Perfidious Albion: Britain’s broken promises: the Balfour Declaration (1917) and its impact on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: what are our responsibilities today?

This lecture was given by Professor Mary Grey in the URC Church, Crondall, Northumberland for their Peace and Reconciliation centre, 5th September 2014

Mary Grey

Here in Northumberland, it is impossible to forget the bloodshed of the Battle of Flodden in 1513, not to mention centuries of border raids, preceded by Viking invasions and so on. In our own times, the centenary of the Great War is being marked in a variety of ways right across the globe. Every country involved is remembering and honouring those millions who made the ultimate sacrifice during the ‘war to end all wars’. Through plays, TV, films, documentaries and services of remembrance we are reminded of the horrors of the trenches, the slaughter of a generation by artillery, machine gun and disease, as well as the ultimate victory of the Allies, and the moral ambiguities of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which in hindsight contributed directly to the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the use of nuclear weapons by a civilised country. Many of us here will have had families involved and our personal tragedies. In both wars, we British emerged as victors. As nations and as individuals, we prefer to reflect more on our successes than our failures, yet acknowledgement of the latter is a source of wisdom, and should not to be seen as a sign of weakness. Now, in 2014 there could be a unique opportunity for us British to take an honest look at both the positive and negative of our twentieth century imperial experience and its long term impact on certain parts of the world.

the British government practiced a web of deceit

But there is another dimension to the Great War which is mostly overlooked. And this is a dimension which has had serious consequences on one part of the world, namely Israel/Palestine –up to our day. This is the Balfour declaration (Nov 2nd 1917) and its consequences. The vast majority of British people are, like we in the Balfour Project were- before we began – mostly ignorant as to our imperial history, and to much of the suffering and humiliation we caused during it. A former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw,in an interview in 2002 with The New Statesman, observed:

“A lot of the problems we are having to deal with now….. are a consequence of our colonial past. …The Balfour Declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis …present an interesting history for us but not an entirely honourable one.”    

So, what was this Balfour Declaration and why did it have such serious consequences? To answer this we take a step back.

Back in 1895, the question was: how to find a solution for a suffering people, namely the Jews, after 2 thousand years of anti-Semitism? Was a Jewish state the answer? There would be noPicture2 easy solution: recognising the evil of anti-Semitism, the long suffering of the Jewish people, and responsibility of Christians for contributing to it, what would we have done if we had been at the first Zionist Congress of 1895?

We might have been in favour of a Jewish homeland and even have taken the somewhat idealized stance of the novelist, George Eliot, who, in her last novel Daniel Deronda (date?)created a hero Picture5who recognizes his Jewish identity, and feels his vocation to sail to Israel “to restore a political existence to my people.”

Earlier still, Lord Shaftesbury’s support for the Jewish restoration was influential in the development of Christian Zionism which wanted the Jews to return to the Holy Land in preparation for the Second coming of Christ.  Even if his enthusiasm was permeated by Christian Zionist and political motives, Shaftesbury did represent a counter -current to anti-Semitism. But why did he and subsequent leaders ignore the Arabs already living in the land for centuries ? This is the crucial question that returns again and again in our book: A solution for a suffering people at the expense of the people already living in the land…..

Was the solution to anti-Semitism to remove the victimised population to another country? This was not the preferred option in South Africa or in the United States, even at the height of the race riots. The assimilationist argument was also powerful -put forward by Jewish leaders like Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of the cabinet, when the crucial Balfour Declaration was passed.

What was the Balfour Declaration and what was motivation behind it? image5

This is what the Balfour Declaration,(Nov 2nd 1917) actually said. It promised a homeland to the Jews in Palestine. But, note the second half of the sentence which refers to the rights of the indigenous people, namely the Arab population which constituted 90% of the existing population. This is the first aspect to which my title refers –Perfidious Albion.The rights of the existing population were never respected- and in fact this contributed to the festering of the conflict. The motivation was complex:

