University of California professor issues vile anti-Semitic tweets, university is investigating

January 3, 2021 • 9:15 am

Abbas Ghassemi is a “teaching professor” of chemical engineering at the relatively new campus of The University of California at Merced.  He’s also a nasty piece of work: the most blatant form of anti-Semite who, between June and December, tweeted the most shopworn stereotypes about Jews on his 18-month-old Twitter account.  His activities, now under investigation—though I contend they shouldn’t be—are recounted in the Times of Israel (below; click on screenshot), the Jewish News of Northern California (JNNC) and The San Francisco Chronicle (paywalled).

The skinny:

A teaching professor in the UC Merced School of Engineering is the owner of a Twitter account that had a pattern of antisemitic posts, J. [JNNC] has discovered. The content was described by the Anti-Defamation League as “repulsive” and promoting “antisemitic tropes.”

On June 14, Abbas Ghassemi tweeted “… reality bites!!!!!!” along with a photo of a “Zionist brain” with labels such as “frontal money lobe,” “Holocaust memory centre” and “world domination lobe.” That same image can be found on the website “Jew World Order,” which peddles antisemitic conspiracy theories.

On Dec. 8, in response to Joe Biden’s election win, Ghassemi retweeted another Twitter user’s post and commented, “Surprise, surprise!! The entire system in America is controlled by [the] Zionist. Change of president is just a surface polish, change of veneer. Same trash different pile!”

Many of Ghassemi’s tweets used “IsraHell” in place of “Israel.”

On Dec. 13, he retweeted something and added the comment, “the Zionists and IsraHell interest have embedded themselves in every component of the American system, media, banking, policy, commerce … just a veneer of serving US interest and population — everyone pretends that is the case.”

Ghassemi tweeted similar posts about Zionists and Israel controlling certain components of the United States another eight times between October and December.

He deleted his account after JNNC made inquiries, though a few of his tweets got captured. A particularly invidious one is below:

The whole thing. This is about as stereotyped as you can get.

Yes, the stuff is absolutely repugnant. In response, the Chancellor and Provost of his university wrote an open letter to the community decrying the hatred of the account (Ghassemi wasn’t named) and saying that an investigation has been started. An excerpt from the letter:

The opinions presented in this Twitter account do not represent UC Merced or the University of California. They were abhorrent and repugnant to us and to many of our colleagues and neighbors; they were harmful to our university, our students, and our years of work to build an inclusive and welcoming community.

The Twitter account, now deleted, was called to our attention by the media. We have now confirmed the account was in fact associated with a member of our faculty. The professor’s dean subsequently emailed faculty and staff in the school on Dec. 23 calling the tweets “reprehensible” and affirming that they in no way represent UC Merced. We have called upon the dean and department chair to work with the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Personnel to conduct an inquiry into potential violations of our standards, the UC Faculty Code of Conduct or other policies of the university, to determine what consequences are appropriate.

We have heard from some students who have raised concerns about this faculty member’s online statements about their heritage. These concerns will be addressed through the Offices of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students.

We are also directing the Office of the Associate Chancellor for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to develop programming for the spring semester that addresses free speech, hate speech and anti-Semitism in academia and promotes ways to challenge discriminatory insinuations when and wherever they emerge within the university community.

Ghassemi’s tweets almost certainly violated Twitter’s “hate speech” rules, and his account would have been deleted. He’s also been criticized by the Anti-Defamation league. All that is legal. What may not be legal, and to my mind violates Ghassemi’s First Amendment rights (remember, Merced is a public university) is to conduct a university investigation. Unless there’s evidence that Ghassemi broke other university rules—and I can’t imagine what rules would prohibit him from speaking as a private citizen on social media—he has the right to say whatever he wants in public. Twitter may shut him down, but he could bawl his anti-Semitic drivel on the state capitol steps in Sacramento, for all I care, and he’d have the right to do that.

