how the news in China or India thinks about Israel, far, far, far less engagement, interest, and energy, because the great majority of people in India, I’m not counting Muslims because there are a lot of Muslims in India, but the great majority of Hindus in India, for them, Jews aren’t bound up in any of their foundational stories, myths, and narratives.

And in China, it’s not bound up at all in any of the very many. Traditions that exist in China. So it’s really a product of the way that these two great world religious traditions came out in some way of Jewishness or came into existence in some complex relationship to Jewishness. And that’s why when people say to me, why can’t Jews be treated or why can’t Israel be treated as a country like any other or the Jews be treated like any other small group of people?

I say to them, it’s just not going to happen. That’s never going to happen. I’m not saying that antisemitism can’t be improved upon. There are actually areas where there’s been a lot of improvement, although there’s been a morphing of antisemitism too. I’m just saying that in a world where we make our meaning by stories, the Jews are too central to too many foundational stories and Israel is too continuous with the stories of the

Zachary Karabell: Jews.

You know, I wanted to ask on this, one of your backgrounds or strong part of your background as mine as well was studying Islam and learning Arabic and delving into that, you quite prominently at one point as an advisor in Iraq in the aftermath of the U. S. Invasion, occupation, trying to think about what a constitutional framework for the state of Iraq would be.

When you were doing that, how much of that was you reflecting on your identity as being Jewish, learning about Islam as a proximate other? I know for myself, partly I delved into that. I’d had. So little education about Islam just in high school, right? It was this kind of bizarre thing that got completely elided from most curriculums, right?

So I just kind of wanted to know what what was this other part of the world that was fascinating? You had a much more Jewish upbringing. So how much of that was wanting to know the other? Was it trying to know yourself?

Noah Feldman: It was both. It started because my family took me on trips to Israel and the street signs were in Hebrew and in Arabic.

And I went to a school where they taught me Hebrew. And I sort of thought from a child’s eye view, and I was a child, well, I guess I should learn Arabic because it’s obviously just as important a language in this country that everyone is telling me is should be so important to my way of encountering the world.

And then I got a little bit older and saw that there was a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and between Jews and Arabs. And I thought, Oh, well, and this is a very American thought. If there’s such a conflict, what could I do to help? Both egomaniacal and very American at the same time. And so I thought, well gotta learn both sides.

Gotta learn something about Islam. And then the minute I started studying it seriously, the minute I had some language and started to read, I was just blown away by the complex intermixing, inter penetration and intermingling. And the kind of compare and contrast was totally constant. And I would say, so that really thrilled me.

And I also think there was a little bit of displacement. Even in the 19th century, some of the greatest Western scholars of Islam were Jews, in fact Jews with a traditional religious education. Who then threw their whole lives into becoming leading scholars of Islam. And they had these names like Ignaz Goldseer or Yosef Schacht.

I mean, these guys sounded like they could have been rabbis because they could have been rabbis, but instead they became scholars of Islam. In one famous case, a Jew even became like a major figure and he converted to Islam and became a major advisor to the King of Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani government for those people.

And maybe a little bit for me at that time too. I was doing that very Jewish thing of throwing myself into a tradition and trying to study it and learn about it and understand its arguments and contribute in some way to it. But it just wasn’t my own tradition. So there was a kind of displacement. It was in a way, almost like a safer thing to do.

Or it felt like a safer thing to do. And it felt like it was less self involved in that way. And that’s actually a big tradition for Jews, whether it’s Marxism or psychoanalysis. There are lots of nominally, totally not Jewish intellectual movements or social movements that Jews have thrown themselves into that I think for some of those Jews, many of them even reflected a kind of way of being Jewish without being Jewish.

Emma Varvaloucas: So no, I want to pick up on that because that I think exact thought is how you explain what’s going on with Gen Z right now as far as their reaction to Israel. You describe the kind of intense reaction to Israel’s attack on Gaza as an anti imperialist anti colonialist. Israel is 100 percent the bad guy.

as a Jewish reaction for a lot of Gen Z Jews, which explain for us how that works.

Noah Feldman: Yeah. And I should say two things. One, I’m speaking personally. And in the whole book, I speak personally, my kids are 17 and 18. And although they’re not on the front lines activists on this issue, I talk to them about it all the time.

And I have a pretty strong sense of where they are and a lot of their friends are. And second, that I’m not speaking of everybody. There are lots of communities of young Jews, Gen Z Jews, including say modern Orthodox Gen Z Jews or ultra Orthodox Gen Z Jews, who are very much not in the place that I’m going to describe.

What I think is going on though, for a lot of progressive Jews who are kids or teenagers or you know, twenties, is they were brought up to believe in a classically progressive Jewish ideal of social justice Judaism. So. They were told, Repair the World, Tikkun Olam, is the core value of Judaism, this is the message that goes all the way back to the prophets, and the way you are expressing your Jewishness in life is through your social and your political values, which is a beautiful and old way of thinking about Jewishness in a very powerful way.

