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The many forms of Zionism

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Question and Answer

Zionism, the term that has been bandied around by the anti-Israel lobby, isn’t a uniform approach to Israel. It has many forms resulting in differences even between individuals with similar political views, but it stands on the belief in the need for Israel, a Jewish state.

The SA Jewish Report questioned two Zionists to show how different their views are.

Gavin Rome

1. What do you believe Zionism is?

Zionism was an ideology that returned historical agency to the Jewish people and led to the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel. Today, Zionism’s core principle is that it’s better for the Jewish people to shape their lives in the state of Israel than to remain scattered minorities among the nation states of the world.

2. How do you interpret what happened from 9 to 21 May in Israel?

An avoidable tragic paragraph in the annals of the Jewish/Arab-Palestinian conflict.

3. Whose fault is it and why?

Largely, the immediate “fault” lies with Hamas and its eliminationist and expulsionist “river to the sea” ideology. There are nevertheless underlying fault lines for which both sides are to blame. However, the spark for this latest awful episode was Hamas’s cynical and missile firing exploitation of tensions in East Jerusalem.

4. What do you think about the way Israel dealt with it?

Once Hamas had commenced its bomb-all-of-Israel missile campaign, Israel reacted responsibly in fulfilling the basic responsibilities of a nation state, namely to protect its citizens from harm. I’m, however, critical of the ultra-nationalist East Jerusalem settlement project and the government’s support for the establishment of belligerent settler enclaves in Arab neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.

5. Who do you support (politically) in Israel and why?

Any of Labour, Meretz, or Yesh Atid. Each of these parties would better protect the institutions of democracy (a free press, the rule of law, respect for the constitutional role of the Supreme Court, and tolerance for dissent), which have been subjected to cynical, populist subversion by the past decade’s governing coalitions.

6. How do you feel about the occupied territories or Judea and Samaria?

I’ve been a lifelong opponent of the West Bank settlement project. I remain of the view that civilian settlement of the West Bank has been, to use the phrase of historian Barbara Tuchman, nothing less than “the march of folly”.

There should, nonetheless, be no withdrawal if this would lead to the establishment of a hostile armed entity in the West Bank, as would seem to be the case for the foreseeable future.

7. What do you believe should happen to solve this conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

A good time out. No grand agreements or accords, but a defined period of time in which both sides do their utmost to avoid antagonising the other. As to how to achieve such a base, I’m sadly at a loss but I’m sure there are those better qualified than I am who could formulate a realistic proposed framework.

8. Do you believe the Israeli government is doing enough to solve this conflict? What should it do?

No. Cessation of settlement projects in the West Bank would be the first step. Each new settlement makes the only possible route to the end of the conflict (namely two separate states existing side-by-side) increasingly remote.

9. Do you support a two-state solution, and what does that mean to you? If you don’t, what do you support?

I support a two-state solution. This would entail both parties ultimately one day making difficult and anguishing compromises. In contrast, a binational state in which each community has semi-autonomous and equal rights within a federation of all of its citizens is a romantic utopia which appears to be desired neither by the Jewish nor the Palestinian polities. Also and in contrast, a Jewish state in which the Arab residents of the West Bank aren’t citizens and thus don’t have the right to vote would, in my view, amount to a perversion of the Zionist idea.

10. How do you feel about Benjamin Netanyahu and his way of governing?

He has undoubtably achieved much: the liberalisation of the Israeli economy, many years of uninterrupted economic growth, and accords with Arab states. Unfortunately, his exploitation of populist tools has had the effect of weakening Israeli democracy.

11. If you could do two things to improve Israel, what would you do?

I would rather not answer this question. Not living in Israel, I’m unqualified to address the practicalities which this question implies.

12. Who do you believe should be the next prime minister of Israel and why?

I don’t “believe” in any person or politician. Having said that, I have been impressed by Yair Lapid’s non-confrontational and quietly respectful leadership style.

  • Gavin Rome is senior counsel at the Johannesburg Bar. He has acted as a judge of the high court on several occasions.