  • The Government’s Imperial thinking – needs of empire- secure the route to India – still the jewel in the crown ; guard the Suez Canal. (See map) This would become more important later.
  • The war situation: the failure on the Western front- remember the disaster on the Somme and the trench warfare? – gave rise to a new theatre for the war- the East.
  • The role played both by Jewish and Christian Zionism -global Zionist movement, Christian Zionist Restoration Movement – with its background in the efforts of Lord Shaftesbury in the early 19th century.
  • Bring America into the War through the support of US Zionists
  • Genuine sympathy for the plight of the Jews in the 19th century – especially in Russia and the tremendous influence of Chaim Weizmann image19who played a vital part In fact the Christian Zionist dimension among Cabinet members was strong and growing – especially Balfour and Lloyd George – but also Henderson and Barnes. Edward Carson (representing Ulster) was silent. Bonar Law’s views are unknown. Balfour was one of the oldest and most influential members of the Cabinet – and very influenced by Weizmann, whom he had met in 1906.The famous conversation between the two is worth retelling.Tom Segev relates how, one night, Balfour and Weizmann walked backwards and forwards for two hours, after the latter had dined with Balfour: The Zionist movement spoke, Weizmann said, with the vocabulary of modern statesmanship, but was fuelled by a deep religious consciousness. Balfour himself, a modern statesman, also considered Zionism as an inherent part of his Christian faith. It was a beautiful night; the moon was out. Soon after, Balfour declared in a Cabinet meeting, “I am a Zionist.”Segev, p.41. From The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann.

Who were the key players at this time in the government?

Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister who led Britain into World War 1

Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister who led Britain into World War 1

Lord Curzon - 1st Marquis of Kedleston - Opposed the Balfour Declaration

Lord Curzon – 1st Marquis of Kedleston – Opposed the Balfour Declaration

Edwin Montagu - liberal Jewish politician and anti Zionist - opposed the BD - felt it was forcing Jews back into the Ghetto.

Edwin Montagu – liberal Jewish politician and anti Zionist – opposed the BD – felt it was forcing Jews back into the Ghetto.


Herbert Samuel – cousin of Edwin Montagu – First High Commissioner in Jerusalem – Zionist.

There were conflicting views as to the motivation:

David Fromkin – The Peace to end all peace – supports the imperialist interests motif: As of 1917, Palestine was the key missing link that could join together the parts of the British Empire so that they could form a continuous chain from the Atlantic to the middle of the Pacific.[1]

Moreover, the British thought a declaration favourable to the ideals of Zionism was likely to enlist the support of the Jews of America and Russia for the war effort against Germany. In contrast Adam Verete – another historian – concludes that Zionist lobbying played a negligible part in the process.

Tom Segev in Lloyd-Georgehis book on the British Mandate in Palestine (One Palestine: Complete, London, 2000) provides another interpretation – namely, the prime movers behind the letter were neither the Zionist leaders nor the British imperial planners, but Prime Minister David Lloyd George, whose support for Zionism, he argues, was based not on British interests, but on ignorance and prejudice.

Segev concludes: ‘The British entered Palestine to defeat the Turks; they stayed there to keep it from the French; then  they gave it to the Zionists because they loved ‘the Jews’ even as they loathed them, at once admired and despised them…. The Declaration was the product of neither military nor diplomatic interests but of prejudice, faith and sleight of hand. The men who sired it were Christian and Zionist and, in many cases, anti-Semitic. They believed the Jews controlled the world.

But the most shameful aspect of this is that the British never indeed planned to honour the clause in the Declaration which committed them to respect the rights of the “non-Jewish population.” Balfour wrote to Lord Curzon in 1919:  in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country….The Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism.’[2]

Post 1917, Balfour’s comment: On 11 August 1919, Balfour had stated that ‘the four Great Powers were committed to Zionism, and that ‘Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land … ’[3]

Most people have been inclined to believe in the good intentions of Balfour and his colleagues. But the Government set out to deceive the Arabs in Palestine as to their real intentions. Balfour already envisaged a wider outcome: he made it clear that a Jewish home would become a state “in accordance with the ordinary laws of political evolution” The protests of Montagu and Lord Curzon were ignored: the British Government never intended to allow the Arab majority any voice in shaping the future of their country. By the time the Balfour Declaration was signed, Montagu was in India, his advice ignored. It is impossible to deny that the British government practiced a web of deceit.

image11But there is another reason for the title, Perfidious Albion and these are the contradictory promises that Britain made. First, Mark Sykes, Baron of Kedleston, a key figure, with the French Ambassador, François Picot, was responsible for an Anglo-French-Russian agreement in May 1916 in which the Middle Eastern countries were divided up between Britain and France.

