Henry Morgenthau and the Deceiving of Chaim Weizmann

AFTER APRIL 6, 1917, a state of war existed between the United States and Germany, but not between the United States and Turkey. Germany wanted her Ottoman1 ally to join the war against America but could get her only to sever diplomatic relations, and the Turks begrudged having to do even that. President Wilson took this as a good sign. It might mean that the Ottomans were developing second thoughts about their participation in the war altogether. If so, then perhaps his country could serve as a bridge between the Turks and the Entente powers. In other words, President Wilson too hoped to forge a separate peace.

From late 1913 until February 1916, Henry Morgenthau served as Wilson’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. A member of the New York bar, Morgenthau had made a fortune speculating in real estate, which enabled him to make lavish contributions to the Democratic Party. During the 1912 presidential campaign, he served as chairman of the party’s finance committee. The ambassadorship followed. Morgenthau is famous for having tried, while he was ambassador, to persuade his masters in Washington to intervene against the Armenian massacres of 1915, and when that failed, for bravely taking his protests to the Ottomans themselves, notably to Talaat Pasha. Himself a Jew, he played an honorable role during these early war years as a watch guard and protector of Ottoman Jews, especially the Jews of Palestine, who benefited from a massive relief effort much facilitated by him. But he was impulsive and boastful. In May 1916, for example, in a speech delivered in Cincinnati,2 he claimed that before he left Constantinople, he had just about arranged for the Ottomans to sell Palestine to the Jews.

As his interest in the future of Palestine demonstrates, Morgenthau sympathized with Zionism. But he was not a Zionist strictly speaking. He said in that same Cincinnati speech: “It is utterly impossible to place several millions of people in Palestine. There would be grave danger from the Arabs … If Jews continue there as at present, at the end of the war there will be no friction.” This declaration, as much as his grandiloquent statement about purchasing the Jewish Promised Land, caught Mark Sykes’s attention. He immediately contacted Moses Gaster, the Zionist he knew best at that early date, and warned him, “Nothing could be3 more unfortunate or dangerous.” Gaster agreed. By the spring of 1917, British Zionists knew something of Henry Morgenthau, and although they respected some of what he had done as ambassador, they did not approve of it all.

The origins of Morgenthau’s mission4 to speak with Turks about a separate peace with the Allies are obscure, although historians of Zionism (including those who know little of Pickthall, Pilling, or other advocates of the policy) have gone over this particular episode with a fine-tooth comb. The idea may have5 been his, or it may have been the State Department’s. At any rate, here is the scheme Morgenthau eventually put to the president: He would persuade Enver and Talaat, with whom he was on “peculiarly cordial and6 intimate terms,” to allow Allied submarines to pass through the Dardanelles straits. The submarines would torpedo the Goeben and Breslau, the battleship and cruiser that Germany ostensibly had given to Turkey at the outset of the war but that remained under German command, their guns trained upon Constantinople. Once the two ships had been scuppered, the CUP government would be free to do what it really wanted, which was to conclude a separate peace. What Woodrow Wilson thought of this plan is not recorded. In the end, he gave Morgenthau authorization only to listen to and carry back to Washington whatever information or terms the Turks were prepared to offer. Whether Morgenthau understood or intended to abide by this limit is equally uncertain.

It happened that the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, was visiting Washington, D.C., at this time. When Secretary of State Robert Lansing told him about the scheme, Balfour confirmed that the Turks were “nibbling”7 at the idea of a separate peace. “If matters took8 a favorable form,” he added, “results might be of enormous advantage,” which was true so far as the British were concerned, but would have seemed debatable to Zionists who wanted British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine detached from the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, when Balfour wired news of Morgenthau’s pending mission to the Foreign Office, no one so much as mentioned the possibility of Zionist objections, although they had been dealing with Zionists for many months. Sir Ronald Graham actually wrote of Morgenthau, “He might in any case work upon the Jewish elements in the C.U.P. and Turkey.” Indeed, the Foreign Office suggested only one emendation to Morgenthau’s scheme: “Owing to the number of spies in Switzerland it is doubtful if useful work can be done there. Possibly Egypt would be [a] better base of operations.” This was9 the contribution of Robert Cecil.