Joni Kowensky

1. What do you believe Zionism is?

A conviction that Jews have an archaeologically visible, ancient connection to Israel, with Judea (where Jews originated) being the epicentre for thousands of years. Israel has a right to exist within safe borders, defend herself, and to be a religious Jewish state (like its Muslim neighbours). Zionism isn’t political, its borders and governance is political, but the principle isn’t.

2. How do you interpret what happened from 9 to 21 May in Israel?

Israel showed extreme restraint in waiting for more than 500 rockets to be fired before retaliating. The Iron Dome saved thousands of people, and Hamas used larger missiles and barrages than before. Israel avoided civilian casualties in densely populated civilian areas, hitting more than 1 500 targets with less than 250 deaths reported by Hamas. This number includes Hamas’s own inflicted deaths from its 680 missiles that misfired, committing double war crimes in firing at civilians from its own dense civilian areas. One such situation killed a Gazan family of eight. Israel continues to avoid civilian casualties, while Hamas uses civilian casualties as its modus operandi, helping Hamas to win the world over. Israel needs to prepare better in terms of social media and education.

3. Whose fault is it, and why?

Mahmoud Abbas has been in charge of Fatah/the Palestine Liberation Organization since Yasser Arafat. Prior to elections, realising he was losing, he arrested his opposition and announced that due to riots, elections were cancelled. Days later, his supporters stormed the Temple Mount, triggering incidents of violence throughout Israel, falsely using a private rental dispute in Sheik Jarrah as a pretext. Hamas saw an opportunity to fire rockets into Israel, unprovoked, as it does every few years.

4. What do you think about how Israel dealt with it?

Israel needs to focus on social media and hasbara (diplomacy). It has managed riots and attacks on Jews and Arabs in Israel equally. It dealt a large blow to Hamas’s more than 100km of terror tunnels, and bought Israel some intermittent peace. Fake media that sent all the terrorists into the tunnels, helping it to save civilians, was genius.

5. Who do you support (politically) in Israel and why?

Likud has always successfully defended Israel in the international arena. Global support during the last conflict, as well as the Abraham Accords and warming relations with Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Morocco and others, is a testament to this. Adding an Arab member to the party, and being joined by former Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, voted “mayor of the world”, who was elected by Arabs to be mayor for many years, shows that the party isn’t as right wing as some think.

6. How do you feel about the occupied territories or Judea and Samaria?

“Occupied territories” isn’t a correct description of the three areas in Judea and Samaria, for which Israel, the United States, and Palestinian leadership agreed to the borders during the Oslo Accords. When Jews and Israelis can enter Area A, where Palestinians manage all military and government infrastructure, without risk (like Palestinians can in all the other zones), the situation will improve. You cannot look at these territories in isolation from Gaza. A solution can be reached only when Hamas and Fatah stop fighting each other so that there is one peace agreement.

7. What do you believe should happen to solve this conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

First, Palestinian leaders have to stop calling for Israel’s destruction and chanting “from the river to the sea”, proving that they want all of the territory of Israel and the country’s annihilation. Then, when all their leaders can negotiate as one, the Trump peace plan is the best bet. The Palestinians would get more land, an extra island, a harbour, and airport, if peaceful. Neither party wins as much as they would like, both have to compromise. However, until the Palestinians come to the party, this isn’t possible.

8. Do you believe the Israeli government is doing enough to solve this conflict? What should it do?

It’s in a very tough situation but a new method may be needed as the cycle has repeated itself since Hamas’s violent overtake of Gaza. By tackling Iran, the key funder of Hamas, it has greatly weakened it, and communication with regional allies has been strong.

9. Do you support a two-state solution and what does it mean to you? If you don’t, what do you support?

Though the mandate of Palestine was divided into Jordan and Israel (one for Arabs, one for Jews), Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza already represents a three-state solution where Jews compromised a great deal. I support the Trump peace plan in which Israel yet again gives more land for peace, once all preconditions to stop incitement and aggression have been met.

10. How do you feel about Benjamin Netanyahu and his way of governing?

Netanyahu’s governance of Israel’s security and foreign relations has been great. It would be unfair to comment on Israel’s internal governance with its complexities, diverse population, and cultures, as I don’t live there.