They were also told, you should support Israel, and they were told that by a generation of parents and teachers, some of them millennials, some of them Gen X. Who believed that it was possible to do both of these things so that they were really compatible with each other and still believe that, that you could be pro Israel and also a social justice, but their experiences in their lives, that for the Gen Zers, are all seeing news of Israel retaliating against some, until October 7, small to medium sized attacks into Israel with overwhelming force.

You know, there have been, in my kids lives, this is the third time that Israel has retaliated heavily against attacks from Gaza by going into Gaza. So, their life experience of Israel is that Israel seems safe, that, you know, Israel seems capable of retaliating with its big army at will. They didn’t experience 1967 when Israel had a big victory, but only after feeling threatened, or 1973 when Israel was genuinely threatened in a surprise attack, to say nothing of 1948.

And so they’ve grown up with an experience of Israel as a powerful, strong country. And they’ve grown up with the message that Palestinians don’t have a state of their own. And I think it’s descriptions of the world. Both of those things are true. And so when they look at an event like October 7, I think they can see the horror of the attack, but they also see the retaliation from Israel’s perspective, not the way I think many Jews of older generations like mine see it.

Namely as a maybe overdone, but as a serious attempt to reestablish stability and with the intergenerational trauma of the Holocaust in the background, instead, they see it as a disproportionate reaction. You know, 1200 people died. That’s horrific on October 7th. And the numbers are well over 32, 000 when we’re speaking now.

And I pray that those numbers will stop going up and perhaps they will, but perhaps they’ll continue to go up. And so I think from their perspective, they ask, what does my religion ask of me? And they were brought up to hear that the true Bible verses that say you shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, you have an obligation to the other, you have to fight for social justice, and they look at Israel and they don’t see that.

They don’t see that picture. They see an Israel that’s aligned with a powerful United States and that can sort of do what it wants in response. And also they see that it doesn’t seem to be helping. The last point I would just add is, When I was in my teens, Intifada, the first uprising of Palestinians demanding independence in the post State of Israel period, started.

And it was very noteworthy, and I remember as a teenager being very affected by it. And there was an obvious solution to it, which was that there would be a peace process, and Israel and Palestine would become two states side by side. And that almost happened. We tend to look back and say, oh, it had no chance of happening, but it did almost happen.

But within a couple of years of the first Intifada, there was a handshake on the White House lawn. Between the Prime Minister of Israel and the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization. And then there was nearly a decade of effort, serious efforts, to try to make a deal. So there was a kind of hopefulness around it.

But for the Gen Zers, there’s never been a moment of hope. In their entire lives, this has just been an unending conflict with no end in sight. When they ask the adults, will there be a solution to this? The adults say, we have to say, honestly, I mean, we wish there would be, but we’re very far from being able to tell you realistically that that’s right around the corner.

There’s a chance. But I don’t know anyone who’s a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs who thinks it’s a high chance in the near future. And so that’s another feature from their perspective. So as Jews. They feel we need to not be on the side of the side that we see as the Goliath and not the David.

Zachary Karabell: It occurred to me when you were talking about the Oslo process and that moment of we were on the road to a kind of, just like it had happened with the end of apartheid in South Africa, there was this kind of belief that this intractable conflict of decades was going to come to an end. Yeah, in Northern Ireland.

Right. Like the left romanticizes the 70s in the United States in the sixties and the right romanticizes the fifties and eighties. No one romanticizes the 90s and yet from like any possible perspective of end of the Cold War, affluence, European Union. We should be romanticizing the 90s, like all collectively.

And yet it’s like the forgotten. My kids

Noah Feldman: are wearing my clothes from the 90s. I don’t know if that’s romanticism. I look at those clothes and I’m like, these are things that I don’t know why I didn’t throw them out. I know these big baggy things were never coming back. And sure enough, they’re wearing them all the time now.

Emma Varvaloucas: That is facts.

Zachary Karabell: I remember at one point during that first Intifada and as a college student, I probably was more sympathetic to the Palestinians than I was the Israelis at that particular moment of just wanting statehood, but also acutely aware of the fact that somehow in a tribal sense, there was a real feeling of like, you couldn’t, as an American Jew, really credibly critique Israel.

Israelis could critique each other, but you couldn’t, as an American Jew, critique Israel. And that has gotten, I feel like if it was bad, then It’s off the charts bad now. In terms of that divide, you don’t get a right to have a voice. I remember one, a college friend blurting out on the street, I hate anti Semitic Jews.