It seemed a good suggestion to Morgenthau and Lansing, who accepted it. The former American ambassador could claim to be on his way to check the condition of Jews in nearby Palestine. Then Morgenthau had another idea: He would invite additional American Jews to accompany him, thus further camouflaging the expedition. First he invited the distinguished Harvard Law School professor and Zionist (and future Supreme Court justice) Felix Frankfurter, who was working as an assistant to the secretary of war, Newton Baker. Frankfurter accepted the invitation and invited his own assistant, another lawyer, Max Lowenthal. A third figure who joined the team was Eliahu Lewin-Epstein, treasurer of the Zionist Provisional Executive Committee in New York City. By now the mission gave every sign of being a Zionist enterprise, an impression the government fostered with leaks to the press. Zionists began a fund-raising campaign for the mission. About his main goal,10 however, Morgenthau kept Frankfurter, Lowenthal, and Lewin-Epstein in the dark.

The approach to Turkey could not take place, however, without the knowledge and agreement of America’s wartime allies. Morgenthau would stop with his little band at Gibraltar; the State Department requested that both Britain and France send “someone in authority11 to discuss the question thoroughly” with him there. Then Morgenthau had another brainstorm. If the British sent Chaim Weizmann to meet him, that would lend further credence to his cover story. Apparently it did not occur to him that the British Zionist might oppose his main object. Nor, apparently, did this occur to the State Department. It accepted Morgenthau’s suggestion and asked the Foreign Office to send Weizmann to meet their envoy.

Weizmann learned of Morgenthau’s mission not from the Foreign Office but from Louis Brandeis, the American Zionist and Supreme Court justice with close ties to President Wilson. Brandeis had learned of it first from Frankfurter—not its true goal, obviously, for Frankfurter himself did not know it—and then from Wilson, who did explain the mission’s real purpose. Brandeis immediately cabled to Weizmann that an American commission was headed to the east (he did not say what for), and he suggested that Weizmann intercept it. Given Brandeis’s close connection with Wilson, this was as explicit a warning as he could deliver.

Brandeis was not Weizmann’s only source of information. The Armenian James Malcolm’s sensitive antennae were vibrating to “rumours here12 [London] in pro-Young-Turk circles about some manoeuvres for a separate peace with Turkey … initiated by Mr. Wilson … at the instigation of Mr. Morgenthau in tacit cooperation with the British and French Governments.” The rumor was as explicit as Brandeis had been vague, and it troubled Mr. Malcolm. A separate peace with Turkey had the potential for undercutting Armenian nationalist aspirations as much as the Zionists’.

On Saturday, June 8, Malcolm attended an Islamic Society meeting at Caxton Hall on “Muslim Interests in Palestine.”13 Its featured speaker was Marmaduke Pickthall; its chairman was Mushir Hussein Kidwai. Malcolm thought the proceedings were “of a definitely treasonable and seditious character.” Pickthall “was openly talking about an early Peace with Turkey involving no loss of territory to the Turkish Empire.” Others in the audience “were openly bragging that they were about to arrange a separate Peace with Turkey.” From what he heard that day, Malcolm concluded not only that Henry Morgenthau was about to approach the Ottomans but also that Pickthall and two British Turcophiles, Aubrey Herbert and Sir Adam Samuel Block, a Jewish anti-Zionist, were engaged in a similar mission.

An agitated James Malcolm was soon knocking at the door of 67 Addison Road, Chaim Weizmann’s house. The two men put together what they had gleaned from their various sources. Weizmann knew about14 the Islamic Society meeting already—he had heard that assimilationist Jews were its instigators. Then the telephone rang. Wickham Steed, an influential foreign correspondent of The Times, was on the line. His own antennae had picked up the same signals as Malcolm’s, both about Morgenthau and about the Turcophiles. Steed opposed a separate peace with Turkey, albeit for different reasons than Zionists and Armenians. His newspaper argued for total victory over Britain’s enemies. To settle for anything less was to play the German game. Historically The Timeshad not been friendly to Jews; nor had been Steed; but both were prepared to play the Zionist card anyway. Better for the British Empire to assume a protectorate over Palestine dominated by Jews, Steed thought, than for Palestine to remain as part of an Ottoman Empire beholden to the Germans.

