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Status Hour: Reclaiming Academic Freedom

Posted on May 05, 2015 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments



Hosted by Tareq Radi
Transcribed by Samantha Brotman 

Originally published on Status Hour

A gripping segment that illuminates the challenges of passing academic boycott, as well as the evolution of the tactics of repression affecting both students and faculty. The segment is a culmination of five comprehensive interviews bringing together the narratives of professors and students directly engaged in issues surrounding political speech in academia. 

Click here to listen.


Tareq Radi (TR): This is Tareq Radi hosting Status Hour's new segment on academic freedom where we will be exposing oppression on campuses both in the region and the United States. For our first segment, we will be discussing the recent resolutions regarding the academic boycott of Israeli institutions that took place during the Middle East Studies Association and the American Anthropological Association's annual meetings this past fall. Joining us are just a few of the scholars who were instrumental in brining these conversations into their respective fields. Doctors Judith Tucker, Ilana Feldman, Lisa Rofel, and Nadia Abu El Haj clarify the association's decisions as well as discuss the various struggles and victories they have experienced throughout their careers as scholars in solidarity with Palestinians. Finally, we are joined by Nashiha Alam, a student at Loyola University Chicago, and an active leader in her Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) Chapter. Nashiha's SJP chapter has received an Islamophobic and anti-brown backlash after their controversial divestment campaign in the spring of 2014. She joins us on the heels of the student misconduct hearing that resulted in their SJP chapter being put on probation. 


Over time, my aim for this segment is to reveal the many modalities of repression and to link the challenges scholars and activists face on campuses today with struggles worldwide. With this in mind, the segment welcomes submissions for issues concerning repression on campus. They need not be Palestine-centric. We welcome a wide range of topics with the hopes of creating a space for marginalized communities to expose their repression.

It is hard to believe it was only a year ago that students and scholars alike were celebrating the American Studies Association's (ASA) monumental decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions. While the the ASA's victory inspired hope for the year to come, 2014 was not void of anguish. Whether it be due to the revocation of Dr. Steven Salaita's job offer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which demonstrates more than one manifestation of the repressive nature of the university, or the onslaught on Gaza this past summer, or the absence of justice for the murderers of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, or Rasmea Odeh's conviction. The list, unfortunately, goes on and on. But there is hope. At the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) and the American Anthropological Association's (AAA) annual business meetings this past winter, the membership of both associations showed an overwhelming support to discuss the topic of boycotting Israeli academic institutions. In our interview with Dr. Judith Tucker, one of the co-authors of the MESA resolution, she clarifies what the aims of the resolution were. 

Judith Tucker (JT): The resolution that we presented at the most recent MESA annual meeting was really a call upon the membership to engage in discussion of the possibility of MESA choosing to endorse academic boycott of Israel. So, it was not a resolution to engage in an academic boycott. But it was a resolution for the organization to provide appropriate fora to discuss an academic boycott. That was one of the major planks of the resolution. The other part of the resolution was a call for other organizations, individuals who have chosen to sign on to such an academic boycott, it was a call to protect their freedom of speech and their academic freedom to do so, and to do so without being subjected to sanctions of any kind. 

TR: The lead-up to MESA's annual conference was met with articles filled with vitriol towards MESA's decision to even contemplate a discussion of academic boycott. Op-eds described the discussion as, "an evil spirit taking over Middle Eastern studies." The unfortunate common false accusation of anti-Semitism was thrown around, there were efforts to delegitimize individual scholars, an appropriation go the language of diversity, and other baseless accusations. Hysteria caused by the mere discussion of academic boycott is a testament to the power of the BDS movement. Opponents of academic freedom in the AAA sought to get ahead of the organizers of the academic boycott through different means. They decided to put forth a resolution of their own. Doctor Ilana Feldman, Associate Professor of Anthropology, History, and International Affairs at George Washington University, discussed the aims of their resolution with us. 

