Semitism and Capitalism: The Merits and Inadequacies of Middleman Minority Theory in Explaining the Jews Part I

[Occidental dissent, as usual does good work and here is some deeper thinking regarding the Jews. Jan]

“The middleman and the host society come in conflict because elements in each group have incompatible goals. To say this is to deny the viewpoint common in the sociological literature that host hostility is self-generated (from psychological problems or cultural traditions).”
Edna Bonacich, “A Theory of Middleman Minorities,” 1973.[1]

An interesting accompaniment to Nathan Cofnas’s 2018 attempted debunking of Kevin MacDonald’s work on Jews was the subtle resurfacing of Steven Pinker’s claim that a more plausible theory of the Jewish historical experience can be found in “Thomas Sowell’s convincing analysis of ‘middleman minorities’ such as the Jews, presented in his magisterial study of migration, race, conquest, and culture.” Pinker first involved himself in criticism of MacDonald’s work in a letter to Slate, in January 2000, where he made the above comment. A mere teenager in January 2000, it was only in the wake of the Cofnas affair that I first discovered and read Pinker’s initial response to MacDonald’s theory. It goes without saying that I disagreed with almost everything Pinker had to say, but I was especially vexed by his invocation of the “middleman minority” theory, something I’ve been familiar with for over a decade and always found strongly lacking. Pinker himself, of course, has relatively little expertise in the area, his only comment on the theme coming from a quasi-memoir on Jewish intelligence written for New Republic. Additionally, his gushing use of persuasive language (“convincing,” “magisterial”) to describe Thomas Sowell’s extremely derivative and now rather dated Migrations and Cultures: A World View (1996) struck me as a wholly contrived inflation of what isn’t really a rival theory at all, and certainly not a Sowell innovation. In fact, the history of “middleman minority” theory, and especially its application to the Jews, has a patchy, chequered, and ambiguous history that is worth exploring in its own right. The following essay is intended to provide such a history, as well as to broadly assess the merits and inadequacies of exploring Jewish history through this lens, and also the ways it complements, and falls short of, Kevin MacDonald’s theory.

History of the Theory

The comparing of Jews with other sojourning or diaspora trading peoples is far from new, and has even been a staple of anti-Jewish writing since at least the Enlightenment. Voltaire, for example, wrote in his Oeuvres Complètes (Geneva, 1756) and Dictionnaire Philosophique (Basle, 1764) that “The Guebers [Parsis in the modern terminology], the Banyans [Indian merchants] and the Jews, are the only nations which exist dispersed, having no alliance with any people, are perpetuated among foreign nations, and continue apart from the rest of the world.”[2] In the course of his essay, however, Voltaire concluded that, some surface similarities aside, “It is certain that the Jewish nation is the most singular that the world has ever seen.” Bruno Bauer (1809–1882), the German Protestant theologian, philosopher and historian, also used the example of the Parsis and Overseas Indians, writing in The Jewish Problem (1843),

The base [of the tenacity of the Jewish national spirit] is lack of ability to develop with history, it is the reason of the quite unhistorical character of that nation, and this again is due to its oriental nature. Such stationary nations exist in the Orient, because there human liberty and the possibility of progress are still limited. In the Orient and in India, we still find Parsees [sic] living in dispersion and worshipping the holy fire of Ormuz.[3]

After Voltaire, commentary on the relationship between the economic activity of the Jews and other aspects of their behavior and history, a key theme in modern middleman minority theory, were common points of discussion and debate. Jakob Friedrich Fries (1773–1843), an avowedly anti-Semitic German philosopher, argued in his essay On the Danger to the Well-Being and Character of the Germans Presented by the Jews (1816), that Jews adopted their historical middleman role willingly, out of a hunger for profit and an innate sense of separateness, rather than being forced into it by broader economic structures and contexts (which again are a major focus of modern middleman minority theory). For Fries,

Both in Germany and abroad the Jews had free states where they enjoyed every right, and even countries where they reigned—but their sordidness, their mania for deceitful, second-hand dealing always remained the same. They shy away from industrious occupations not because they are hindered from pursuing them but simply because they do not want to.