Recall that in November 1917 Weizmann and Malcolm went to Ronald Graham at the Foreign Office to slam the relative flea, J. R. Pilling. By that time they were accustomed to employing that particular sledgehammer against advocates of separate peace with Turkey. The first time they employed it was five months earlier, right after the telephone call from Wickham Steed. On Sunday, June 9, Graham reported to Robert Cecil: “Dr. Weizmann, whom I15 happened to see this morning … referred in the course of conversation to Mr. Morgenthau whom he described as closely connected with … the anti-Zionist Jews in the U.S., and as being pro-German and especially pro-Turkish. He said ‘I am expecting to see Mr. Morgenthau employed in some intrigue for a separate peace with Turkey and believe that he is coming to Europe for this purpose. If so the whole thing is a German move.’” Weizmann had taken up the line Steed pursued in his newspaper.

Just as Weizmann was warning Graham against Morgenthau, Malcolm was telephoning another mandarin, William Ormsby-Gore, parliamentary private secretary of Lord Milner and assistant secretary to the cabinet, where he seconded the efforts of Mark Sykes. No doubt Malcolm would have preferred to call Sykes himself, but the latter had not yet returned to London from the discussions with King Hussein in the Middle East. Ormsby-Gore had been converted to Zionism the previous year, during his stint at the Arab Bureau in Cairo, by none other than Aaron Aaronsohn. Weizmann and Malcolm calculated he would give them a sympathetic hearing. Malcolm asked for a meeting “as soon as possible,” and Ormsby-Gore “arranged to see him at my office at 12.30.”

Ormsby-Gore (later Lord Harlech) was a capable man who would go on to a distinguished career as a Conservative politician, including a stint as colonial secretary during the 1930s. Nevertheless the double team of Malcolm and Weizmann seem to have come close to overwhelming him. “Both Mr. Malcolm16 and Dr. Weizmann were very much excited and very angry,” Ormsby-Gore reported, “and both stated that we were not only playing with fire in approaching the Turks at this juncture but also imperiling the interests of the British Empire and the causes which they have more especially at heart. Dr. Weizmann was open in his denunciation of Mr. Morgenthau.” He was open in his denunciation of Aubrey Herbert and Sir Adam Samuel Block too, but he trained his biggest guns on the American, whom he practically accused of being a German agent. Morgenthau “was notoriously pro-German.” He acted “on behalf of an international ring of Jewish financiers in Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Paris and New York.” His aim was “an inconclusive Peace which would give German capital and German Jews an ascendant importance throughout the Turkish Empire and particularly Palestine.” Not knowing that the Americans wanted him present, he ended with a request that would have gladdened them: “If any Jew is to be sent to meet Mr. Morgenthau … he, Dr. Weizmann, [should] be sent.”

On Tuesday, June 12,17 Weizmann and Malcolm called, separately this time, on Graham, to continue hammering. They mentioned Herbert and Block but reserved special venom for Morgenthau. Did their efforts have a dampening impact upon British attitudes toward the growing impetus for a separate peace? Without exception, historians agree that they did. Between them, the Zionist and the Armenian reminded British diplomats of their previous promises to free subject peoples from Ottoman tyranny. In fact they affected only the government’s attitude toward Mr. Morgenthau’s expedition. As will become apparent, Malcolm and Weizmann stymied one peace feeler only.

At the instigation of Weizmann and Malcolm, the British government came to oppose Morgenthau’s approach to the Turks, even though it supported the others. Why? Perhaps for two reasons. First of all, despite the assiduously promoted cover story the real reason for Morgenthau’s mission had become well known, both in America and in London. Morgenthau himself had been extremely indiscreet18 (while keeping his traveling companions in the dark). As a result, Sir Ronald Graham warned his colleagues: “As condition of19 secrecy to which Mr. Morgenthau attaches so much importance no longer exists it is doubtful whether mission could serve useful purpose at present moment, and I would suggest that it should be postponed.” The Americans refused to postpone it, but the British ceased to believe in it.

Second, the Foreign Office had concluded that Britain needed the support of “international Jewry” to win the war. In his denunciation of Morgenthau, Weizmann had shrewdly harped upon the power of this cosmopolitan cabal and upon Morgenthau’s place within it. Now he wanted to head him off at Gibraltar. Morgenthau no longer enjoyed Foreign Office confidence; Weizmann did; very well, then, the mandarins may have reasoned, keep him happy; let him go.