Yet another earlier promise had been made: in 1915 Britain promised Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, in a letter deliberately ambiguous, from Sir Henry McMahon, High Commissioner in Egypt, that Britain would support an independent Arab kingdom under his rule in return for his mounting an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.


Sherif Hussein


Sir Henry McMahon

This is a colonial past that has acted dishonourably to both Jewish and Arab communities and we want to say that very clearly. Britain had acted very cruelly to the Jewish community in expelling Jews in 1290 and through a long history of anti-Semitism, even more recently , when we limited Jewish immigration into Palestine during the Second world war, turning away Jewish Holocaust refugees from the home we had promised their people.

Even after the Declaration was passed both the British Government and the Zionists did everything possible to conceal their true intentions. A Zionist commission, headed by Weizmann, was sent to the Middle East to pull the wool over the eyes of the Arabs and in particular to secure the co-operation of Emir Feisal, whose authority among his Arab fellows was thought to be para­mount, in the policy of large-scale Jewish immigration into Palestine without which the Jews could never have hoped to realize the Zionist aim of ultimately ruling the country. (Weizmann’s tactics were modelled on those laid down by a leading Zionist, Max Nordau, as long ago as 1897 who, speaking to a Zionist conference in Basle, had emphasised the need to ‘find a circumlocution that would express all we meant, but would say it in a way so as to avoid provoking the Turkish rulers of the coveted land)’.

So, Weizmann set about the task of winning Feisal’s and the Arabs’ confidence. ‘It is not our aim’, he told a meeting of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa in May 1918, ‘to get hold of the supreme power and administration in Palestine, nor to deprive any native of his possession’. Rumours and sayings to this effect were, he said, ‘false and unfounded’. All that he wanted, and his fellow Jews throughout the world agreed completely about this, was that Jewish immigrants should be ‘comfortably accommodated’ in a land which could ‘contain many times the present number of its inhabitants’.

On another occasion Weizmann also assured his Arab listeners that ‘a Jewish Government would be fatal’ to his plans and that it was simply his wish ‘to provide a home for the Jews in the Holy Land where they could live their own national life, sharing equal rights with the other inhabitants’. He had, he added, ‘no intention of taking advantage of the present conditions caused by the war by buying up land’, but rather to ‘provide for future immigrants by taking up waste and crown lands of which there were ample for all sections of the community’. Likewise, to Feisal himself Weizmann denied categorically that the Zionists intended to set up a Jewish Government. All that they wanted to do was to help in develop­ing the country ‘without encroaching on other legitimate interests’.

And of course, as we know the story did not end there. The Mandate for Palestine took account of the controversial Balfour Declaration in its Preamble which declared that the Mandatory Power should be responsible for putting into effect the Balfour Declaration

“in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

The Mandate gave full power of legislation and administration to Great Britain. The Mandatory was required to develop self-governing institutions, safeguard the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants, encourage local autonomy, ensure complete freedom of conscience and worship and prohibit any discrimination of any kind between the inhabitants on grounds of race, religion or language.

However, the administration of Palestine was controversial and unhappy. Conflict and violence between the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine characterized the inter-war years and Britain found it difficult to administer the territory in a fair and even-handed manner.For one thing, the army was against the BD – and found it difficult to implement, due to – understandable – Arab hostility. Britain did, however, succeed in producing an Anglophile Palestinian elite instilled with British values and committed to the creation of a democratic Palestine on the termination of the Mandate.