Following Bauer and Fries—and before modern scholarship on the subject, the most prominent invocation of ideas similar to modern middleman minority theory can be observed in the work of Karl Marx. In fact, Marx’s essay On the Jewish Problem is an explicit reply to Bauer, with Marx accusing Bauer of “a one-sided conception of the Jewish problem.”[4] Marx decried Bauer’s focus on religious matters, perceiving the roots of the Jewish problem to reside instead in resource competition and raw economics. In many of his arguments and assessments of the economic and sociological position of the Jews, Marx anticipated Edna Bonacich (1940–), the Jewish Marxist anti-Zionist sociologist who essentially invented middleman minority theory in its modern form (and whose work will be discussed below), in arguing for a structural-contextual explanation of the middleman role of the Jews. In this view, the historical development of Capital essentially invites and entices certain sojourning or diaspora groups, including the Jews, to adopt lucrative but exploitative and antagonistic roles within society. In the words of Marx, “we recognize therefore in Judaism a generally present anti-social element which has been raised to its present peak by historical development, in which the Jews eagerly assisted.” [emphasis added] These antagonistic roles then generate host hostility, which reinforces ethnocentrism and negative characteristics in the minority, accelerating and deepening conflict.

Marx’s emphasis on economic opportunity and the capitalist superstructure influenced later writers such as the German economist Wilhelm Roscher (1817–1894), Werner Sombart (1863–1941), Max Weber (1864–1920), and Georg Simmel (1858–1918), all of whom attempted in some form to trace the relationship of ethnicity to occupational choice (a major concern of modern middleman minority theory), with particular attention paid to the Jews. In keeping with his flamboyant Marxism, Sombart was closest to Marx’s ideas on the Jews, arguing in The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1911) that Capital had drawn Jews into their influential, exploitative, and lucrative roles in such a comprehensive manner that Jews had become a kind of ur-middleman minority, and thus were both the prime movers of modern capitalism and the very embodiment of exploitative capital itself. Later, in Der moderne Kapitalismus (1913), Sombart claimed that the middleman nature of the Jews had become endemic in society, creating generations of mere “traders,” a bourgeois “Jewish species” whose entire intellectual and emotional world is “directed to the money value of conditions and dealings, who therefore calculates everything in terms of money.” This “spirit of Moloch” compelled the entrepreneur to “make money relentlessly until at last he conceives this as the real goal of all activity and all existence.”[5] For Sombart, the origins of the worst of modern capitalism can be found in the early middleman role of the Jews, their medieval semi-nomadic quest for usury-derived profit and Victorian hawking of shoddy goods being a precursor to modern advertising and the mass production of superfluous and quickly obsolete consumer products.

Max Weber’s interpretation of the Jewish middleman role was slightly softer, with Weber advancing the notion of “pariah capitalism.” Pariah capitalists, who include the Jews as well as the Parsis, the Overseas Indians, and the Overseas Chinese, are groups whose characteristics and situational contexts make them prone to willingly adopt socially negative positions in order to obtain wealth and influence. For Weber, capitalism itself was not intrinsically bad. The Puritans, with their industry and hard work, were held up in Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/5) as exemplars of positive, “rational” capitalism. Jews, and other pariah capitalists, however, invariably advanced a negative “irrational” capitalism typified by consumer credit, speculation, and colonialism. According to Weber, middleman minorities or “pariah capitalist groups” perverted the essentially good nature of capitalism because of their practice of “dual ethics,” or moral double-standards, which was itself a product of their sojourning nature and situational context. Weber also perceived Judaism itself as reinforcing the Jewish preference for pariah capitalism.[6]

Softer still were the ideas of Wilhelm Roscher, one of the founders of the historical school of political economy. Roscher was part of the historical economist or European Institutionalist movement (which also influenced Weber) that argued for a study of economics based on empirical work that laid special methodological emphasis on context, rather than logical philosophy. Roscher’s emphasis on context and the historical development of capitalism are exemplified in his 1875 essay “The Status of the Jews in the Middle Ages Considered from the Standpoint of Commercial Policy.”[7] In this essay, Roscher presented capitalism as neither inherently good or bad, and he made the argument that Jews, who like other middleman minorities were economic modernizers, were positive influences and crucial to the development of a burgeoning economic trading system. Gideon Reuveni offers the following summary:

According to Roscher, the modernizing role of the Jews explains the change in attitudes within the social majority: from tolerance and acceptance to exclusion and persecution. In other words, once, in the eyes of the majority the role of the Jews becomes superfluous, resentments towards the Jews become more prevalent. This cycle in relations towards Jews, Roscher observed, was not specific to the relationship between Jews and non-Jews but was rather a general development among many peoples who allow their economies to be administered by a foreign and more highly cultivated people, but later, upon having reached the necessary level of development themselves, often after intense struggles, try to emancipate themselves from this tutelage. According to Roscher, “one may defiantly speak in this connection of a historical law here.”[8]

Similar to Roscher’s ideas were the theories of the Jewish Marxist anti-Zionist Abram Leon (1918–1944). Leon, a Polish Jew said to have been executed at Auschwitz at the age of 26, published The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation around 1942, in which he proposed that Jews were a “people-class.” For Leon, “Judaism mirrors the interests of a pre-capitalist mercantile class.” He explains,

Judaism was an indispensable factor in precapitalist society. It was a fundamental organism within it. That is what explains the two-thousand-year existence of Judaism in the Diaspora. The Jew was as characteristic a personage in feudal society as the lord and the serf. It was no accident that a foreign element played the role of “capital” in feudal society. Feudal society as such could not create a capitalist element; as soon as it was able to do so, precisely then it ceased being feudal. Nor was it accidental that the Jew remained a foreigner in the midst of feudal society. The “capital” of precapitalist society existed outside of its economic system. From the moment that capital begins to emerge from the womb of this social system and takes the place of the borrowed organ, the Jew is eliminated and feudal society ceases to be feudal. It is modern capitalism that has posed the Jewish problem. Not because the Jews today number close to twenty million people (the proportion of Jews to non-Jews has declined greatly since the Roman era) but because capitalism destroyed the secular basis for the existence of Judaism. Capitalism destroyed feudal society; and with it the function of the Jewish people-class. History doomed this people-class to disappearance; and thus the Jewish problem arose. The Jewish problem is the problem of adapting Judaism to modern society.

Georg Simmel, an ethnically Jewish sociologist, philosopher, and critic, moved in much the same theoretical direction as Roscher and Leon, as evidenced in his famous and still influential essay “Der Fremde” (“The Stranger”) (1908). Simmel argued that certain groups like Jews and other diaspora peoples may be members of host nations in a spatial sense but not in a social sense. They may be in the nation, but not of it. These groups are both near and far, familiar and foreign. This contextual scenario influences the behavior of “stranger” groups by permitting them freedom from convention and allowing them access to an alleged greater objectivity. For Simmel, “the Stranger,” the classic example of which in his estimation is the Jew, is “the person who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going.”[9] This freedom, argues Simmel, makes “the Stranger” ideally suited to fulfil the role of middleman minority.[10] As with Roscher’s theory, which is markedly contradicted in several key areas of the historical record, there are a number of obvious logical and evidential problems with Simmel’s theory, and these will be discussed later.

Between Simmel’s 1908 essay and the 1970s, middleman minority theories continued to be advanced. With the exception of Philip Curtin and his Cross-cultural Trade in World History (1984), these efforts were developed primarily by Jewish scholars, and overwhelmingly within the context of trying to explicitly or implicitly explore, explain, or offer apologetics for the Jewish experience. For example, Abner Cohen (1921–2001), was an anthropologist at the University of London, who advanced, in his influential work Urban Ethnicity (1974) and numerous other publications, the idea that there are “trading diasporas.”[11] Of particular interest are Cohen’s ideas about “visibility strategies” pursued by such groups:

The use of symbols to maintain group boundaries can thus be seen as a cultural strategy. In fact, many groups in traditional and modern societies find that their interests are guarded better through invisible organisations such as cousinhoods, membership in a common set of social clubs, religious ties, and informal networks, than through a highly visible, formally recognised institution. At times, ethnic groups may need to heighten their visibility as strangers to maintain their interests while in other instances they may wish to lower their profile and appear to be an integral part of the society.[12]

This bears a striking similarity to the sixth chapter of Kevin MacDonald’s Separation and Its Discontents, which is concerned with visibility strategies, especially among crypto-Jews, and concludes with the argument that “this attempt to maintain separatism while nevertheless making the barriers less visible is the crux of the problem of post-Enlightenment Judaism.”[13] In fact, beginning in the 1970s, middleman minority theory began to develop several ideas that dovetail very well with the concept of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of Edna Bonacich.