Ilana Feldman (IF): Well, its  overall aim was basically to try to stop a conversation before it fully got off the ground. Clearly, with the aim of trying to ensure that the AAA never takes up a boycott resolution. But even more so, to try to stop people from even thinking about that possibility. It was a slightly convoluted resolution in its language, but that was its primary aim, to say that the boycott is negative and we should not engage in negative sorts of actions. The resolution really misrepresented, in the preamble to it, it misrepresented just about everything it could misrepresent about conditions on the ground in Israel and Palestine, about the role of Israeli academics and Israeli academic institutions in relation to the occupation, and it also misrepresented what a boycott by the AAA would actually entail or what its consequences would be. So, it was wrong-headed in a number of ways. 

TR: Both Doctor Tucker and Doctor Feldman state multiple times that no resolution has been drafted and they are simply calling for the discussion of academic boycott. Doctor Feldman tells us what the resolution could like for the AAA.

IF: There are things that still need to be worked out, so I can reflect from the confrontations that I have had with people and in general, the approach that the wider boycott movement has taken about these things. But there is not yet a resolution drafted, so I want to be clear that what I am saying is not what the resolution is, because it does not yet exist. Rather, the approach to thinking about boycott that we have been taking and that the broader boycott movement takes. One thing to separate out is what it might mean for the AAA as an organization and for anthropologists who are members of the organization. Because the AAA, on many occasions, makes statements of policy and statements of ethical and political principle. Those are statements of the organization and they are recommendations for the members, but the AAA does not require anything particular of its members, nor does it adjudicate ethical matters. So, if the AAA passed a boycott resolution, it would not require anything of individual members of the organization. Members, on this issue, like any other issue, can follow their conscience. It would certainly be a recommendation, but it would not require anything. I want to be clear about that. Just as the boycott itself is a boycott of institutions, not individuals, the taking up of the boycott by the institution would not require individual members of the institution to act in any particular way. 

What it might mean for the organization? Again, the proposal is a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions, not of individuals. So, if the AAA took up a boycott, it would not mean that Israeli academics could not be members of the organization, could not come to the conferences, could not publish in journals. Israeli academics as individuals would be able to continue doing all the things that they do now. What it would likely mean is that the AAA would not enter into any kind of institutional relationship with Israeli institutions. There are questions that still need to be figured out about what that would mean in the details. But in the broad scope of things, that would be what it would mean. 

TR: Doctor Tucker outlines a very similar possibility for MESA, clarifying once again that the participation of individual Israeli scholars in MESA will not be affected in any way by the resolution. 

JT: What would such an academic boycott look like for an organization like MESA? Our members at the meeting expressed a number of very legitimate concerns about what such a resolution would look like and what it would mean. It is entirely up to MESA, should it choose to participate in an academic boycott, how it wishes to tailor that boycott. There is not any set template that we have to endorse or reject. For example, we could choose, like the ASA has done, to have a purely institutional boycott. In other words, MESA as an institution would decide to boycott Israeli institutions, Israeli universities, Israeli granting agencies, Israeli government institutions of one kind or another would be boycotted by MESA. But, individual members, our Israeli colleagues, this would mean nothing at all in terms of their participation in MESA. They would still attend MESA meetings, they would still have articles in MESA journals, it would not affect their ability to participate fully as MESA members, if MESA chose to do this kind of a boycott, an institutional boycott. 

TR: Parts of the left have critiqued MESA for being late to the game or too conservative with the resolution when compared to other academic associations, such as the ASA or the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. It is important that we maintain a critical attitude. As our guests have pointed out, it is imperative that they understand strategically how to pass the academic boycott in different settings. Not only does each associations membership have different levels of knowledge regarding the colonization Palestine, but they are structurally different as well. Doctor Lisa Rofel, Professor of Anthropology and the Director of Center for Emerging Worlds at University of California Santa Cruz discusses the processes of passing a resolution through the AAA. 

Lisa Rofel (LR): You can do it one of several ways. If you want a measure voted on at the meetings themselves, you have to hand in the resolution in advance, although I do think you can bring up a resolution at the meetings and if there is a quorum, and I believe a quorum is 250 people, it can be also voted on at the meetings. So, you have several ways of getting a resolution to be voted on at the business meeting itself. And then, the leadership of the association has the right to choose to send out the resolution to the full membership by email vote in the following April, if they so choose. I am guessing that when we introduce a boycott resolution, they will probably do that. That is my guess. But you can also just introduce a resolution to be voted on in April, which is generally when they send out the email to vote, without going through the Anthropology meeting, they could decide to do that also. 