True, at the meeting of the Islamic Society, James Malcolm caught wind that Aubrey Herbert was planning a mission (see Chapter 20) and he and Weizmann protested about it. Sir Ronald Graham’s face betrayed nothing, but he had written the previous day to Horace Rumbold: “Will you be kind20 to my cousin Aubrey Herbert if he comes to Switzerland which he may do, on a sort of roving mission which he had better explain to you himself?” Somehow Weizmann and Malcolm came to focus exclusively upon defeating Morgenthau. The Foreign Office did not enlighten them, quite the opposite. Balfour called Weizmann to his office and entrusted him with a secret assignment: “I was to talk21 to Mr. Morgenthau, and keep on talking till I had talked him out of this mission.” He did not know, he never knew, that simultaneously Balfour was giving permission for Aubrey Herbert to go to Switzerland on another peace mission. Thus the British government tricked Chaim Weizmann.

Morgenthau’s party, which now included not only the three Zionists but also Ashag K. Schmarvonian, a Turkish Armenian working for the State Department who had served as Morgenthau’s interpreter in Constantinople, sailed from New York on June 21. They carried with them eighteen trunks22 filled with $400,000 in gold for the Jews of Palestine. Their ship zigzagged across the Atlantic, ever watchful for German U-boats. For his part, Weizmann sailed for Le Havre aboard the Hantonia on June 29, accompanied only by an intelligence officer, Kennerley Rumford,23 a well-known baritone who had married the singer Clara Butt. Rumford, Weizmann wrote to his wife Vera, was “either terribly ‘profound’24 or completely innocent: rather the latter, I think.” He may have underestimated his minder.

The two stopped first in Paris, where Weizmann met with the British ambassador and with Edmond de Rothschild. Then they entrained for Spain. Weizmann wrote his wife: “From the moment25 we entered Spanish territory we have been followed by German spies. There were 4 of them and one accompanied us as far as Madrid. It seemed that we had lost him at the railway station but he has just turned up again and will probably follow us still further.” Perhaps, however, the “innocent” Rumford now proved his worth. He and Weizmann checked into their Madrid hotel, followed by the German agent. They told the portier that they intended to stay the night. The portier, an Austrian, repeated this to the spy, a fellow German-speaker. Weizmann went out26 to pay a call. When he returned to the hotel, “a car drove up with an English guide; we packed hastily, paid the bill, and vanished within 10 minutes. You should have seen the portier’s rage.”

So the two parties, British and American, converged by land and by sea upon a Gibraltar baking under the summer sun. A third party, a French one, comprising Colonel E. Weyl (a former head of the Turkish tobacco monopoly) and Albert Thomas (the French minister of munitions) arrived on July 4. The next day they all met for discussions, inside the fortress, guarded by British soldiers. They spoke in German, the only language they had in common, and as they kept the windows open because of the heat, Weizmann indulged the fantasy that the Tommies could hear them talk and deemed them to be spies who had been lured into a trap and would be shot next morning.

The discussions, which lasted two days, began with a report from Schmarvonian on conditions in Turkey, which he had left with the rest of the American diplomatic staff only six weeks earlier. The Ottoman army had just about shot its bolt, he thought; bankruptcy loomed over the empire as a whole; most Turks hated and feared the Germans, he continued; and relations between Talaat and Enver had reached the breaking point. “I am not aware27 whether this information is quite new to the Foreign Office or not, but I am giving this résumé because I consider that these are the only real facts which Mr. Morgenthau was able to communicate to us,” Weizmann reported afterward to Ronald Graham.

Where Schmarvonian had been incisive, Morgenthau was vague. Weizmann put it this way in his autobiography: “Mr. Morgenthau had28 had an idea. He felt that Turkey was on the point of collapse … It had occurred to him that perhaps Talaat Pasha might be played off against Enver Bey.” But when Weizmann asked him whether the Turks realized they were beaten in the war, and if they did, what their terms for a separate peace would be, neither the American nor anyone in his entourage could answer. Weizmann then told Morgenthau what he understood Britain’s terms to be. She must be “satisfied that Armenia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine are to be detached from the present Turkish Empire.” Whether this was wishful thinking on Weizmann’s part is another matter, but no one at the conference disputed him. Nor did anyone think that “such conditions29 would be acceptable at present to the Turks.” Therefore, and even though it became apparent during the discussions that the French government strongly favored an approach to Turkey (which disquieted Weizmann), “it was no job at all to persuade Mr. Morgenthau to drop the project.”