Although the modern refinement of middleman minority theory is often traced to Hubert Blalock’s 1967 Toward a Theory of Minority-Group Relations, the greater scholarly interest has been shown in Edna Bonacich’s 1973 American Sociological Review article “A Theory of Middleman Minorities.”[14] Bonacich sought to refine and systematize Blalock’s theory within an anti-capitalist framework, essentially making the argument that all group conflict in such scenarios is the result of a rational competition for resources in which group characteristics and interests play a crucial role. A Jewish Marxist and anti-Zionist, Bonacich’s interpretations borrow heavily from Marx, Sombart, Weber, Roscher, and Leon, to the extent that Bonacich essentially concurs that capitalism created opportunities for exploitative middleman communities and the Jews and other middleman minorities, who possess certain predisposing characteristics including dual loyalty and a level of unscrupulousness, willingly and enthusiastically engaged in these roles.

Bonacich is well-known for her work on East Asian middleman minorities in the United States, especially her 1980 monograph The Economic Basis of Ethnic Solidarity: Small Business in the Japanese American Community, but her earliest work on middleman minorities clearly demonstrates a concern with the Jewish experience.[15] In her discussion of middleman minorities in the 1973 article, Bonacich describes Jews as “perhaps the epitome of the form.” Some of the key features of the 1973 article include the arguments that Jews and other middleman minorities are essentially economic “teams,” and that these teams rely upon very high levels of ethnocentrism and related social and economic strategies, which in turn enable them to succeed in individualistic societies. Bonacich writes,

The modern industrial capitalist treats his workers impartially as economic instruments; he is as willing to exploit his own son as he is a stranger. This universalism, the isolation of each competitor, is absent in middleman economic activity, where primordial ties of family, region, sect, and ethnicity unite people against the surrounding, often individualistic economy. [emphasis added][16]

Bonacich makes some very interesting, and controversial, remarks on the nature of conflict between middleman minorities and their hosts, with special reference to Jews. For Bonacich, accusations that Jews have simply been scapegoats for the woes of Europeans are based on nothing more than a “surface impression.”[17] While noting that middleman minorities “are noteworthy for the acute hostility they have faced,” it remains that,

host members have reason for feeling hostile toward middleman groups. … Even the extremity of the host reaction can be understood as “conflict” behavior. The reason is that the economic and organisational power of middleman groups makes them extremely difficult to dislodge. … The difficulty of breaking entrenched middleman monopolies, the difficulty of controlling the growth and extension of their economic power, pushes host countries to ever more extreme reactions. One finds increasingly harsh measures, piled on one another, until, when all else fails, “final solutions” are enacted.[18] [emphasis added]

Bonacich has also argued that Jews and other middleman minorities do engage in economic and social “dual loyalty,” and that middleman minorities do in fact “drain” resources away from host populations and can become very powerful as a result. This then frequently causes host elites and masses to unite against the sojourning element, a conflict that can escalate rapidly if the sojourning element refuses to give up its monopolies. Bonacich explicitly rejects any idea that “host hostility is self-generated (from psychological problems or cultural traditions),” arguing instead that “the middleman and the host society come in conflict because elements in each group have incompatible goals.” With her apparent justification of host violence against middleman minorities, including Jews, as well as her objective view of certain Jewish characteristics, Bonacich’s theory has been heavily criticized in some quarters, despite its ongoing influence in contemporary sociology. Robert Cherry, for example, has lamented that Bonacich’s ideas on middleman minorities “reinforce persistent, negative Jewish stereotypes.”[19]

Discussion

Before moving to an assessment of the merits and inadequacies of middleman minority theory in explaining Jewish history, it’s worth reflecting on the history of the theory in light of Steven Pinker’s claim that it represents a rival, or “more convincing,” analysis of the Jewish historical trajectory. The first problem, of course, is that, despite Pinker’s lavish praise, Thomas Sowell is not remotely regarded within scholarship as a leading or original thinker in the area of middleman minority theory. Not only does discussion of middleman minorities form a relatively small element of Sowell’s Migrations And Cultures, but what does appear is highly derivative of the work of Edna Bonacich, Walter Zenner, and others.