And I just cracked up at that, because I just thought it was the funniest thing I’d heard in the irony of it, right? But, you know, today it feels like you’re kind of with us or you’re against us when it comes to what’s going on with Israel, and this was true before October 7th. Do you feel there’s something particularly Jewish about that or is it just a manifestation of tribal identity where if you’re perceived as being within the tribe, you can within that critique and debate, but if you’re perceived as not, then you don’t have a voice.

Well, let me tell you a quick story

Noah Feldman: and then I’ll answer that. It’s from that same period of time that you were describing. There were some Chinese students selling t shirts in Harvard Square at the time of the Tiananmen protests and massacre, and it was before the massacre. On the front, they had the famous picture of the guy standing in front of the tank with his arms outstretched.

And then on the back, they had a Chinese character that stood for freedom. And I bought one of the t shirts and I put it on. And I went to the Harvard Hillel for a meal, and someone just saw the front of me, which had the kid with his arms extended and the tank, and they got really mad at me, and they said, I can’t believe you’re wearing a pro Palestinian t shirt, and I just turned around and showed him the back.

That captures something of the feeling that, and I would call it a feeling of paranoia in that particular moment. Even paranoid people have enemies, though, and I think October 7 shows that. So, here’s my real answer to your question. It goes back to the central, really the most important thing I’m trying to say in the book.

I’m trying to make the argument that Jews are like a big, loving, and fairly dysfunctional family. And families are where we have our first experiences of love, and they’re also where we have our first experiences of struggle. And for me, the answer of what it means to be a Jew today is to be engaged in a loving struggle with ourselves, with each other, with our beliefs, with our sense of the spiritual or the divine.

And that’s something we do collectively, and it’s very Jewish. To me, the disagreements among Jews about the right way to think about Israel right now as a Jew, and sometimes these debates are really vociferous, as you say. These debates are the essence of what it is in fact to be Jewish. They are the cousins or the equivalent or really the same thing as two Jews sitting in the study house and arguing with each other at the top of their lungs about the meaning of a page of the Talmud.

If you visit a study house, a traditional study house, a lot of people are shocked to see what it sounds like. And they’re like, why is everyone so mad at everyone else? They’re not. That’s just a cultural style. That’s just Jews arguing and they’re doing it not just for the sake of argument, but that’s for the sake of learning and study and connection.

And so to me, the debates that you’re describing are ones in which different Jews with different points of view, say on Israel are saying. This is what we fundamentally believe, and we really want to convince you that you’re in the wrong, and that you’re getting it wrong. That’s the part that I love, and that’s the part I want to encourage.

I want to encourage Jews to say to each other, and if necessary to yell at each other, about what the right thing to do is. From a place of familial love. And as you know, as everyone with a family knows, the fact that someone’s in your family, it doesn’t mean you’re not mad at them. It’s often the opposite.

Sometimes your anger at the people who are in your family is much greater than your anger is at other people, not necessarily for any good reason, except that they are your family. So that’s how I think about it. And what I want Jews to do is not back down on their opinions, but just to remember. That the other Jews, the ones who are on the other side of this issue, they’re also trying to be Jewish.

They are still your family, they are still family, and they’re trying their hardest in good conscience to do the right thing and to think the right thing, and that can be

Zachary Karabell: maddening. Does the same thing apply to American politics as an American? Meaning, would you say the same about someone supporting Trump and someone supporting Biden?

I’m not trying to like Yeah. Purposely trying to be difficult on that. I’m saying No, no. Does the same idea apply? I would say it’s a cousin of the idea.

Noah Feldman: It’s a cousin of the idea. I think Americans aren’t exactly a family. We’re something a little different. We’re citizens of a republic and citizens of a republic do their best when they disagree civilly.

And remember that the other citizens are also committed to the republic, they’re just differing about the best way to advance the republic, and republics and democracies do worse when people start thinking that the people they disagree with are their fundamental enemies. You have to be fought and eliminated.

That’s the biggest danger to any liberal democracy that we think of it that way. So it is what’s similar is that when I hear people saying, Oh, you know, that person voted for Trump, they’re a bad person. I want to respond by saying, listen, we could argue about that, but I don’t think they’re a bad person.

I don’t want to think that because if so, half the country are bad people almost. And then how can you be in a common country with them? I mean, that happened. We did have a civil war in our history where we just decided that the other side were genuine enemies. That’s the part that has something in common.

The part that’s a little different is, I don’t think we have to love all other Americans. I think that’s asking for a lot. We just have to be able to coexist with them in a common enterprise. And in contrast, I think that to be Jewish requires mutual love among Jews. But by that, I don’t mean that you were getting along all the time.

I mean, love, like you love your family. And that is in fact, a prerequisite of it being a family that even in those moments, when you hate each other, the most, you still love each other. And in fact, that’s partly why you hate each other. This is Jacob and Esau who hadn’t seen each other in 20 odd years.