On 26 June 1945 the Charter of the United Nations was signed. A new international Trusteeship System was created by the Charter which was to apply to “territories now held under mandate”.3 Both the United Nations and the League of Nations anticipated that mandated territories would be placed under trusteeship but no obligation was imposed on mandatory states to do this. On 14 May 1948, David Ben Gurion formally proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel, and was the first to sign the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which he had helped to write. He then led Israel during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, called by the Arabs the Nakba, (The Catastrophe).

Palestinain refugees driven out of Galilee

Palestinain refugees driven out of Galilee

The struggle continues to this day.

To summarise: both Arabs and Jews have profound reasons for believing that we British broke our promises to them. So what we in the Balfour project are doing is trying to find courage to face our past, indeed, to try and redeem it. We are asking the question if acknowledging our history could set in motion a healing process? What effect would it have for the British government, for Churches and communities to apologise to both Palestinians and Jews? This would mean marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in 2017 as a contribution to justice, peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.

We believe that the approaching centenaries should be marked in our nation with awareness and honesty. We believe British people need:

  • to learn what our nation did a hundred years ago, and understand how those actions are perceived today by all concerned
  • to acknowledge, with honesty and humility, where reprehensible attitudes and unethical behaviour in our nation contributed to the ensuing impasse. In responding to Jewish aspirations, Britain deliberately ignored the rights and expectations of the Palestinian Arabs who inhabited the land. Without questioning the right of Israel to exist, the Balfour Project believes it is time for the British people to express our shame at this unacceptable double standard. There is evidence that healing and reconciliation can flow from acknowledging the wrongs of the past.

Conclusion: How do we know that the Balfour Declaration continues to have influence today? One example is that:

Recently – 2013- the British Consul General for the Palestinian Occupied territories, Sir Vincent Fean was attacked by young Palestinian protesters in Ramallah: They said their chief grievance was over Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in what was at the time still Palestine. And cited specifically, the Balfour Declaration. In addition: in the conflicts of the Middle East today – in Iraq and Syria – we see the Sykes-Picot agreement unravelling around us!

Of the many issues around the Declaration, I want to quote the words of Canon Naim Ateek, founder and Director of Sabeel in Jerusalem, who when I told him of our project, said:

Whereas I am very pleased about this project and want to encourage it, what matters mostly is what effect and consequences your work will have for the people on the ground today in the Holy Lands,  Jews, Christians and Muslims.

That is our focus – peace with justice. We draw upon

–         the Church’s long experience of repentance and reconciliation – especially the South African experience under the leadership of the former archbishop, Desmond Tutu.

–         the fruitful and positive impact that a process of acknowledgment might mean;

–         That apology might be the end of the process rather than the beginning.

  • Hence the invocation of reconciliation as the key to hope, change and transformation. So, what would the steps of a spirituality of reconciliation look like?

Ingredient One – Remembering:

                You may kill as many people as you want, but you cannot kill their memory. Memory is the most invisible and resistant material you can find on earth. You cannot cut it like a diamond, you cannot shoot at it because you cannot see it; nevertheless it is everywhere, all around you, in the silence, unspoken suffering, whispers and absent looks.[4] (Philippe Gaillard)

“Memory” is crucial for Liberation Theology in all its contexts, as it is for the lived reality of any Christian spirituality. The memory of who you once were, an identity that you may have lost, the “dangerous memory” of both suffering and freedom, fuels resistance and determination not to give way to what seems like the inevitability or impasse of the present situation of suffering. In many contexts and cultures there may be a suppressed or subjugated past. There may be silenced voices only dimly remembered. How to remember is the issue. How can the anguished memories of suffering, loss of land and loved ones, be changed into the kind of remembering that works towards reconciliation with those who have inflicted the wrongs For Palestinians the issue is not so much remembering, but how to live with the memories of the lost homes and land ? image24– the symbol of the key in the refugee camps speaks loudly of the longing for home and right of return.

Secondly, what both Christians and Jews rely on in our respective theologies of remembering, is both the discipline of repenting and the vision of the peaceable Kingdom, recognising that both the repenting and the envisioning take very different forms in each faith.