A further problem is Pinker’s assumption that there exists a single, unified theory on middleman minorities that will help explain the Jewish historical experience, and that somehow this will also be sufficient to counter the theory of Kevin MacDonald, or at least offer a more convincing framework that would allow MacDonald’s ideas to be dispensed with. As should already be clear from this brief, and incomplete, bibliographical overview, within middleman minority theory there is a plethora of often competing interpretations, as well as a general problem of definitions. Walter Zenner, a key proponent of middleman minority theory, concedes that “we tend to make our definitions and models fit the prototypical group. For decades, the Jews were the archetype.”[20] In other words, for a considerable time, middleman minority theory was built around trying to explain the experience of Jews, with other groups haphazardly mapped onto the theory in way that tried to give the impression of similarity, even where these similarities were thin to non-existent. Bonacich has made roughly the same argument, asserting that middleman minority theory should be regarded as incomplete because it can only point to an “ideal type,” and

In reality there are problems of fit between any actual ethnic group and this picture, problems in establishing which or how many of the traits a population need have before it can be classified as a middleman minority.[21]

Bonacich, very reasonably in my opinion, proposes that middleman minority theory, of which she herself is a pioneer, is something of a misnomer and should be regarded as little more than “a useful sensitiser to a host of interrelated variables.”[22] One is therefore pressed by Pinker’s claim to ask not only which of the many strands of middleman minority theories Steven Pinker is praising, but also just how “convincing” and “magisterial” he can find it given the field’s leading contemporary thinkers regard their work in such ambiguous terms.

Finally, it is not at all clear how any of the aspects of middleman minority theory obviate the need for a deeper theoretical framework in which to understand the behaviors and contexts under study. Middleman minority theory, as remarked above, is an incomplete tool, and has little to offer in terms of deeper explanatory value for such relevant key concepts under discussion as resource competition, ecological strategies, visibility strategies, psychological attitudes toward the majority, and social identity theory. One of the strong points of Kevin MacDonald’s work, which is truly cross-disciplinary and unusually well-equipped in terms of the relevant historical literature, is that is does offer such an analysis, and can be argued to fill a lot of the logical and evidential gaps of middleman minority theory. This is not to say that the two frameworks are in opposition, but that the concept of a group evolutionary strategy can be usefully and seamlessly integrated into middleman minority theory, especially in relation to Jews.

It’s been continually remarked by many scholars in the field that Jews should be regarded as either an “ideal type,” “the epitome of the form,” a singular example, or otherwise unique case—even within the context of broad comparative approaches with other trading diaspora peoples. The qualities that have made Jews so unique — cultural, historical, religious, and even biological — are rarely remarked or elaborated upon in sociological studies of middleman minorities, which are often lacking in depth in terms of their historical analysis. As will be discussed below, Zenner, in particular, has highlighted ways in which Jews do not fit the standard middleman minority pattern, especially in terms of their extravagant and influential involvement in the culture and politics of the host nation (see also MacDonald’s Diaspora Peoples on the Overseas Chinese, xlii ff). Unfortunately, middleman minority literature has little to say in terms of further explanatory theory on how or why Jews came to both define and exceed the middleman typology. Here, middleman minority theory not only isn’t a rival for MacDonald’s work, it positively cries out for it.

[1] Bonacich, Edna. “A Theory of Middleman Minorities.” American Sociological Review 38, no. 5 (1973): 583–94, (589).

[2] Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Oeuvres Complètes (Geneva, 1756), Vol. 7. Ch.1. See also Dictionnaire Philosophique (Basle, 1764), Vol. 14.

[3] B. Bauer, The Jewish Problem (Die Judenfrage, 1843) ed Ellis Rivkin and trans. Helen Lederer (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, 1958).