They meet each other and Jacob’s literally afraid that Esau is going to kill him and his entire family. And Esau says to him, I think very movingly. And Jacob tries to bribe them with a lot of stuff, which is a very Jacob move in the Bible. And Esau’s like, I got plenty. It’s good to see you. And they hug each other and they cry.

And that to me is, you know, this ideal. And it’s not like they ever see each other again either. And the same Bible that’s telling us that story also knows that the descendants of Jacob and Esau are likely to be at odds with each other, maybe for millennia. And so the basic notion is that You can still be connected and still have love even in the midst of your conflict.

And that is, I think, the distinctively Jewish version of this that differs from the American version.

Emma Varvaloucas: I suppose the cousin to Zachary’s question is then when you have Israelis fighting about Israeli politics, are they fighting as citizens of a republic or are they fighting as Jews?

Noah Feldman: It’s both. And I love that question.

It’s actually a brilliant question, which I had not thought of before. But I think the answer is that it’s both because some of the time they really are arguing about politics and policies. And it’s important to add that there are nearly 3 million citizens of Israel who actually aren’t Jews. They’re Palestinians, mostly, there are other people too, but they’re mostly Palestinians or Israeli citizens should be able to and can argue as citizens of a Republic.

And there are a lot of policy issues that the Israelis argue about. And I think the judicial reform debates that were going on in Israel where there were nine months of protests are an example of this. You can imagine a reasonable person thinking we need a more powerful court and you can imagine a reasonable person thinking we need more democracy and a little less judicial liberalism.

That’s sort of a citizens debate, but then when Israel talks about existential issues about what it means to be a Jewish state, for example, then they start arguing like Jews, and you can feel the temperature going up, and you can feel also the tension of the question about what about the citizens of the state of Israel who aren’t Jews?

How can they be included? In that debate, it’s hard. For example, a debate that’s going on in Israel that I feel confident will continue to go on for the foreseeable future, never going to be solved, is should the ultra Orthodox, the Haredim, who currently are not drafted into the Israeli military, be drafted into the Israeli military?

What’s a Palestinian supposed to think about that? It feels not so much like a national debate or a citizen’s debate. It feels more like a debate among Jews. And so they’re doing both and that’s very, very complicated. I think it’s sometimes really, really confusing, really, really confusing for Israelis.

Zachary Karabell: Coexistence question. I mean, I want to highlight what you just said. I wrote this book once about peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and tried to say that. Yeah. People’s romanticizing of coexistence is part of the problem. Like it’s not, I love you and I honor your views, even though I disagree with them vehemently.

It’s like, I can sit there recognizing that your views are abhorrent and not have a proximate need to kill you. And that’s true in Republic. It’s worth Reminding Americans, reminding ourselves, there has been a civil war where we got to a point where we’re like, we can’t actually live together. Like that is not an acceptable, that bar is actually not acceptable.

But unless you have some sort of moral thing like slavery, you better be able to live with people whose views you find abhorrent. Full stop. As long as, I guess, you don’t find their actions abhorrent. It is an interesting question about, like, love within a family, and, like, the Greeks had a lot of different words of love.

We have one that kind of encompasses probably too much for any one definition thereof. I think the kind of love you’re talking about may be more similar to the Republic than you acknowledge. I mean, the respect of someone else’s humanity, even if their views, you find, are just, you Grading to the point of pain, because I don’t know.

I mean, I find that love as a notion other than more of a spiritual one, maybe a higher bar than even Jews with each other can meaningfully be expected to have. I mean, I like the aspirational part of it. I’m not sure if it’s always true. I find that a very provocative in the best sense of the word comment.

Noah Feldman: I was going to say one more thing about your great love point. You know, you’re totally right. The Greeks, such a nuanced and subtle set of differences. And I agree that there’s a certain kind of love, a philia kind of love, that they expected to have even in the Republic. But the Bibles just got this one word for love.

And it says, this is the same word that explains God loving the children of Israel, the children of Israel loving God, the children of Israel loving each other. And, The Children of Israel Loving the Stranger. And, it’s very dysfunctional. In the book of Hosea, which is an obscure book of the Bible, because it’s so challenging.

In the first verses, God commands the prophet to marry a woman who has another lover and will continue to be adulterous. And then the quote is, Just like the love of God for the children of Israel, who are always chasing after foreign gods. And then the guy actually does this in the Bible, and he’s completely miserable.

And that’s the whole book of the Bible. You know, I mean, so that’s a prophetic vision of what love is. So that’s a very complicated, Love, this was not necessarily a picture of a healthy relationship, but it is a very real one. And that’s the thing about Jewishness. You know, it doesn’t have an idealized picture of even what your relationship to a spiritual being like God would be like.

It’s not idealized. It’s super grounded in what real love is like, which combines the deepest feelings of support and emotion and connection. And also, profound struggle and pain.

