Can Malmö Solve Its Antisemitism Problem?

Once a symbol of Islamist antisemitism and anti-Israel fervor, the Swedish city is working hard toward turning its reputation around.
By | Jul 06, 2022

Gritty and lively, Malmö is Sweden’s third-largest city—home to more than 350,000 residents and 183 nationalities. One-third of Malmö’s population is foreign-born, with the largest groups coming from Iraq and Syria. Its 16th-century fortress and red-brick Dutch Renaissance architecture reflect the port city’s historic importance. In recent years, buildings such as the Turning Torso, a twisting skyscraper of steel and glass, have transformed its docklands, but the city center’s main cobblestoned square and
half-timbered houses embody the charm of Malmö’s past. The city is located in the very south of the country at one end of the Øresund Bridge, which stretches for almost five miles toward the Danish capital, Copenhagen. It was across the Øresund strait that, in September and October 1943, approximately 7,200 Danish Jews escaped to Malmö in fishing boats.

In the Västra Sorgenfri neighborhood, south of the city center and the Rörsjö canal—a summer gathering spot for sunbathers, picnickers and pedal boaters—is Malmö’s main synagogue, thought to be the largest in Sweden.

Dating back to 1903, its design incorporates elements of the Moorish Revival style, including its timber-framed, copper-domed roof and four corner towers that echo minarets. The synagogue serves the 500 members of Malmö’s Jewish community, although the number of Jews in Malmö, including the unaffiliated, may be closer to 1,500. Today, the free-standing structure is surrounded by a dark-green iron fence, while chain-linked posts embedded in the sidewalk serve to halt any oncoming vehicles.

A protester chants slogans near a banner reading “Boycott Israel” during an anti-Israel march in Malmö on March 7, 2009. Some 7,000 demonstrators turned out for a “Stop the Match” march to protest the arrival of the Israeli team for the Sweden vs. Israel Davis Cup tennis match taking place in the city. (Photo credit: REUTERS/Alamy stock photo)

This past October, as the world’s attention briefly focused on Malmö during the Swedish government’s International Forum on Holocaust Remembrance and Combating Antisemitism, the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement claimed responsibility for projecting the words “The Holocaust was a scam” on the synagogue’s walls. And this was far from the only incident to have troubled Malmö’s Jewish community over the past two decades. Explosive devices have been detonated outside the synagogue, Jews have been physically assaulted, and certain schools are known to be no-go zones for Jewish children. In fact, in 2010, the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a travel advisory urging Jews to take “extreme caution when visiting southern Sweden.” Malmö “has become a kind of symbol,” says Lena Posner-Körösi, president of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, “because there is a minority Jewish community and a Muslim population that is growing.”

In 2013, Malmö elected a new mayor, 48-year-old Social Democrat Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh. Energetic and determined, Stjernfeldt Jammeh is the first woman to hold the office. Since 2019, her administration has invested millions of dollars in fighting antisemitism: in the education system, in promoting Jewish life and in supporting grassroots forms of Muslim-Jewish cooperation. It was she who lobbied former Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven to hold last year’s forum on Holocaust remembrance and antisemitism in her city. “During the time I’ve been in office,” she says, “we’ve been working hard to combat racism and
antisemitism—to address the problem and find the tools to combat it.” Now, Malmö has welcomed the ambitious traveling exhibition “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” and is giving schoolchildren from across the region the chance to see it.

A militant demonstrator heaves a stone at a police van during the “Stop the Match” march. Anti-Israel protests intensified in Europe in the wake of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas that broke out in December 2008. Malmö has a large population of Muslim immigrants, most coming from Iraq and Syria. (Photo credit: REUTERS/Alamy stock photo)

Stjernfeldt Jammeh wants Malmö to be an international city, a tolerant city—and a city that isn’t afraid to talk about antisemitism, whether Islamist and Israel-related antisemitism coming from the Muslim community and the far left, or antisemitic and Islamophobic activity coming from the far right. “I would like every inhabitant of Malmö to feel safe and secure,” she says. “I am proud of our global identity, but that identity also means that we have to work really hard to create this mutual understanding and respect for different experiences and traditions.” And she is deeply concerned about protecting the city’s Jews. “It is important that we have Jewish life here in Malmö,” she says, “that Jews feel at home and welcome.”