11. If you could do two things to improve Israel, what would you do?

There needs to be an education drive among Palestinians to help break down the lies and hate they were taught so we can unite in business, agriculture, and technology. There should also be an Arab-led alliance to disarm Hamas and Fatah to monitor a free election and smooth transition to fairly elected officials.

12. Who do you believe should be the next prime minister of Israel and why?

Israeli politics are complicated, and it is tough to say anything while not understanding life in Israel as an Israeli. Netanyahu has done well where mentioned above, and Barkat could be an exciting chapter in Israel’s story.

  • Joni Kowensky is the Head of Betar South Africa, Deputy Chairman of the SAZF and WZO General Council.

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Question and Answer

Janine Lazarus: the story that took its toll

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Media consultant Janine Lazarus has just published a book that was inspired by her experience as a Sunday Times journalist covering a serial killer who operated in Norwood, the suburb in which she lived. The SA Jewish Report speaks to her.

Give us the background to this book.

The thread throughout the book is my 27-year link with Norwood serial killer Kobus Geldenhuys. But it’s much more than that. It deals with a volatile South Africa in transition, the hot metal newsrooms of yore, and the inevitable racism in news reportage. A central theme is also my dance with the dark, and some of the sinister and sensational stories I covered during the heydays of the early 1990s.

How was your life impacted by the Norwood serial killer?

It was without doubt this story that made my name as a crime reporter. To get this close to a serial killer was the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters. Are people born to become killers, or does their environment mould them into the monsters they become? But what I grapple with most of all is that I believe we’re all capable of going over the edge. Ordinary people can commit extraordinary acts of violence.

What inspired you to write this book now?

Everyone has a book within them. I’ve wanted to try my hand at writing a book for a long time. Without giving the game away, an approach by a television production company on the back of the killer’s parole application gave me pause for thought. My head is still spinning around the fact that a television series is in preproduction on my first book, or even that a radio station wants to do a serial podcast on it. It feels surreal.

You were a crime reporter, so this was one of many crime stories you told. Why does it still haunt you?

Because I got up real close and personal with a man who raped and killed several women. I looked into his eyes just after he was sentenced to death. I crossed the line. I had broken a quintessential credo of journalism to stay out of the story. But in those days, the story was everything. Each investigation devoured me and spat me out, and I just rolled onto the next one. Landing headlines is what defined me.

Describe the killer you met then?

Vanilla plain and awkwardly ordinary. But then, serial killers are never the vengeful behemoths we conjure up in our nightmares. He seemed tired. In fact, when the police finally arrested him, he said as much. But what shook me to the core was that I unearthed a tarnished shard of humanity in his twisted soul. No-one in my newsroom could ever understand how this could be possible. After all, the rapist/killer had cut a swathe of terror through my neighbourhood and destroyed families.

What do you think of this man now?

That would be giving the game away. It’s central to my book. What I can say is that as much as I’ve borne witness to man’s inhumanity to man, I still believe intrinsically that there’s good even in the worst of people. I’m a deep empath, which for a crime reporter is an obvious flaw.

Norwood is traditionally where many young Jewish people live. Describe how it was then.

It was where I lived and loved. Restaurant owners knew my name and what my favourite meal was. Coffee shops knew how I liked my fix, and many first dates were shared over a glass or two of wine. Norwood was trendy, upbeat, and had a heady kind of rhythm. And it was safe. I would walk home down Grant Avenue from a late-night spot without a care in the world. It was my medinah (land).

During the killer’s reign of terror, it became like a ghost town. Razor wire and burglar bars, so uncommon to the neighbourhood, became permanent fixtures. Single women moved out en masse.

In terms of being a crime reporter, did this story change how you felt about what you did?

It defined me. Cracking the front page week after week was the stuff of pure adrenalin. I had set the bar high. It was a difficult act to follow. And, in spite of how close I had come to evil, I never slammed on the brakes. I kept chasing the headlines.

What was it about crime that you found fascinating?