Emma Varvaloucas: So, Noah, unrelated to the web point, but I would like to ask you this before we run out of time. You mentioned earlier in the conversation, the kind of new forms of anti Semitism.

And, I wanted to ask you, in particular, how you parse things out in an environment where, you know, you have something like the slogan from the river to the sea, and some people are absolutely sure that that by its nature is an anti Semitic statement, other people that are absolutely positive that it’s not, that it’s a political statement, right?

And then there are those who, depending on their level of knowledge, think that it is or it isn’t, not because they are tied to it in some kind of political or emotional way, but just because they might not know what kind of history it’s pulling on, what kind of tropes it’s pulling on. So how do you look at things like that?

Noah Feldman: Yeah, thanks for asking that. We’re in a moment where the president of my university lost her job for, among other reasons. Trying to say that some things are complicated and they depend on context. So that tells you something about the environment we live in. It’s hard to talk about complexity and context.

From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free is first of all, it’s clearly an anti Israel statement and it’s meant to be an anti Israel statement. And taken in a certain light, it sounds like it’s an argument that Israel shouldn’t exist at all. You could imagine someone saying, well, what I meant by it was only that there should be a single state of Israel Palestine that’s a democracy for all of its citizens, and no one has to move, and no one has to be killed, and such a person, I think if they said that, and they sincerely meant it, I think you could say about that person, You might not be anti Semitic in saying that.

And I certainly have very close Palestinian friends who believe that there should just be one state. Everyone should be a citizen of it. It should be a liberal democracy. And in that sense, that would be free. And I don’t think that that point of view is anti Semitic. It’s also true that some people using that slogan are picturing bringing an end to the current state of Israel and the rise of a Palestinian state.

And that’s what they mean by Palestine must be free. And in that state, they may imagine that Jews won’t be there, that they’ll have to leave or that they, you know, heaven forbid would be killed. And that point of view that you want to displace seven or 8 million Jews from their homes or heaven forbid kill them.

That obviously is in the heartland of antisemitism. That would be a tragedy on a par with or greater than the Holocaust. And of course that would be archetypally antisemitic. Now, the problem is you can’t go up to people in a march with a handheld microphone and say to them, what was the nuance with which you meant that, you know, cause that’s not what marches are about.

The whole point is for it not to work like that. That’s why I always feel, even when I really believe in an issue, I find it almost impossible to stand through a march. I would say sit through, but you’re supposed to be standing in a march because people are Chanting these slogans and you’re like, Oh my God, like I’m not really totally on board with that slogan.

Maybe it’s just a sign of a person who doesn’t fit well into that kind of a movement, but I have almost visceral resistance and that’s even when I totally agree with the side of the people that I’m marching with, I still feel super uncomfortable because you can’t do that. So when you ask the best thing to say when people say, is this phrase anti Semitic is to say the phrase can be, it can certainly be construed to be, and we should probably try to avoid saying things.

can and probably will be construed as anti Semitic. But if someone says that, and then you ask me, is that person anti Semitic, that individual person, I would say, I don’t know. I don’t know them. Ask them, ask them what they meant by it. And then we can begin to get a better sense of it. So those are two different kinds of questions.

Zachary Karabell: I think they can both be true. All right. So given that this is the, What Could Go Right? podcast, let’s talk for a moment about what could actually potentially go right now. It is true that we have different relationships over decades to this idea of progress or change. So things are darkest before the dawn as kind of a cliche and a trope seem to have great weight through much of my life.

But in the past years, winter is coming, seems to have a greater cultural resonance and they speak to very different cultural sensibilities. It’s hard in these moments to look to kind of a. Either a redemptive future or a better one. It’s clear that not every government, not every system that’s broken changes for the better.

North Korea seems to be doing just fine being a totalitarian, autocratic, weird hall of mirrors dictatorship. Maybe that’ll change in our lifetimes. Maybe it won’t. The only good that I can see in the Middle East today is the fact that weirdly enough, compared to how you and I grew up, Every other Arab state in the region really doesn’t seem to care nearly as much as the Gen Z students in the United States or London do about what’s going on in Israel and Gaza.

Maybe that’s a terrible thing, but from kind of a systemic level, it’s actually somewhat of a good thing. I don’t know, like, where does this go? Do we look back in this in 10 years and go Israel, Jews became more tribal, more insular, loving each other, but us against the world. Is this a breakthrough moment?

I guess I’m not asking you to forecast a future that none of us know. I’m just asking you for your own sensibility of, is there an arc here or is it just kind of an endless dialectic where there’s no actual synthesis?

Noah Feldman: So I

Zachary Karabell: want to distinguish

Noah Feldman: what could go right for Jews broadly as Jews living as Jews.