Rabbi Shneur Kesselman can vouch for what it can mean to be visibly Jewish in Malmö. An Orthodox Jew and native of Detroit, he moved to Malmö in September 2004 to open a Chabad house there at a time when the community did not have a rabbi. “I’ve been cursed at in various shapes and forms, many times in Arabic, in Swedish, and 99 percent of the time by people with a Middle Eastern or North African background,” he says.

The insults are sometimes anti-Jewish, sometimes anti-Israel, and often come from someone swearing or yelling from the window of a passing car, he says. At times, those people throw objects such as soda cans, cigarette lighters or apple cores.

“The rabbi is very charismatic and outgoing, the imam is more low-key,” says Posner-Körösi. “Maybe that’s why they work so well together.”

More than once, Kesselman has felt his life was in danger. On one occasion, while he was crossing the street, a car that had already passed him fired into reverse and attempted to run him down; on another, he was threatened and chased off a city bus. “The most recent violent incident was in the summer when I had a glass bottle thrown at me in the middle of the city,” he says. “It came from a group of four or five immigrants while I was walking home from the synagogue just before Shabbat and speaking on my phone to my mom.” The last time he was subjected to a nonviolent verbal attack, when men of apparent Middle Eastern background rolled down their car windows and yelled “Heil Hitler!,” Kesselman did not even bother to report it to local police. He simply moved on.

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Islamist and Israel-related antisemitism in a city with a growing Muslim population is one reason why, over the past 20 years, the size of the official Jewish community has halved. The problem certainly worsened, as it did in the rest of Europe, in the wake of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas that broke out in late December 2008. At the time, Malmö was already a hotbed of unrest and protest, reeling from a string of riots in Rosengård, a working-class, immigrant district composed of housing projects built in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That December, a small confrontation between police and young people over the closing of an Islamic cultural center escalated into two nights of riots that drew protesters from across the region.

Former Malmö mayor Ilmar Reepalu showed little concern about the antisemitism and violence taking place in the city. His relationship with the Jewish community was “very strained.” (Photo credit: European Union/Nuno Rodrigues via Flickr)

A few weeks later, members of the Jewish community were engaged in a pro-peace demonstration in the city center when they were interrupted by a violent and much larger counter-demonstration composed of Muslim and far-left militants. The Jewish demonstrators were attacked with bottles and fireworks. Police were not able to control the mob, but they eventually succeeded in evacuating the Jewish demonstrators. Another round of riots broke out in March 2009 when an Israeli tennis delegation came to Malmö to face their Swedish opponents in the Davis Cup competition. This time, around 200-300 far-left, anti-Israel militants attacked riot police with stones, fireworks and paint bombs.

Most disturbing to Malmö’s Jews was that the city administration at the time showed almost no concern for the antisemitism and violence that was occurring. In fact, the city leadership often sought to hold Jews responsible for the hatred and violence to which they were being subjected. Following the aforementioned Gaza war, then-mayor Ilmar Reepalu told a Swedish newspaper that “we accept neither antisemitism nor Zionism” in Malmö.

He then went on to criticize the city’s Jewish community for not taking a clear enough stand against Israel’s incursion into Gaza. One prominent member of the Swedish Jewish community still refers to Reepalu as a “schmuck,” and Fredrik Sieradski, who runs the Jewish community’s Information Center, described the community’s relationship with Reepalu as “very strained.”

Malmö’s main synagogue dates to 1903 and is thought to be the largest in Sweden. Its design features aspects of the Moorish Revival style. (Photo credit: Francois Polito via Wikimedia)

“We had a situation where there was a growing mistrust,” reflects current mayor Stjernfeldt Jammeh. Her words considered, her manner restrained yet thoughtful, she says that there developed a “growing awareness” in the city that there was a problem with antisemitism, “and we are now working very hard with the Jewish community to develop tools to create a long-term commitment to build trust and create a safe city.” Leading figures in the Swedish Jewish community are keen to credit Stjernfeldt Jammeh with taking the city’s antisemitism problem seriously. She “understands the importance of the small Jewish community” in Malmö, says Council of Swedish Jewish Communities president Posner-Körösi. “I know when someone is sincere—and she is sincere.”