Most people I know have this morbid fascination with crime. I’ve read so much about how people delve into this genre, perhaps as some form of odd escape or an interest in good versus evil. Perhaps it makes them feel lucky not to have become one of the statistics.

There was a stage during my news reporting life when I considered studying criminology part time. I just don’t think I’m clever enough.

Looking at the crime situation today, would you say it’s worse or better?

Crime is crime. Victims are victims. There’s no better or worse. For those left behind, each tragedy leaves an overarching void that can never be breached. What I do know is that the justice system is deeply flawed, our police services are over-stretched and lacking, and our prisons are bursting at the seams. It seems too easy to get away with violent crime.

You now run a successful media consultancy. What made you decide to leave your life as a journalist?

Seven cameramen died in the space of 16 months before our first democratic elections. One of them was The Star’s chief photographer, Ken Oosterbroek. Then, Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Kevin Carter took his own life. His iconic photograph of the vulture eyeing a starving child in the Sudan is seared into my brain forever. These were my colleagues, my friends. I had worked with them on so many stories. The grief in our newsroom was palpable.

I also didn’t want to become a jaded old hack. I still wanted to delight in the rainbows across the skies after a Highveld thunderstorm, and in the entirely enchanting sound of a child’s laughter. I needed to turn my back on news. It was the hardest decision I have ever made.

Why did you choose media consulting as your second career?

I’d dabbled in lecturing journalism. I worked as Johannesburg bureau chief on a women’s magazine. I landed my own talk show, albeit at the bum end of the week. It was still my spot.

But it was three abysmal months in a stereotypical public relations agency that was the last straw. I couldn’t stomach the candy floss in a world which was hardly the stuff of butterflies and sunshine.

When the agency made me its so-called head of media, I thought, “Stuff it. I can do this on my own. I can wear two hats quite comfortably: the client’s and as a former news hack.” It’s an insight that has served me well.

Do you ever miss being a reporter or working on a newspaper? If so, what do you miss?

With every cell in my being. It was an adrenalin rush. No day was ever the same. I watch breaking news now and rail loudly against the television or radio reporter for not asking obvious questions. And I know exactly what stories in the news would have had my name all over them. I’ve never been in short supply of chutzpah, but covering violent crime takes guts and I’m not sure I have that edge anymore.

Any thoughts on another book? If so, what would it be about?

Eish! This one was akin to giving birth (or so I’m told since I don’t have a child of my own). It literally was birthing a book. Blood, sweat, and tears. I sobbed at my keyboard, I fought to find the right words, and I ploughed through acres of research. I cried when I finally hit the send button on my manuscript. And I wished with all my heart that my beloved late parents could be part of this.

Could I do it again? Perhaps. But if there’s a next time, maybe I’ll do something on my line of work right now. So many brands are ignorant when it comes to dealing with the media.

Maybe I’ll call it, “How not to put your foot in it.”

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Question and Answer

Debating life’s meaning at a time of existential crisis

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If you’ve been wondering about the meaning of life, you’re not alone. Mark Oppenheimer and co.’s new book, Conversations about the Meaning of Life, has some answers from world-renowned experts. Asking “What do Mother Teresa, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the exploration of Mars teach us about the meaning of life?” they discover the answer isn’t 42.

The SA Jewish Report asked him more questions.

What inspired you to bring out this book?

Now is a pivotal moment to engage with life’s biggest question: what’s the meaning of life? So, we approached Professors David Benatar and Thaddeus Metz, world experts in the field. Benatar is professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town. His books include Better Never to Have Been and The Human Predicament. Metz is professor of philosophy at the University of Pretoria. He has often been credited for having helped develop life’s meaning as a distinct field in Anglo-American philosophy over the past 20 years. They have very different views on what makes life meaningful.

Benatar is sceptical. He thinks that if you zoom out and consider each of us as a speck on a pale blue dot in a cold universe, our lives have truly little meaning. Metz takes quite a different view, which is that we can each pursue truth, beauty, and goodness in our lives and find meaning in these.

Why is this book necessary right now?

Now more than any time in the past few decades, humans have had to isolate. With isolation comes reflection about the nature of our existence, and questions about whether this new isolated existence is meaningful at all. Asking what we need to lead meaningful lives is particularly important at a time when we are struggling to find any meaning at all.