And from the question of what could go right in the Israel Palestine conflict. On the what could go right for Jews, Jews could continue, as they’ve been doing for at least 2, 000 years, depending on how you count, could be longer, to realize that there are lots of different legitimate positions. that you can take on almost any issue as a Jew and that Jews have a lot in common with each other through their commitment to struggle together in love to try to get it right and to take the real problems of the real world seriously, not to just gloss over things that appear to be hard, but really to go hard within themselves and to say, you know, what do I think about this issue?

What do I think about this challenge? And in that sense, there’s an old joke that every generation of Jews has in common with the previous generations. It’s complete certainty that it is going to be the last generation of Jews. And that’s never been true and is not going to be true now. In that sense, I think there is progress.

What can go right is that Jews can have loving respect for one another, even in their disagreements and try to participate in making the world a little bit better. That’s to me a real what could go right. Then there’s the recurring difficult question of the Israelis and the Palestinians. And there, the thing that could go right, and I’m not saying that it has a great probability, is that the pressures of the region of Saudi Arabia, which badly wants to normalize its relationship with Israel, Partly because of its opposition to Iran and partly because it wants a closer relationship with the United States, coupled with the fact that, as you say, most other Arab countries, I mean, a whole bunch of them now have normalized relations with Israel, will push Israel to realize that it needs to give some basic state to Palestinians who, because doing so is in Israel’s interests, in its short run interest and its long run interest.

The frustration that many Arabs, especially Arab governments, I would say not individual Arabs who I think tend to be very sympathetic to Palestinians, but Arab governments tend to be pretty frustrated with the Palestinian leadership and feel that the Palestinian leadership hasn’t actually taken the opportunities that’s been offered to it.

That that pressure on the Palestinian side also drives the Palestinian leadership to compromise because Israel has offered a couple of compromises in the past to Palestinians. I’m not saying they were great offers. I’m saying they were compromises. And the Palestinian leadership turned them down pretty flatly, which is partly how we got where we are today.

It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of the story. So I could imagine that what could go right is that both sides could gradually come to see in the wake of a horrific tragedy like happened on October 7th and the horrific tragedy that’s been ongoing in Gaza, that this isn’t working. That just standing there and shooting each other is not working and that they desperately, desperately, desperately need to come up with some form of coexistence in the aftermath of this.

And so, again, without prognosticating or putting any probabilities on it, I’m not saying this is right around the corner, it is possible, and it does fit into the What Could Go Right? framework, I think, very,

Zachary Karabell: very well. Well, now, I want to thank you for your time today, for the book, which I think, whether you’re Jewish or not, is eye opening and offers a real perspective, particularly in a moment where there’s a lot of heat and not a lot of light.

And so that is, I think, helpful for those of you, any one of Noah’s books is a lot of light, maybe some heat too, in a good way, a corpus worth looking into in retrospect. And thank you for the work you’re doing. Thank you, Zach, and thank you, Emma. I really, really appreciate the time.

Emma Varvaloucas: Thanks, Noah.

Zachary Karabell: So I loved, loved, loved that conversation with Noah in whatever Greek definition of love we use.

I think it’s a profound conversation, whether you’re Jewish or not, because the idea of how one deals with us versus them, how you deal with people who you identify as part of your family, whether that’s your literal family or your civic family. People talk about the United States of like, A civic religion, I think is relevant in multiple contexts.

And that kind of ending message of how do you navigate difference, even intense, almost shattering difference. And we’ve touched on this. in multiple different conversations throughout our seasons, right? About how do you engender civil dialogue and discourse between deeply opposed parts of the United States or deeply opposed parts of the world and what’s going on between Israel and Palestinians and Israel and Gaza is one of the more egregiously difficult ones, but that doesn’t mean that the principles of how you engage difference don’t apply.

So I think it’s, An incredibly important book, but it’s also an incredibly important set of templates that go well beyond what does it mean to be a Jew or how to be a Jew.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah, I have to say, I mean, reading the book, I’m not Jewish. I’ve never had any like particular interest in Judaism, either aside from, you know, the intersection of Jew Boo, which is a Jewish Buddhist lovingly termed.

And it was fascinating just to read someone wrestling with finding the common thread between what he calls Bagel and Locks Jewish people, right? So someone that might be nominally culturally Jewish. And somebody who’s an ultra Orthodox Jew. And the way that he tries to keep them all in the same family is really remarkable because it very easily can turn into, as you mentioned, a us versus them type thing, particularly when you have, as we mentioned throughout the conversation, lots of intergenerational trauma, perhaps paranoia, but paranoia coming from very valid historical reference points.

Zachary Karabell: It is important to recognize. that what goes on with Jews, what goes on with Israel, what goes on between Israel and the Palestinians has for decades, and especially now, attracted disproportionate attention in the Western world, in the Judeo Christian Islamic world, relative to other things going on in the world that are statistically more dramatically bad.