The Malmö Mosque is the second oldest mosque in Sweden. (Photo credit: News Øresund – Johan Wessman via Wikimedia)

When asked if he has noticed a change, Sieradski replies: “Unequivocally yes.” The community and the city now have an actual framework for formal cooperation, he says, with regular meetings not just to counter antisemitism but to bolster Jewish identity and culture in the city. This has led to, among other things, a Jewish learning center and an exhibition and workshop space at the synagogue, to which schools throughout the city can bring pupils to learn about Jewish traditions, the Holocaust and antisemitism. The community is now working on developing a digital platform to complement the in-person workshops.

Support for Malmö’s Jewish community has had another effect. During the past few decades, many Jews had left for Stockholm, which has a much larger Jewish community, with 4,200 members and a more attractive array of Jewish resources. The Swedish capital has Progressive, Conservative and Orthodox congregations, Hillel-run schools that offer K-12 Jewish education, the postgraduate Paideia European Institute for Jewish Studies, a Jewish care home, and greater availability of kosher food. But recently, Malmö’s Jewish community numbers have stabilized.

One of the biggest challenges in combating antisemitism is reaching out to the city’s Muslim population. Compared to around 20,000 Jews, Sweden’s far larger Muslim minority numbers between 200,000 and 500,000 (out of the country’s total population of 10.4 million), according to a Swedish foreign ministry estimate. The community has grown in the decades following World War II as a result of emigration from countries as diverse as Iran, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Somalia, as well as Iraq and Syria in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis.

Imam Salahuddin Baraka (right) and Rabbi Moshe David HaCohen are partners in Amanah, a Jewish-Muslim endeavor established in Malmö in 2017. (Photo credit: Harald Nilsson)

With this in mind, in 2017 Posner-Körösi established Amanah, a Jewish-Muslim partnership in Malmö. She brought together a local imam, Salahuddin Barakat, head of the Malmö Muslim Network umbrella organization, and Moshe David HaCohen, who had recently come to Malmö from Israel with his wife and five children to serve as the community’s rabbi. Before moving, he had lived in the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, where he was active in interfaith dialogue. The intent of this partnership was not to create another forum for interreligious discourse—enough rivers of coffee have been drunk between religious leaders with nothing to show for it, Posner-Körösi says—but rather an actual project through which Malmö’s Jewish and Muslim communities could jointly tackle antisemitism and Islamophobia and also address issues of mutual concern.

The imam and the rabbi make an odd couple—Barakat in his tunic and taqiyah (a short, rounded skullcap worn by observant Muslim men), HaCohen bicycling around the city sporting a beard, payot and a crocheted kippah—and are a known entity in Malmö. “The rabbi is very charismatic and outgoing, the imam is more low-key,” says Posner-Körösi. “Maybe that’s why they work so well together.” The pair run Midrash/Madrasa evenings together, during which they lead participants in the comparative study of Jewish and Muslim religious texts. They are also working on a podcast addressing antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Swedish Minister of Education Anna Ekström at an International Holocaust Day of Remembrance. (Photo credit: Ninni Andersson/Regeringskansliet)

But Amanah is perhaps best known for its workshops in schools and universities that focus on the differences and similarities between Judaism and Islam. HaCohen begins his sessions by drawing a large Star of David on a whiteboard and asking students what the symbol is and what they know about it. HaCohen’s gesture is the starting point for a larger political and religious conversation, beginning with King David, an important prophet in Islam as well as in Judaism. The point of the exercise, and the exchange of ideas between the imam and rabbi, is the visual of the two men together in the same room, especially in schools with a concentration of Muslim students, where many of them would likely never have met a Jew before.