Hence the important place that religion plays: without the kind of trust Archbishop Tutu was able to inspire in South Africa, there would have been no possibility of even listening, day by day, to the unfolding of painful stories in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Deep-seated faith may offer the strength for the remembering to take place, and the justice process to begin. And in addition, religions offer disciplines for personal transformation. They do not separate political from social and personal transformation but at their best offer an integrated notion.

Two points offer hope. Firstly, remembering is exactly that: re-membering. It is putting together the painful fragments in a new way, a way that makes just and healed relationship possible. Secondly, the challenge is: are those of us who have been part of colonial history, or any form of oppression, ready to be part of the journey of repentance, to hear the stories that implicate us in the shame of the past – like the Broken Trust of the Balfour Declaration- or the responsibility for unjust systems of the present: are we prepared to take any action in response? Re-membering in this case is painful in a different way because it involves coping with the claims of guilt, the need to make restoration where this is possible. This is metanoic memory, a re-membering that needs humility and a willingness to bear witness to the truth.[5]

Ingredient 2- Truth-telling

It is easier to live with the half-truths and lies that seem to form the fabric of society. When taken around the dispossessed villages in Galilee by Palestinians, with their painful memories of being evicted from their homes, it was even worse to hear that Jewish settlers believed that the original people “just went away”. Truth seems an unattainable goal. Palestinians are living with massive Nakba denial.

How to decide what is “objective truth” amidst the confusion of competing contradictory narratives that are central to the identity of Israelis and Palestinians in this conflict situation? It seems a verdict of despair to believe what Michael Ignatieff says, namely that all one can hope is to limit the number of lies. The first step is to create the safe spaces for the stories of suffering to be told. This is a well-tested tool in women’s spirituality: the experience of “being heard into speech” is a poignant one. And this is happening, for example, in the Forum for the Bereaved Families in Israel-Palestine. And in Machsom Watch- the Isralei women who monitor what happens at the checkpoint. The second step is to try to “inhabit the truth of the other”. The S.African judge, Albie Sachs, has worked on the idea of dialogical truth. This is not the truth than can be documented and verified, but is Social truth, truth of experience that is established through interaction, discussion and debate. [6] In my dialogue with Rabbi Dan Cohn Sherbok- slide of book – the issue of truth was crucial and our claims were conflicting. . Truth was so integral to Gandhi that he did not merely say, ”God is Truth”, but “truth is God”.

Ingredient 3 Justice-making.

The very word ‘reconciliation’ can disguise assimilation, forced agreement, imbalance of power, hypocrisy, or imply a mere temporary cessation of arms. In Gaza recently all that could be achieved was a truce for 5 hours. All too often in Church contexts it is individualised with scant recognition of structural issues. Yet there can be no genuine reconciliation that is not based on structural justice. This is h blockage in Israel- Palestine – so many well-meaning groups and efforts: but unless the basic issue of Occupation is faced, there is no justice.

But justice for whom? For Christians, the clue lies in the redemptive actions of Jesus whose great work of reconciliation occurred under the Occupation of the Romans. In continuity with the mission of the Jewish prophets, where reconciliation and justice are inextricably interwoven, Jesus blazed a trail for non-violent resistance.

Ingredient 4 Forgiveness.There is something both revolutionary and mystical about the process of forgiveness. Donald Shriver, in his book, An Ethic for Enemies, sees forgiveness as

an act that joins moral truth, forbearance, empathy, and commitment to repair a fractured human relation. Such a combination calls for a collective turning from the past that neither ignores past evil nor excuses it, …and that values the justice that restores political community above the justice that destroys it. [7]

This is far easier to say than to do. Mary Blewiit Kayitesi, a Rwandan survivor and founder of SURF, the Rwandan Survivors fund, in her story, You alone may Live describes how she has worked tirelessly for the survivors, heard their stories, helped with burying members of their families, (including her own) and was almost broken by the process. And she, a Christian who believes in reconciliation and forgiveness, finds it difficult to forgive.