This book is a group effort. Explain how it came about and why these particular people are involved.

We (Jason Werbeloff and Mark Oppenheimer), the interviewers in this book, have long-standing friendships with Metz and Benatar, the experts in this field. Jason studied under Metz and Mark under Benatar. We felt that Metz and Benatar were obvious choices for the book because of our personal connections to them, but also because they are so widely published and recognised for their work on meaning.

What did you hope to achieve?

We wanted to write an accessible guide to life’s most important question. And we think that the authors are perhaps the most knowledgeable on earth about this topic.

Who do you wish to appeal to?

Readers of the SA Jewish Report – all four of the authors are Jewish – and Jews have a long history of thinking about life’s deepest questions. More broadly, the book is designed for anyone who has a yearning to know more about what life is about.

At this moment in South Africa, what are the challenges to leading a meaningful life?

Because South Africa was late with its COVID-19 vaccines, we’ve had to suffer a long series of waves that have shut down our lives.

On the one hand, we try to find personal meaning at a time when we’re having to choose between isolation and risking our health. On the other, we also live in a country with enormous political and socioeconomic volatility. So, we’re trying to find meaning in this embroiled landscape.

What do you hope your readers will take home from this book?

The underlying idea of the book is to inspire people to reflect on their lives and take action to lead a meaningful existence. Part of that exercise is to think about the kind of person that you can be and the kinds of activities you can engage in to find meaning: the search for truth, beauty, and goodness. We explore these in some detail so that people can walk away ultimately leading better, richer, more meaningful lives.

The style of the book (interview format) is unusual. Why did you choose it?

Dialogue is helpful because it doesn’t present just one position. Each of the individuals involved in this discussion has a different position on the meaning of life. So it seems more likely that the reader will resonate with at least one of us. The four authors had a chance to argue and respond to one another, and you can really get into the nuts and bolts of each person’s position and stand behind at least one of the speakers. Who knows, perhaps after reading this book, you’ll change your mind.

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Question and Answer

Speaking out against the government – right or wrong?

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Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein wrote a piece in Business Day on 29 June criticising the government for its slow vaccine rollout. It got a mixed response, but some felt strongly that he shouldn’t have done it. The SA Jewish Report questioned him about it.

1.    What inspired you to write an op-ed in a mainstream newspaper about vaccines?

Government’s negligence in vaccinating this country goes beyond politics. It’s a moral issue, a matter of life and death that touches on one of the cornerstone values of the Torah – the sanctity of life. We know that pikuach nefesh, saving lives, is paramount, and that “to save one life is to save a world”. Every day of delay means more people die. It’s that simple. Had the government vaccinated South Africans at the rate it should have, we wouldn’t be suffering the death and widespread serious illness of this third wave.

2.    Why did you blame the government for it?

The government insisted on running the procurement and rollout. Responsibility for its failure lies with it. At the same time, this isn’t a blame game, that was never my objective. I wrote it to add my voice to the public pressure while there’s still time to prevent further suffering and death from a fourth wave, which may be only a few months away.

3.    What purpose did you believe an opinion piece like this would serve?

When public pressure around an issue increases, in a vibrant democracy, it can shape and influence government action. My article adds to that public pressure. Since publication, various other public figures have come forward to criticise the government, including Professor Shabir Madhi, one of the country’s top experts in this field, who echoed my accusation that the government has blood on its hands for bungling the vaccination campaign. Public pressure is building.

4.    What reaction did you get?

The article has resonated with many people within and beyond our community who fear serious illness and death and feel utterly vulnerable to government’s vaccination failures.

5.    Professor Barry Schoub, a leading virologist, took you on publicly in the media for the piece you wrote. Why do you believe he did this?

He obviously disagrees strongly with the views I put forward in my article. He believes the government’s vaccination programme has progressed well.

6.    How do you feel about him doing this?

The open exchange of ideas and airing of different perspectives can only be a good thing for our country. People can then make up their own minds about whether they agree with Professor Schoub that the government’s vaccine rollout has been well-executed.