TR: MESA has a much more rigid structure in regards to passing resolutions. 

JT: Structurally, MESA in this way is a highly democratic organization, as it turns out. Until you study the bylaws, you have no idea how democratic we are, in fact. The only kind of resolution that can bind anyone to do anything is a resolution that is voted on by the full membership. It has to first pass through a vote at the annual meeting, simply to get it on the ballot. Then a ballot has to go out to the full membership of MESA. The board independently cannot pass any kind of resolution, take any kind of public position on an issue. It is a membership prerogative completely in MESA. That takes time. You are not going to do anything, you are not going to have any kind of resolution, take any kind of meaningful and binding decision until your membership has had a chance to discuss that vote. 

TR: Doctor Tucker also responds to some of the critiques MESA faced from supporters of the academic boycott following the resolution. 

JT: I think it is different for MESA, and I do not think that is necessarily because MESA is a more conservative organization overall. It is hard to say what that necessarily means in terms of an academic association. I think one of the reasons why it is more difficult for MESA is that we have a membership that is very engaged in the region and we have people who are supporters of Israel, we have people who are long-term opponents of Israeli policies, and we have people who are not highly engaged one way or another, but in general tend to be knowledgable about it. So we have a membership that cares deeply about this issue. That is always difficult from the beginning, if you have people who are deeply engaged. Because that means there is inevitably going to be some conflict, some discussion about engaging at all, which is what we have seen. I also think, in this situation and for all organizations—MESA is not different from the others from this point of view—for all organizations, this is a kind of development that just takes time. You have to give people time to explore the issues before asking them to take a position. These other academic organizations, many of them have been exploring this issue for years. I think if you talk to the ASA people, it has been, I do not know for sure, five years or six years that they have been discussing this, focused on this issue, before they actually brought it to the point of actually endorsing a boycott. Other organizations are starting this process or are just midway into this process, the way MESA is, like the AAA, the anthropologists for example. They did not try to bring a resolution or endorsement of boycott resolution this year either. They also were moving in more educational mode, I would say, sponsoring panels and discussions at so forth at their annual meeting. So, I am not sure MESA is very out of step here. I think it is proceeding to engage the issue, it is proceeding in a very deliberate fashion because it is important for us, given the high level of commitment to the region and therefore, I would say, emotional attachment to these issues that our membership has. It is really important to move slowly and with full, open discussion. 

TR: Members of the AAA have created a website titled, "Anthropologists for The Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions." You can visit it at anthroboycott.wordpress.com. It is clear that a lot of time and effort have gone into making the blog as to rally support for the academic boycott. At their annual meeting in December, they organized four panels dedicated to educating their members on the academic boycott and/or Palestine-Israel-related issues. Doctor Ilana Feldman gives us an overview of how long the AAA has been formally organizing for the boycott, as well as why they chose to opt out of putting forward a resolution in favor of the boycott.

IF: First, at last year's AAA there was a boycott panel, and to my knowledge that was the first formal conversation within the Anthropology Association on the question. Obviously, members have been talking about it for a few years. The actions of the ASA to take up a boycott as an organization clearly have had ripple effects across a broad range of organizations. I do think that the level of activity and conversation that is going on in the AAA is directly connected to the fact that the ASA and other smaller organizations have passed such resolutions. So there is this sense that this is a conversation that we really need to have. And the goal of the conversations at this year's meeting was precisely that, to have a conversation, to educate the membership, remembering that this is an organization of ten or eleven-thousand people, most of whom do not work on Palestine, do not work on the Middle East, do not spend most of their time thinking about this part of the world and the consequences of our involvement there. So, if we want to get the support of the membership, which is really the aim, to get the support of the membership for boycott. Not just pass a resolution, but to gain a widespread consensus in the organization. We need to do the work of educating people. So that was the primary goal of the activities at this year's meeting. 

TR: So I assume that is why you thought it would be best opt out of bringing forth a BDS resolution, correct?

IF: That is right. It seemed that it was premature potentially for two reasons. One, that it might not be ready to pass. And two, that even if you could pass at the business meeting, lots of people did not know enough about it to feel entirely comfortable about their vote. My sense from the business meeting that did happen was that the support is perhaps already wider than we anticipated. But we do want to really gain the understanding of the membership of the importance of this issue. 