And whether that’s what’s going on in the Civil War now, or What’s going on in Myanmar because of the story, because of the roots of so much of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and therefore it kind of occupies disproportionate mind space and heart space relative to whatever numbers that we’re talking about.

And that doesn’t mean it’s not important full stop. It just means that. we can lose sight of what we’re talking about here. And I think that’s certainly true in the heated Gen Z reaction to what’s going on in Israel and Gaza, which is not then echoed in multiple other parts of the world where other atrocities and other complicated, divisive, horrible conflicts are taking place.

Emma Varvaloucas: Right, Israel doesn’t loom large in those national imaginations the way it does in the United States, which also, you know, it does have to do with antisemitism as well. This is not a What Could Go Right comment, but a lot of the time when I look up data points for the newsletter, it’s almost always like the numbers are not as high as you might imagine.

Looking up hate crimes against Jewish people in the United States, not as like an absolute number. I don’t know how you would call it particularly high or particularly low, but as a proportion of hate crimes in the United States. It’s over half, while directed at Jews, at least if you look at the federal data.

And that’s still alive and well.

News Clip: Yeah.

Emma Varvaloucas: In the States and in Europe and maybe not so much, you know, in China or India or other places in the world. So that’s a factor as well. Not a positive one, but one.

Zachary Karabell: Not a positive one. And again, like, I mean, the whole point of this is not to relentlessly stare at everything that’s good.

It’s to relentlessly stare at what’s not good and how do we, you know, ameliorate it. So look, I don’t have, and you don’t have, and Noah doesn’t have some sort of perfect solution to the Israel antisemitism conundrum, nor to what’s going on between Israel’s massive and potentially disproportionate retaliation against the Palestinians.

So we’re not going to solve that now. We have no intent of solving it, but try to put these things in context and bigger picture and at least try to understand everything human beings do. Demands understanding. That doesn’t mean it demands sympathy, but it does demand understanding. And any pathway forward demands coherence and recognition of what’s going on.

And easy condemnation doesn’t quite get you there, right? I mean, the generations have studied what’s going on in the Holocaust or what’s going on in the rise of Nazi Germany, partly as a way of saying we actually need to understand what happened. Just calling it crazy and evil doesn’t actually get you there, right?

It gets you there with moral clarity, but it doesn’t get you there with some understanding of how do human beings behave and why do they behave that way? And why did they behave that way in time? So all of that is in the service of crafting a more peaceful future. News of the day, news of the week.

Emma Varvaloucas: All right, let’s do it.

Zachary Karabell: Let’s look at some of the stories that you were looking at and the rest of us weren’t Emma.

Emma Varvaloucas: All right. So last year the U S and a handful of other countries approved the very first gene therapy treatment for sickle cell disease. The results in the trials were very, very, very good, essentially clearing the disease with like a three year followup, something like that.

Of course, prohibitively expensive for many, but the insurance companies in the U. S. have agreed to cover it, and the first commercial patient. Just started his treatment as a 12 year old boy in Washington. He said that he hopes that he’ll be cured from sickle cell so that he can grow up and become a geneticist, which I like almost cried the first time I read that.

It was just so sweet.

Zachary Karabell: Are these therapies different than like the immunotherapies? I mean, these are like really even more specifically targeted.

Emma Varvaloucas: They basically go in and they like cut off the part of, this is a very non scientific explanation, but they cut off a part of the gene that’s like, producing or doing something that it shouldn’t be doing.

Zachary Karabell: Well, add to the incredibly long and sometimes complicated list of scientific breakthroughs that have led to medical breakthroughs that are leading to less and less of the diseases that will kill us. We’re recording this right during Trumpanalia. It’s, Somehow not nearly as exciting to talk about the 12 year old being cured of sickle cell than it is to be listening to what Stormy Daniels has to say about whatever sexual peccadillo is the, the once and maybe next president of the United States had to offer her.

Emma Varvaloucas: Yeah. I mean, the treatment is so involved with Sero that right now, very small numbers of people can access it, which is one reason why it’s not a kind of plastered all over the news. Another reason it’s like a social justice issue because sickle cell, it only really strikes people of color. So, the lack of funding over sickle cell was an issue for a really long time and it’s another reason why this is exciting where not only is it like, could basically be a cure, but and using really cool scientific stuff to do it.

So over time, it could lead to increasingly ubiquitous treatments and put the millions of people with sickle cell disease on much better footing for their lives.

Zachary Karabell: What else have you got for us in your bag of news tricks?

Emma Varvaloucas: Let’s talk about how rich millennials are now.

Zachary Karabell: Ooh.

Emma Varvaloucas: Finally, good economic news about millennials.

Zachary Karabell: A lot of millennials just threw something at the wall when they heard that. You know, rich millennials, my ass. What are you talking about? I’m not rich.

Emma Varvaloucas: Essentially, and they’re not wrong, right? So the Center for American Progress did this analysis of the post COVID economy, which we’ve talked about on this podcast.