I have spent time counting my losses and those of the survivors.. .The pressure to heal and move on is a burden for many. The international agenda demanding reconciliation from them continues to grow. However, it fails to protect the memories of the victims, and in the case of the survivors in Rwanda, they still have too many reminders of their past to be able to do so. No nation has come forward to truly help. Without due process for social, as well as political justice, any reconciliation is delayed justice for survivors. [8]

She is a truly important voice. Hannah Arendt, who had every reason not to forgive, yet stresses the need for forgiveness which she balances by the notion of promise. She knows the irreversibility of the wrongdoing, but looks to the future:

The remedy for unpredictability, for the chaotic uncertainly of the future, is contained in the faculty to make and keep promises. [9]

This offers hope that things could be different: it recognises that full justice is impossible, and that, if we offer nothing beyond punishment and revenge, there is very little hope for the restoration and healing of societies.   We have many examples of courageous and forgiving individuals on both sides of the struggle.

Within this understanding of reconciliation as the vision of the structural healing of the world, it is possible to recover a Spirituality of sacrifice (The last ingredient)

The kind of sacrifice we speak about is based on accompaniment, voluntary simplicity, bridge-building and identification in love. A voluntary culture of austerity in the name of the crucified peoples of the world is a similar to that which Mahatma Gandhi made for over twenty years, in his work for sustainability in Indian villages in a context of non-violence inspired partly by the teaching of Jesus.

The focus now is not so much on sacrifice, asceticism, renunciation but the deliberate adoption of a Gospel-orientated simpler life-style of non-violence – and in the Palestinian case, the offering of non-violent resistance. Justice-making is inseparable from truth and they are both embodied in a lifestyle of suffering love, in shared non-violent struggle. What gives strength is the power of truth, the heart already reconciled and reconciling to this truth.

Conclusion: To Struggle with a Reconciling Heart

Let us recall where we stand- not far from the site of a terrible battle. And recall our own context – the bitter bloodshed and suffering in the lands we call holy, on the brink of the commemoration of the Balfour Declaration.

Let us keep before our eyes, Reconciliation as both a symbol of healed creation, a vision that enables and inspires action for a future state of being, and something that one already tastes and lives from now. Something that touches our deepest yearnings. We struggle with reconciling hearts. But the struggle always begins with ourselves . If we are committed to reconciliation and justice it means bearing the pain of the wounded memories of the victims and survivors, their need for justice and restoration of hope, even their very humanity, in our own flesh and bone.

In a society bent on self-destruction through war, our resources lie in building counter-cultural communities based on Gospel-inspired visions of truth, simplicity and acknowledgment of our own historical responsibilities; that we move from denial to truth-telling; from exclusion to embrace; that our inspiration in doing so is the Biblical call to reconciliation based on a vision of justice and flourishing of the most vulnerable people and the earth herself. Even if that vision eludes fulfilment at the moment, faith in a God of reconciliation is what holds our hope firm. As Canon Naim Ateek, founder of Sabeel in Jerusalem writes:

Ultimately justice will prevail, the occupation will be over, and the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis, will enjoy freedom and independence.

How do I know this will take place?

I know because I believe in God. [10]

[1] David Fromkin, A Peace to end all Peace, p.282.

[2]   Shlaim, p. 10.

[3] Memorandum by Balfour, August 11, 1919. See Khalidi W, ibid., p. 226.

[4] Philippe Gaillard, “Memory Never Forgets Miracles,” in Carol Rittner et al., eds., Genocide in Rwanda: Complicity of the Churches? (St Paul MN., Paragon House 2004), p.111. At the time of the genocide Philippe Gaillard was the head of the delegation of the International Red Cross.

[5] See M.Grey, The Wisdom of Fools? (London: SPCK 1993), p.116.

[6] Ibid., p.290.

[7] Cited in Alex Boraine, A Country Unmasked, (OUP 2000) p.440

[8] Mary Blewitt Kayitesi, You Alone May Live, (London: Biteback Publishing/Dialogue 2010).p. 307.

[9] Cited in Boraine, op cit., p.440.

[10] Naim Ateek, ‘Suicide Bombers: what is theologically and morally wrong with suicide bombers?’ Cornerstone, Sabeel, Issue 25, Summer 2002: 16.

The Powerpoint used in this talk Perfidious Albion: Britain’s broken promises: the Balfour Declaration (1917)

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