Weizmann also made very clear to the American that it had been a mistake to try to associate his mission with Zionism. “On no account30 should the Zionist organization be in any way compromised by his negotiations,” Weizmann lectured the diplomat. “On no account must the Zionist organization be in any way identified or mixed up even with the faintest attempts to secure a separate peace … We Zionists feel about this point most strongly, and we would like assurances from Mr. Morgenthau that he agrees and understands this position.” The assurance was offered, with what painful swallowing of pride one may imagine. In fact, the deeply humiliated Morgenthau capitulated on all fronts. He would not continue his journey to Egypt or even to Switzerland but rather would “stay in Biarritz and then try and get into contact with General Pershing.” He would take the $400,000 in gold back to America. Morgenthau never forgave the author of his mortification and thenceforth opposed the Zionists.

Weizmann’s bravura performance justified Foreign Office confidence in his abilities. He had been “eminently successful,”31 Graham reported to Lord Hardinge; he was “a shrewd observer.” Still, he had not quite carried off the diplomatic coup that virtually all historians of the episode celebrate. After all, Weizmann had not killed the separate peace idea, only Morgenthau’s version of it, and in that the Foreign Office had ceased to believe anyway.

Weizmann returned to London on July 21 to report to Graham in person. Two days later Graham sent him to Paris to brief Balfour and Lloyd George, who were attending a war conference there. The two were glad to learn that Weizmann had scotched Morgenthau’s mission. Nothing they said to him suggested anything except that he had scored a complete triumph.

Back in London again, however, Weizmann soon realized there was a fly in the ointment, or rather two flies, and that they were Harry Sacher and Leon Simon, his close, junior associates. Like every other British Zionist who learned of Weizmann’s mission to Gibraltar, they took it at face value, accepting that Weizmann had defeated the advocates of a separate peace with Turkey. But unlike their colleagues, they disapproved of what he had done. They had been arguing for months that their leader was becoming too enamored of Mark Sykes and other Foreign Office mandarins, none of whom were trustworthy. “The Zionists in public32 must preach pure Zionism and be detached from any Power,” Sacher wrote to Simon, who had just expressed similar sentiments in a letter to him. “The Zionist movement as such33 must of course not stake all on Great Britain. I have never dreamt of such a doctrine.” But that meant that they believed Zionists ought not to depend upon complete British victory in the war either. And that meant that they did not necessarily oppose the idea of a compromise peace with Turkey.

Just before Weizmann embarked for Gibraltar, he called Simon to his home for a lengthy discussion. He may have come to regret it. Simon recorded in his diary:

I said that it was not34 for us to try to stop peace with Turkey if we could get decent conditions. He said that we could not get decent conditions and that the only terms on which G[reat] B[ritain] would make peace with Turkey included the detachment from the Turkish Empire of Armenia, Syria, and Palestine, and that of course Turkey would not accept these terms … I expressed the opinion that probably the people of this country, and certainly the Russians, would not go on fighting Turkey if they knew that these conditions had been laid down and I further suggested that his going to Gib[raltar] along with representatives of G[reat] B[ritain] whose object was to stop a separate peace with Turkey would look as though we Zionists were trying to use our influence in the same direction.

But of course Weizmann did go to Gibraltar, not as an observer accompanying British representatives but rather as the sole representative himself. Simon’s doubts multiplied. “Assume [?] the peace35 proposals break down … and it gets known that a Zionist leader had met the Americans as emissary of the Government,” he worried in his diary. “The movement will incur well deserved odium … For my part I will not tie myself up with the policy, or tendency, this move implies.”