Posner-Körösi recalls that shortly after Amanah got started, Barakat invited HaCohen to a weekend retreat of study and prayer he was leading with a group of young men who had been identified as being on the verge of radicalization. When HaCohen showed up, the men were sitting with their backs to the door—a silent protest against the rabbi’s presence. HaCohen was unfazed and dove in, saying: “Thank you very much for welcoming me. I would very much like to know how you feel being a Muslim in Malmö.” At the end of the day’s session, two of the young men came up to HaCohen, relates Posner-Körösi, “and they said, ‘Rabbi, in two weeks’ time, we are going to Norway. We would very much like to know where you can buy kosher food in Norway, because we don’t trust halal there.’ I don’t know what happened to those young men—they didn’t hug and they didn’t kiss—but somewhere along the line, after those hours together, there was a common respect.” And respect is the key word here, for Amanah isn’t looking to produce a kumbaya moment. Rather, it seeks to foster change on the ground in a gradual way, meeting by meeting, interaction by interaction. For its work, Amanah was awarded Malmö City’s Prize for Human Rights in 2019. The municipality has provided some of the funding for the initiative, and Posner-Körösi is looking to export the concept to other European Jewish communities.

Lena Posner-Körösi is president of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities. (Photo credit: Lena Posner-Körösi)

Repairing Jewish-Muslim relations is difficult, not only for political reasons, such as divisions of opinion over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also for logistical ones. European Jewish communities may be small, but they are often well-organized and highly centralized, with a clear point of contact, such as a communal president or chief rabbi. If you want to engage the Jewish community in Malmö, you contact its chair, Ann Katina, or HaCohen. Muslim communities, by contrast, are newer, larger and far more diffuse—a mélange of nationalities, languages and traditions with competing ideologies, visions and interests bound by a common religion. In Amanah’s case, the trick was to find someone who could command enough respect among Malmö’s Muslims to make the initiative worthwhile.

“I think it’s very important that our partners have broad acceptance among mosques” in Malmö, says the Jewish Information Center’s Sieradski. In Barakat, the community believes it has found someone who is “conservative but not extreme and sees the Jewish experience as something to emulate: to be a constructive part of society, to be productive, and to integrate while keeping your identity.”

It was love at first sight, Posner-Körösi says of Barakat and HaCohen. “They spoke the same language,” both conservatives in their own communities who understood that being a rabbi or an imam can be a lonely business.

Jewish-Muslim cooperation can be mutually beneficial—especially in terms of the struggle against antisemitism, racism and Islamophobia. Sweden’s far right has targeted not only Jews in recent years but Muslims as well. In August 2020, supporters of Rasmus Paludan, leader of the Danish far-right political party Hard Line, burned a copy of the Quran outside one of Malmö’s mosques. What followed was a confrontation involving hundreds of young men and the police in Rosengård, the same neighborhood where riots had taken place in December 2008 before the Gaza war. Further riots broke out in April in the city of Norrköping, about 85 miles southwest of Stockholm, after Paludan held a series of rallies at which he threatened to burn the Quran again.

Research from 2018 shows that 59 percent of mosques and Muslim communal centers across Sweden have been subjected to some kind of physical destruction, including Malmö’s main mosque, which suffered severe damage in 2003 as the result of an arson attack. In 2009, its imam was injured by a bullet fired by a lone gunman, Peter Mangs, who was responsible for a series of racially motivated shootings in Malmö over the course of 2009 and 2010. He is currently serving a sentence of life in prison.

As Sieradski puts it, “Muslims and Jews have a lot in common in Sweden”—not only in terms of enemies, but as two religious minorities in a highly secular and conformist society. The religious slaughter of animals is illegal in Sweden, as all livestock have to be stunned prior to being killed, meaning all kosher and non-stunned halal meat has to be imported. There have also been periodic moves to ban or restrict the practice of circumcision in Sweden, a move backed by parties on the left, right and center. Since Muslims constitute the single largest religious group to circumcise boys as a matter of ritual, the threat of a ban could provide an issue of common concern. “We don’t have to agree about everything, but we can have a discussion and try to find commonalities,” says Sieradski.

Malmö’s city government is keenly aware of the antisemitism problem in its schools. The city appointed Mirjam Katzin its first coordinator on combating antisemitism in August 2020, and the following February she published a report—“Schoolyard racism, conspiracy theories, and exclusion”—based on in-depth interviews with Jewish students and the city’s teachers. “Jokes are what you encounter,” one Jewish pupil told Katzin. “It’s everything from ‘stingy Jew’ to ‘I’ll gas you.’” Her report describes an unsafe environment for Jewish pupils, one in which young Jews experience verbal and physical attacks, and antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict go hand in hand.