7.    He pointed out numerous points you made, claiming they weren’t true and correcting them. What’s your response?

Nothing in my article was untrue. I had two professional researchers check my facts. Not a single fact in my article has been successfully challenged or overturned. Actually, since publication, various national experts, in letters to the newspaper, have defended the facts in my article and refuted the points raised by Professor Schoub. And Professor Madhi, an internationally recognised virologist and former president of the World Society of Infectious Diseases, has reaffirmed a number of the points I made, especially the government’s terrible mistake in selling off our supply of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Contrary to Professor Schoub’s support for the government’s decision, Professor Madhi, who in fact led the AstraZeneca trials, said “there was a complete blind spot to the critical evidence” regarding the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, and that the government ignored the recommendations of the World Health Organization, directly causing untold extra hospitalisation and death.

8.    How do you feel now about the vaccine situation?

The vaccination rate remains desperately low. Unless we dramatically speed up vaccine procurement and rollout, we will suffer further serious illness and death. More pressure must be put on the government. Lives are at stake.

9.    Have you had any response from the government?

No formal response, but senior politicians from within the African National Congress have told me in private that they support the position I’ve taken. It’s important to realise that there are many in the government who aren’t happy with the state of affairs on vaccines – or, for that matter, government’s stance on Israel. If we keep silent, how can they speak up? We must be bold, and stand up for what’s right so that we inspire others to do the same and strengthen the hand of the many good people in government.

10.  Why do you believe it’s important for you to be vocal about issues of government that you believe are wrong?

Silence is acquiescence. This was true during the days of apartheid, when our official community organisations were silent right up until the end. It was Chief Rabbi Rabinowitz who had the courage to challenge the apartheid government. It was true, also, during the Zuma presidency, when state capture and government corruption were almost normalised. Official community organisations were again silent, and I was the one who publicly called on President Jacob Zuma to resign, joined the protest movement, and even amended the prayer for government that we say on Shabbos so as not to pray for the president. I believe it’s important to speak up for truth and justice, whether the issue is a racist regime, a corrupt government, or a negligent vaccine rollout in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

11.  Many in our community might say that, as Jews, we shouldn’t rock the boat in this country. What’s your reaction to this?

We cannot adopt a ghetto mentality of defensiveness and fear. What do we have to fear? This isn’t Putin’s Russia or Communist China. It’s a free country with freedom of speech, a free press, robust, independent courts, and those rights and freedoms are enshrined in our Constitution. My public challenge to the government is rooted in an optimism and faith in South African freedom and democracy.

With the right approach, we can make a difference. Many of the critics have a misguided strategic understanding of how to influence the government. They believe we need to tread lightly, talk softly and meekly. But when it comes to government relations with Israel, we’ve seen how ineffectual this approach really is. Indeed, in spite of years of gentle, non-boat-rocking diplomacy, the government’s approach to Israel remains unchanged, as demonstrated by its deeply hostile and one-sided comments on the recent Gaza conflict. Clearly, the quiet, behind-the-scenes strategy has failed, and will continue to fail. It’s incumbent on leaders to speak up, to be bold, and make our views clear to the government. Seeking to appease and placate the government isn’t just a betrayal of personal integrity, it’s not even a successful strategy. In any robust democracy, governments expect robust criticism. That’s how a free society works. If we have the self-respect to tell the truth and stand up for ourselves, there’s more chance the government will learn to respect us

12.  Many have criticised you for being so vocal against the government in this regard. How do you feel about the criticism?

My speaking out is good for our community because the interests of the Jewish community and South Africa as a whole are aligned. A negligent vaccine rollout is, equally, a threat to South Africa and the Jewish community, as was state capture and apartheid. To speak out on these issues is, therefore, in the ultimate best interests of the Jewish community. We aren’t an island unto ourselves. Our destiny is intertwined with South Africa. If this country thrives, then we as a Jewish community will thrive. And if it fails, then so will our community. We cannot be silent when the future of our country depends on making our voices heard. We must fight for a better country. And we do that by joining the public debate. I’m optimistic. We can make a difference. Change is possible.

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