TR: As a member of MESA, I had the opportunity to participate in the business meeting where I watched members take turns stating why or why not they supported the resolutions. Two things were evident from the beginning. One, there was clearly a generational divide, with the proponents of the resolution having a collection of sundry identities: women, men, people of color, self-proclaimed anti-Zionist Jews, and so on. And two, the fault-lines within MESA differed from those that I had observed during the ASA's town hall meeting the year before. Doctor Tucker discusses the fault lines with us further. 

JT: MESA is interesting because, on the one hand, it is a logical place to talk about this issue. On the other hand, it is a very challenging place to talk about this issue. 

TR: And this has not been the first time that we have talked about BDS at MESA, correct?

JT: Right. No, it is not the first time. There was a panel on BDS when the meeting was in San Diego some years ago, actually. So, it has been a topic of concern for a while. I have felt, over the course of the past year, there probably was an escalation of concern—I would say—among members. One began to hear from a lot more people saying, "we need to really engage this." There were MESA members who very much wanted to have an all-out endorsement, a resolution to endorse an academic boycott this year. So, the idea of having a resolution that instead would be an invitation to MESA members to engage, to discuss, to explore, was a good measure to give people time to really think about what this would mean for the organization and how it best could be tailored to the interests and needs of MESA itself. 

TR: I saw this at this past meeting, but I think even at the San Diego panel, it consisted of both proponents for and against the academic boycott. The people against it were not only apologists for Israeli policies, but people who had general concerns like you were stating earlier about the academic boycott. I think this was clearly the case at MESA's meeting in November, where we saw, of those seventy-five members who voted against the resolution, not all of them were apologists for Israeli policies. 

JT: Yes. If I had to guess, I would say the majority were not apologists for Israeli policies. I mean, there were some apologists for Israeli policies, but my guess is they are a minority of the minority. 

TR: The fault lines are quite different within the AAA, as Doctor Rofel explains. 

LR: The group of people opposed, as you said, were very small. There were only fifty-two people voting in favor. What most struck me is that they are an older generation of anthropologists. Most of them are retired. It seemed to me that a lot of them were well into their eighties. I see them as a generation that I am sympathetic with, they grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, I am assuming most of them are Jewish although I have no idea, and I completely appreciate their need to have a fantasy that there is a safe place for Jews. Unfortunately, Israel is not what they think it is or should be and it will never be that fantasy. I urge everyone who is hesitant about boycott to look reality in the face and see what Israel is actually doing to Palestinians. So, I saw a generational divide. 

TR: One of today's most controversial cases of academic oppression concerns Doctor Steven Salaita, who joins a long list of academics who have been persecuted for their positions on Palestine. One of those academics is Doctor Nadia Abu El Haj, professor of Anthropology at Barnard College. Today, Doctor Abu El Haj is among the scholars leading the academic boycott within the AAA. But eight years ago, Doctor Abu El Haj fought her own tenure battle, where she thankfully emerged victorious. She narrates her experience to us. 

NA: What came to be known as the tenure battle exploded into the public view at the very end of what was a very long tenure process. The tenure process at Barnard and Columbia takes almost two years, and there are four votes. I had been through three of them, including the two department votes, and the Barnard College Appointments and Tenure Committee. At that point, there was only one vote left which would have been the Columbia Ad Hoc. What had been a rather underground campaign, which I can explain a little more about, went very public then that summer, which was the summer of 2007. It went public with a petition that was presumably drafted and initiated by a Barnard alum who was a settler in a West Bank settlement, with the public support of one professor at Barnard who was a professor of Jewish Studies, named Alan Segal. But in fact, the campaign had been going on for much longer much more under the radar. I think it is important to keep that in mind, because it was not actually the initiative of a single settler who got her alumni friends on board. 