Rebecca Stucker works with Mirjam Katzin, Malmö’s coordinator on combating antisemitism. (Photo credit: Rebecca Stucker, photographer Anna Hofman)

Rebecca Stucker, who works with Katzin, explains that Katzin identified four kinds of antisemitism among Malmö’s schoolchildren. The most common is a combination of antisemitic jokes and comments about Jews based on stereotypes and cliches, and the word ‘Jew’ being used as an insult or slur. The second kind, heard more from older pupils, springs from conspiracy theories, in particular those related to perceptions of Jewish power. The third is what Katzin classifies as “exclusion”—being in a position of being questioned about what makes you different. And the fourth is the conflation of Jews with the Israeli government and the transference of anger about Israel and its government to Jews in the diaspora.

Stucker says that tackling Israel-related antisemitism “is particularly hard for teachers, because a lot of them feel that they don’t have the knowledge to teach their students about the conflict,” and because the conflict arouses such strong feelings among students. Sweden’s education minister Anna Ekström recognizes this: “If you really want to use education as a tool for combating antisemitism, you have to make sure the teachers have the time and the equipment and the experience in order to take these difficult discussions seriously,” she says. Malmö is creating teaching guides and facilitating lectures for teachers on the kinds of antisemitism the report identified. In addition, Malmö is coordinating with the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism to arrange study trips for teachers to Auschwitz.

The city is also working to ensure that Jewish culture is being taught in schools in accordance with Jews’ official status as a national minority. (Other national minorities include Roma and the indigenous Sámi people, but not Muslims, who have not yet been granted this designation.) Jews were granted national minority status in 2000, and as such, Sweden’s public sector is obliged to help sustain Jewish culture and protect the “Jewish language,” which in Sweden is designated as Yiddish. Lund University, near Malmö, is in fact the only college in Scandinavia teaching and conducting research in Yiddish.

“During the time I’ve been in office,” Mayor Stjernfeld Jammeh says, “we’ve been working hard to combat racism and antisemitism—to address the problem and find the tools to combat it.”

Malmö’s Jews send their children to only a handful of the city’s schools. This is in part because Jews tend to reside in particular neighborhoods and want their kids to attend local schools, but also because it is common knowledge which schools have a reputation for antisemitism. “You know with Israel/Palestine, you know that you get shit at those schools, and that’s too bad,” one Jewish pupil relates in Katzin’s report. And one of the report’s striking findings, Stucker says, was that “antisemitic language was more common in schools that don’t have any Jews,” suggesting an antisemitism that is the product of ignorance, of never knowing a Jew.

The Swedish government, says education minister Ekström, is putting a lot of emphasis on combating antisemitism through schools but points out it is a long-term endeavor. “Antisemitism exists in Sweden in right-wing extremist groups, in parts of the left and in Islamist environments,” she says. “It is present among refugee adults and children who have fled to Sweden from countries where antisemitism dominates education, for example in textbooks and state propaganda.” Ekström, who works closely with the Jewish community in Malmö, stresses that the problem of antisemitism cannot be resolved in a few years.

The latest chapter in Malmö’s work against antisemitism was revealed at the end of May, when the ambitious traveling exhibition “Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away” opened in the city’s exhibition center, following stops in Madrid, New York and Kansas City. Jointly produced by the Spanish company Musealia and Poland’s Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, the exhibition features more than 700 original objects, including 400 from the Auschwitz museum. The exhibition traces the development of Nazi ideology and tracks the transformation of an ordinary Polish town known as Oświęcim into a metropolis of death where 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered by the Nazis. Malmö is the exhibition’s only stop in Scandinavia, and mayor Stjernfeldt Jammeh and other officials are making sure that 25,000 schoolchildren from across the region will have the opportunity to see it.