Sacher and Simon judged that after three years of bloodshed the peoples of the belligerent powers had grown weary of war. They thought the forces of the Left were rising and that “the centre of gravity36 will shift steadily towards the ‘pacifists.’ The future is with them.” It made no sense, then, from a practical point of view, for Zionists to ally with a government that was publicly wedded to “the knock-out blow.” When Sacher saw Weizmann briefly right after the latter returned from Gibraltar, he tried to make these points but did not have time to develop them. Simon tried on August 1 at the initial meeting of a political committee composed of Weizmann’s closest associates. Sacher could not attend, and so Simon reported to him by letter the following day:

Chaim gave us an account37—a bit discursive—of his mission … What struck me most was that while he was at great pains to make it clear to Morgenthau that Zionism is not trying to make a separate peace with Turkey, he had not suggested that Zionism was not trying to stop a separate peace with Turkey—rather the reverse. I raised a discussion on this question and of course was in a minority of one … If you share my views at all I wish you would find an opportunity of rubbing them in, if only by letter.

Sacher did rub them in, the next day, in a long and powerful communication to Weizmann. “I think you were much38 too emphatic in discouraging and combating the idea itself of a separate peace with Turkey, instead of opposing any form of peace which did not safeguard our interests,” he wrote flatly. He reiterated that Zionist and British interests were not identical: “A British protectorate is … one form under which our aims in Palestine may be realized … There are other forms—an international arrangement; Turkish suzerainty under guarantees.” He broadened Simon’s earlier critique: “I see the peril that we Zionists in England may be infected with imperialism at the very time when the rest of the world is beginning to cast it off.” And he injected a moral note: To oppose the advocates of peace with Turkey meant possibly prolonging the war. “I myself would not buy a British protectorate at the cost of prolonging the war by a single day.”

Sacher missed the next meeting of the political committee too. Generously Weizmann had copies of his letter made and “handed around … and Simon [Marks] read it out. So you had your innings.” Leon Simon thought, “It is a very good letter but it hadn’t much effect. These people don’t believe that the future is to the pacifists—that is the fundamental difference.” Again Simon did his best to argue the position, but as he confessed sadly to his friend, he made little impression. Afterward Sacher fumed: “But think of tying39ourselves with [Lloyd] George and his Cabinet swine and getting athwart the world’s democracies as our ‘leaders’ want to do!” Weizmann had become enamored of “the general policy40 of Imperialism and militarism,” and of “Sykes and other ‘politicians,’” and of “armies, diplomacy and other muck no good in themselves.” Sacher tried to warn his mentor and leader: “In politics one is41 always dependent on politicians … We Jews, like all mankind, are puppets in their hands, and their hands are as clumsy as their morals are base and their intellects feeble.”

The warning was prescient but ineffective. Weizmann swatted him down, and Simon too. He maintained and even strengthened his ties with the politicians and the men of the Foreign Office. He continued to insist upon a British protectorate in Palestine and to oppose the separate peace with Turkey. He staked everything on Allied victory, and the gamble paid off. History belongs to the victors. But spare a moment to consider what might have been. Had Weizmann’s gamble failed, had Britain lost the war, the history of Zionism (and of the world) would be very different. Or had his two critics on the political committee succeeded in persuading their colleagues to support a separate peace with Turkey (which would have represented a smaller and therefore more plausible wrinkle in the historical record), then too Zionism, and history, would have taken a different path. Absent Zionist opposition, sentiment in favor of the separate peace might have strengthened, might have proved irresistible. Then perhaps, in return for withdrawing from the war, the Ottomans might have kept part of their Middle Eastern empire, including Palestine, Syria, even Arabia. No one can know where that might have led.

The government and Foreign Office made effective use of Chaim Weizmann to check the Morgenthau mission. They had learned to respect him over the past two years, and he repaid their confidence with a bravura performance at Gibraltar. Nonetheless, the government played him with breathtaking cynicism. Sir Ronald Graham did not tell either him or James Malcolm, when the two called, that J. R. Pilling (not yet discredited) had just returned to London claiming to have a letter from Talaat Pasha spelling out Turkey’s peace terms, which, had it ever arrived, the government would have been eager to review. Graham hid from them too that only the day before he had paved the way for his cousin, Aubrey Herbert, to travel to Switzerland to meet dissident Turks to discuss peace. When Weizmann returned triumphant from Gibraltar, Graham sent him to Paris on July 23 to brief Lloyd George and Balfour and to receive their congratulations on scotching the Morgenthau peace mission. Two days later the prime minister and the foreign secretary received Aubrey Herbert, just returned from Berne and carrying an outline of peace terms provided by Turks. They congratulated him too.

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