So, if I can back up a little bit, my book had come out a long time before. It was published in 2001. In 2005 was the first really negative review of it by a Jewish Neoconservative archaeologist by training, but not full-time academic. It was published in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. The person that published it was Alexander Joffe. He then went on to become the head of Campus Watch, which was the organization that had already been organizing not just against Middle East faculty in general, but against Columbia University very particularly. It had led the campaign against what was then the Middle East and South Asian Department, and particularly against two professors, Rashid Khalidi and Joseph Massad. By the time of 2007, Alexander joffe was then at the David Project, which was the second institution that had spent a lot of time and money in vilifying Columbia and faculty that were there. So, I think one has to understand that campaign and the push against me as part of that whole pattern, which were these well-funded, Neoconservative institutions that went after faculty at universities through students that were there. The initiative really was not simply some student or alum initiative.

TR: A more detailed account of her story can be found in our separate interview with her. Scholars have identified the Neoliberalization of universities and the increased reliance of donor funding as a mechanism against the autonomy of the faculty. Many are concerned about the effects this may have on academic freedom. Doctor Abu El Haj discusses that 9/11 was a major turning point, where university presidents began to bend to the threats of donors.

NA: But not every single president and provost caves to donor money and private institutions. I think that mid-2000s were the height of caving to donor pressure because the groups that were pushing back against any form of critical speech regarding the state of Israel on university campuses had aligned themselves so seamlessly with the post-9/11 battle, the so-called War on Terror. They had successfully made it the same fight. They had made it the same fight in congress, they had made it the same fight in the public domain. That was the height of this moment of mass, political hysteria in the United States. It was a very ripe time for them to play this game. It started with the second intifada. The push of Campus Watch started with the second intifada, it was before 9/11. But 9/11 gave them a wedge in and into a kind of liberal America, not just a conservative America. 

TR: She goes on to discuss the evolution of Zionist tactics of repression within the university, noting the differences between her case and Doctor Steven Salaita's. 

NA: It is interesting because I think it evolved in a certain way, and in Steven's case is a combination of the two tactics. I think there was a certain point in which going very public, the ways in which they went public in the fight against my tenure was an incredible tactical mistake. I mean, if you want to undermine someone's tenure, you would do a much better job going behind the scenes than turning it into a public battle, because then you are much more likely to get faculty, and even the New York Times wrote a relatively decent article about it. Liberals [began] to panic on what exactly is going on here. So, I think that the strategy of public naming and shaming, which was the strategy in the immediate post-9/11 period, began to shift. What it picked up on was this notion that what is going on on university campuses is, there is the Jewish student who is being made "uncomfortable" because of an anti-Semitic atmosphere. That is the origin of the legal tactics that they have turned to. So, this person, I cannot remember his fist name, somebody Marcus, who was in the Office of Civil Rights in the early years of the Obama administration. He worked to get Jews as a religion that can also be a race, reclassified as a group that has racial status that can be protected under both Title VI and Title IX which are the two different versions of the anti-discrimination act under the Civil Rights Office of the Department of Education. Since that reclassification, there have been all these legal suits. For example, Berkeley, Irvine, and Santa Cruz, all had Title VI legal suits against the university by saying that they were creating a hostile learning environment for Jewish students. So, that has been one big tactic. They tried it against Barnard, they tried it against these big universities in California. There are a variety of other cases. It is always being done in the name of the Jewish student who constitutes a certain kind of public. Again, I think it is important to keep in mind that administrators often panic about donors and about various other things. It is not a public that just exists, it is a public that there is a lot of money and a lot of work going into interpolating a particular subgroup of Jewish students into this feeling of feeling scared and insecure and threatened. In that name, universities are caving. So, the legal suits have all failed. They have all been struck down by judges because of free speech. There is free speech, as a group of civil rights lawyers recently wrote a letter to administrators saying, "there is no civility clause under the free speech clause of the constitution." But instead, even though the legal cases have failed, now we have the language of civility, which is coming up again and again. After the Gaza War it has gotten worse, which is the call to civility. In the name of civility, which is another way of saying, "if you are not civil, you are making other students uncomfortable," you have Students for Justice for Palestine branches being shut down, although often then reopened. And of course you have Steven Salaita's job offer being withdrawn. So, that whole notion of civility goes all the way back to the kinds of charges that were made against Joseph Massad, and Rashid Khalidi, and me, and other people at Columbia, which was us presumably creating a hostile learning environment for Jewish students. It went through the courts and it failed in the courts, but it created a kind of public discourse that is now on the rise and which administrations are responding to. That I think is the latest tactic and I think is a very dangerous tactic. 