Katrin Stjernfeld Jammeh, a Social Democrat, has been the mayor of Malmö since 2013. (Photo credit: News Øresund – Johan Wessman via Flickr)

In the lead-up to its opening, the Jewish Information Center’s Sieradski and Malmö’s Jewish community worked in close cooperation with the exhibition’s creators, as well as with Malmö’s city government and the Forum for Living History, a national agency tasked with promoting democracy, tolerance and human rights, using the Holocaust as its starting point. Sieradski is delighted with the outcome. “The exhibition is breathtaking,” he says. “It has both breadth and depth. I feel that you need to see it twice—at least. The objects, such as the tiny shoes and shaving brushes, call out: Do not forget me! The exhibition covers so many aspects of the death machine that was Auschwitz. It is simply an extremely important exhibition.”

Others voices in Malmö’s Jewish community are more cautious about the exhibition’s prospects. “Taking kids to the Auschwitz exhibition doesn’t necessarily fix the major problems,” says Rabbi Kesselman, who supported bringing the exhibition to Malmö but has concerns. “Just because the people paying for their tickets have certain intentions doesn’t mean the kids will be steered in the right direction. There needs to be a strategy if this exhibition, as well as other initiatives, will be able to change people’s antisemitic perspectives. It won’t happen by itself.”

The focus on Auschwitz may also not be entirely appropriate in the Swedish case. The country was officially neutral during World War II and was never occupied by the Nazis. It was at times a refuge for Jews, as in the famous rescue of Danish Jews in October 1943. The bravery of individual Swedes, such as the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, whose actions saved thousands of Hungarian Jews during the war and about whom Swedish children learn in school, is widely recognized. And in 1945, as the war drew to a close, the Swedish Red Cross’s White Buses operation rescued Scandinavian Jews from German concentration camps and brought them to Sweden. Their first port of call was Malmö.

Still, there has been a push to address the Holocaust in Sweden. The country’s first Holocaust museum made its digital debut in June and is set to open in a temporary home in Stockholm next June. The Forum for Living History is currently collecting stories and artifacts from survivors or their relatives and friends who have a Swedish connection as the museum prepares its core exhibit. “The museum will deepen and broaden the knowledge about the Holocaust based on stories from survivors related to Sweden,” says museum director Katherine Hauptman. This mission indicates the museum’s potential to address the nature of prewar antisemitism in Sweden, how individual Swedes collaborated with Nazism, and what the state’s official neutrality meant in practice, including exports of raw materials to Nazi Germany. “Although the killing did not take place on Swedish soil,” the government stated in its announcement about the museum, “Sweden both influenced and was influenced by what happened. The Holocaust is also part of Sweden’s history.”

But the question remains: What does this focus on the Holocaust, on dead Jews, do for the Jewish community in Malmö—for living Jews? Council of Swedish Jewish Communities president Posner-Körösi believes that the Holocaust is a valuable learning tool. “It’s important to understand antisemitism if the goal is to understand the larger picture so we may have a better society and respect the other. If this can be the outcome of the [Auschwitz] exhibition, then I think it’s great. Do I think it will be? I don’t know. Maybe the money could have been better used for something else, but it is a signal that the city thinks this is important. And that’s not a bad signal at all.”

What Posner-Körösi doesn’t want is for the focus on the past to lead people in Malmö and elsewhere in Sweden to neglect contemporary Jewish life, with both its blessings and its trials. She doesn’t want people to miss how Judaism—and Swedish Jews today—have much to contribute to the country. “There is so much in our traditions and in our culture,” she says, “that can strengthen us and that we can teach others.”

Opening image: Rabbi Shneur Kesselman, a native of Detroit, moved to Malmö in 2004 to open a Chabad house. Over the years he has been the victim of numerous antisemitic attacks both physical and verbal. (Photo credit: Lubavitch International Magazine, photographer Thomas Palm)

One thought on “Can Malmö Solve Its Antisemitism Problem?

  1. hag says:

    A not very nice question ???????????
    What will Chabad bring to Malmo…. Most of the “orthodoxies” (both jewish and non jewish) seem to thrive on asking for money… money for protection, money for housing, money for schools… and exemptions from law…Witness Covid, basement yeshivas, disregard for masking, disregard for gatherings…

    Wearing an unpressed suit, a dirty talit, and a borseleno… does not make you Jewish

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