And they track back wealth for Americans under 40 from 2000 and previous. And it really is a sad chart. It’s just stagnant and then drops during the recession around 2010. And then it starts climbing back up, but it’s kind of anemic, doesn’t get to the wealth that we had around 2000. Until 2019. And then in 2019, the chart just jumps like an astonishing and fast amount.

So the Center for Banker Progress found that wealth for Americans under 40 actually has seen a 50%, almost 50 percent increase since 2019. And it’s the fastest, like, recovery from a recession or an economic crisis, let’s say, a pandemic, that they’ve ever seen. So we are much, much wealthier in the last, let’s say four years than we have been for the last two decades.

Specifically it’s around a 40.

Zachary Karabell: I’m sure there are millennials listening to this going, Oh, give me a break. Like that is just ridiculous. What are you talking about? Those numbers are wrong. And even if they’re right, it so doesn’t correlate with my experience. So I don’t know what you’re talking about.

That’s part of the challenge of the Biden campaign in 2024 to say on the one hand that these numbers are very good, but fast numbers of people under the age of 30 are absolutely convinced that the economy is terrible, whatever the economy means, their economy, their job prospects, their ability to own a home, all the things that people measure the economy by in terms of their lived experience.

Emma Varvaloucas: I did get into an argument with at least one newsletter subscriber about this news. So the reaction that you are predicting is probably correct. But I don’t know. That’s what the data says. And I should caveat that this was an average. This is average wealth. They did look at the data and sort of see if it also held true for median.

Basically, like making sure that a small number of really rich millennials weren’t throwing the data off. And they found that, yes, these gains were broadly distributed. So.

Zachary Karabell: We’re just reporting the facts as they are. We’re not trying to report the feelings as they are experienced. Please let us know regardless.

Absolutely. Send us your woes, your angers, and your general discontent.

Emma Varvaloucas: Oh, please don’t. So last but not least, well, send us your woes, just don’t direct them at me personally. Last but not least, this is interesting because I’ve never seen it before. I mean, maybe readers or listeners rather will know other countries that do this, but.

The Australian government, after a pilot program, is now making this a generalized government program. They are pledging up to 1, 500 Australian dollars in cash and 3, 500 in goods and services to help women leave situations of domestic abuse. I was like, huh, interesting. Lots of critics, particularly.

People saying that when they apply for their program, it’s much too hard to get approved. And how much of that is like really reaching people at the day, all questions. But I was interested in the fact that it exists in the first place.

Zachary Karabell: You wouldn’t want to have to go through hoops to prove that you’re being abused.

Like that would be, I think, pretty humiliating and almost reliving the trauma experience.

Noah Feldman: Yeah.

Zachary Karabell: Every government program is open to manipulation by bad actors who would take advantage of it. Right. Meaning they. aren’t suffering at all from domestic violence. They just want to get the money. And so it’s understandable the governments want to establish some criteria whereby you have to demonstrate that you are eligible for this.

I don’t know a way around this. I guess one of the ways around it would be you accept that some people will take advantage of the program, but that’s the price to pay to help a lot of people who will be saved by it. It’s easy to say, look, we should do this. It’s hard to implement it. Unless you are in fact willing to go, look, a certain amount of fraud that will happen.

is worth it. It’s worth it for a few bad actors in order to make it possible to help a lot of people. That’s probably where I would come down. I think people obsess too much over, Oh my God, 10 people took advantage of this program. But in the meantime, you helped a hundred women, right? Who otherwise wouldn’t have had it.

I don’t see why that’s not a trade off that’s acceptable, but people do tend to get really agitated by it. Like, Oh my God, that’s, I can’t believe we did this government program and people scammed us. But in the meantime, you helped all these people. So.

Emma Varvaloucas: It was a pilot program, so it was very small. So we’ll see if like a more general rollout, they’re probably going to fix some of the things that went wrong in the pilot program, I would assume.

Zachary Karabell: All right. Thank you for being with us again for this week. We will be back next week with another What Could Go Right?. Clearly this is a world where people remain pretty fixated on all that is going wrong. And truly there’s a lot that is going wrong and you can spend a lot of your time fixating on it.

But we hope that these conversations at least add a different element, a different, tone to the daily news diet that we are all subject to and makes us think a little more about what is possible for the better and not just what is possible for the worst. So thank you for listening. Thank you, Emma. Send us your thoughts.

Again, not personally directed. At Emma or me. But do send us your thoughts, complaints, concerns, questions, and we will do our best to integrate them and address them in a conversation. So talk to you next week. What could Go Right is produced by the Podglomerate executive, produced by Jeff Umbro, marketing by the Podglomerate.

To find out more about what could go right, the Progress Network, or to subscribe to the What Could Go Right newsletter, visit the progressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.

 

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