TR: And these tactics of silencing are not limited to the faculty. The student-led solidarity movement on campuses continues to make leaps and bounds creating paradigm shifts in the discourse on Palestine-Israel. It is no wonder we have observed increased condemnation of organizations such as Students for Justice for Palestine. Nashiha Alam, of Loyola SJP discusses her SJP's most recent student misconduct hearing which resulted in their chapter being put on probation.

NA: We have been facing a couple of things, and this all kind of stems back to divestment last year where we passed divestment through student government two times before it was vetoed. The university had been facing a lot of backlash from donors and the community as well as a lot of heat from all sides of things. As a result, SJP has been under surveillance by our opposition and our administration, but mostly because we are one of the most active SJPs in the city. So, this year, I think it was maybe twenty or so Palestinian students who decided to protest or make a statement about a birthright registration table that was going on that was held by Hillel. SJP was not organizing it, but there were some SJP members who did take part in it who happened to be Palestinian. As a result, these students went up to the table and asked if they could register. Obviously they were turned away. There was some discourse at the table, all political, very "civil" discussions happening. But, of course, we were reported to the administration with six charges. These ranged all the way from harassment and bullying to religious discrimination. So when we heard these claims, we were obviously very shocked. They were coming at SJP, it was not on an individual level at that point. So, while they brought in individuals from the action, they were targeting SJP mainly because it was a pro-Palestine action and they assimilated the action with SJP. Now, as a result, SJP had to attend a four-hour hearing where we defended ourselves and essentially cleared up all of these bogus allegations. We, in the end, were cleared of five out of six of the allegations. Obviously this was weeks after and what was not mentioned in all of this was that as a part of the ongoing investigation, SJP was at one point temporarily suspended because of the investigation. We had to cancel a lot of our activities for the time being because we did not know what was going to happen to SJP.

TR: Loyola SJP's case is clearly an instance of the criminalization of any dissent on the issue of Palestine-Israel. Where even if individuals express their personal opinions on the matter, it falls back on the organization. Even though the claims are baseless, they occupy the students' time and resources, impeding their ability to continue their work. The university has gone as far as to monitor the students' organizing off campus and has attempted to stifle their support for Rasmea Odeh. 

NA: So when we approached the university about having an action for Rasmea on campus, they explicitly told us that there was no way that SJP Loyola could co-sponsor or hold or put on such an event, even in the Daley Center. They even cited the Daley Center, which meant that they were tracking what we were doing and what we were organizing. This is problematic because people are using social media as a private way to keep in touch with other organizers and when we are criminalized for organizing online, my e-mails that are sent out, all tracked by the administration, all forwarded to administrators, so that is a huge problem, I think.

TR: Do you mind clarifying what the Daley Center is, please?

NA: The Daley Center is a huge plaza downtown that a lot of protests take place at. 

TR: Were you using your university e-mail?

NA: Yeah. Somehow, they told us that the Daley Center plaza, even if they did not explicitly say that they knew that we were organizing something like this, but in a way it was said in a threatening way: "Even if you organize something, say in the Daley Plaza, it will be not permissible by Loyola's handbook policies." So, because it was so specific, clearly you cannot assume everything, but that what it seemed like. What happened was when they were investigating us in the beginning, they brought us in and asked us to identify all of the students in the pictures from the original birthright action. This was problematic because the way they were asking us made it seem like they were going to punish us if we were not going to answer. In a very FBI way. When we refused to answer who these students were, they kept grilling us and grilling us and eventually, it was made clear to them that a lot of these students have a lot more to risk than just suspension or just expulsion, but it is a matter of going to their home countries and their families being deported, their cover is kind of being blown, in that sense. So, it is a very scary situation for a lot of us Palestinian students who happen to be immigrant families as well. So, that is something, I guess, that was really important. 

TR: Reflecting on the contributions of our guests, it is clear that this is not going to be our last segment. I would like to thank all of our guests: Doctors Judith Tucker, Ilana Feldman, Lisa Rofel, and Nadia Abu El Haj, as well as Nashiha Alam for taking the time to join us. 


*This interview was conducted prior to the vote on the MESA resolution closing.  Since then, the voting has closed and the resolution passed 561-152.
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