[4] K. Marx, On the Jewish Problem (Zur Judenfrage, 1844) ed Ellis Rivkin and trans. Helen Lederer (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, 1958).

[5] W. Sombart, Der moderne Kapitalismus, Munich and Leipzig 1913. This work was published in an English translation by E. Epstein under the title, The Quintessence of Capitalism, London, 1915.

[6] W. P. Zenner, Minorities in the Middle: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (Albany: State University of New York, 1991), 5.

[7] W. Roscher, “Die Stellung der Juden im Mittelalter, betrachtet vom Standpunkt der allgemeine Handelspolitik,” Zeitschrift für die gesamte Staatswissenschaft Bd. 31 (1875) S. 503–526.

[8] G. Reuveni, “Prolegomena to an “Economic Turn” in Jewish History,” in G. Reuveni (ed) The Economy in Jewish History: New Perspectives on the Interrelationship Between Ethnicity and Economic Life (Berghahn, 2011), 3.

[9] As the son of Catholic and Lutheran converts from Judaism, Simmel’s relationship to his Jewishness is fascinating in itself. See A. Morris-Reich, The Quest for Jewish Assimilation in Modern Social Science, (New York: Routledge, 2008), chapter 4. For the influence of Simmel’s stranger minority theory see Werner Cahnman, “Pariahs, Strangers, and Court Jews — A Conceptual Classification,” Sociological Analysis, 35 (1974); C. R. Hallpike, “Some problems in Cross-Cultural Comparison,” in The Translation of Culture, T. Beidelman (ed), (London: Tavistock, 1971); Hilda Kuper, “Strangers in Plural Societies: Asians in South Africa and Uganda,” in Pluralism in Africa, Leo Kuper and M. G. Smith (eds) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971); Jack H. Porter, “The Urban Middleman: A Comparative Analysis,” Comparative Social Research, 4 (1981); R. A. Reminick, “The Evil Eye Belief among the Amhara of Ethiopia,” Ethnology, 13 (1974), W. Shack and E. Skinner, Strangers in African Societies (Berkelely: University of California Press, 1979); Paul Siu, “The Sojourner,” American Journal of Sociology, 58, (1952).

[10] J. Stone, Racial Conflict in Contemporary Society, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 96.

[11] This coinage is frequently attributed to Philip Curtin, who employs the term in his Cross-cultural Trade in World History (1984), but the term was in use by Cohen, within a strict thematic sense, as early as the latter’s 1974 chapter “Cultural Strategies in the Organisation of Trading Diasporas,” in C. Meillassoux (ed) The Development of Indigenous Trade and Markets in West Africa (London, 1971).

[12] Quoted in W. P. Zenner, Minorities in the Middle: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (Albany: State University of New York, 1991), 8.

[13] K. MacDonald, Separation and Its Discontents: Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism, 187.

[14] E. Bonacich, “A Theory of Middleman Minorities.” American Sociological Review 38, no. 5 (1973): 583–94.

[15] E. Bonacich, The Economic Basis of Ethnic Solidarity: Small Business in the Japanese American Community (Berekely: University of California Press, 1980).

[16] Ibid, 589.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 592.

[19] R. Cherry, “American Jewry and Bonacich’s Middleman Minority Theory,” Review of Radical Political Economics, 22 (2–3), 158–173, 161.

[20] W. P. Zenner, Minorities in the Middle: A Cross-Cultural Analysis (Albany: State University of New York, 1991), 10. See also W. Zenner, “American Jewry in the light of middleman minority theories,” Contemporary Jewry, 5:1 (1980), 11–30, 18. Zenner argues that “As a synthetic concept, the phrase “middleman minority” is difficult to define so as to cover all groups so designated.”

[21] E. Bonacich, The Economic Basis of Ethnic Solidarity: Small Business in the Japanese American Community (Berekely: University of California Press, 1980), 22. See also E. Bonacich, “A Theory of Middleman Minorities.” American Sociological Review 38, no. 5 (1973): 583–94, 585.

[22] Ibid, 24.

Source: https://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2020/09/17/semitism-and-capitalism-the-merits-and-inadequacies-of-middleman-minority-theory-in-explaining-the-jews-part-i/

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