As for the putative “programming” that the University will develop that “challenges discriminatory insinuations,” well, that comes perilously close to violating Ghassemi’s First Amendment right as well. (He’s apparently retained a lawyer.)

Should the University have decried his speech as “abhorrent and repugnant”? I don’t think so. If Ghassemi pulled the same stunt at the University of Chicago, the response from the administration would almost surely be, “Professors have the right to say whatever they want in the public sphere.” Period. The University should not be in the business of decrying “hate speech” publicly, as that’s a slippery slope that could lead to their decrying debatable things as well, like criticisms of the Black Lives Matter movement. As our Kalven Report dictates, the University of Chicago should make public pronouncements on politics only when they deal with issues that immediately deal with the running of the University.

Look, I’m a secular Jew and have a soft spot for the Jewish people (though not the religion). I’m always accused of being a Zionist, and I suppose that’s true as I support the state of Israel existing as it is (though not necessarily all the settlements). But as far as anti-Semitic “hate speech” goes, bring it on. We can fight back with counter-speech, as as long as the haters don’t try to incite immediate and predictable violence, what they have to say is allowed. As is the speech of Professor Ghassemi, who should not be punished by the University.  The students can (and should) avoid the knucklehead, or contest his speech in every appropriate venue. But he shouldn’t be punished officially.

What interests me about this is the lack of coverage of Ghassemi’s activities. Jewish and Israeli papers have covered him, as have the local papers. But you won’t find it mentioned in liberal media like the New York Times, Washington Post, or of course the HuffPost. Anti-semitism is not something they usually report on, for the Left is imbued with it, though they call it “anti-Zionism.” (This is why Bari Weiss had to leave the NYT.) But imagine the coverage if Ghassemi posted anti-Black or anti-Hispanic racism as nasty as that which heaped on the Jews. It would be a national scandal!

In the end, Anti-Semitism is one thing, free speech another. If the latter permits the former, then so be it. We’re in no danger of gas chambers in America, and one of the best defenses against anti-Semitism is to allow its purveyors to out themselves, and then fight back—with words.

Here’s a poll, which I’ll try just to roll out our new polling plug-in:

Should Abbas Ghassemi be investigated (with the possibility of punishment) for his anti-Semitic tweets?

View Results

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63 thoughts on “University of California professor issues vile anti-Semitic tweets, university is investigating

  1. Is a teaching professor another name for an adjunct professor? Is he an at will employee? If so, can the university fire him for this and not face consequences? I don’t know the employer laws well enough to know if this makes a difference.

      1. Seems to me our host has stated in the past that while he has the EP designation, he can’t teach anymore. If I remember that correctly, I guess the UC professor is playing under a different kind of rules.

        I don’t fancy his chances at a California school of not facing some consequences but I hope if he is a good teacher he keeps his job, so long as he keeps his private opinions out of the class room.

        1. I will say that, even back in the early 2000s, I had several professors who promoted antisemitism (in the guise of being anti-Israel) in the classroom. Conspiracy theories like the Israeli army kidnapping and torturing Palestinian children for fun, harvesting the organs of Palestinians to sell on the black market, etc. All of the common conspiracy theories about Jews, stated in classes as fact, but just said about “Israel.” Looking back, it makes me want to vomit because I bought all of it as an impressionable youth who trusted that his professors knew their facts and had only my best interests in mind.

    1. “Teaching professor” is the title replacing “Lecturer”. Typically, it is a non-tenured
      position for which teaching is the main duty. Also, typically, it is a renewable contract for a period of three to five years.

    2. Even if there are no legal consequences to the university (which I doubt, but I’ll wait for the lawyers to weigh in), academic freedom is a big thing. Other professors can and IMHO should put up a fuss. To quote a famous philosopher, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out…”

      1. Niemöller was a theologian and Lutheran pastor. “Famous” he is, and justly so, but I’m uncertain as to his bona fides as a “philosopher.”

        1. There was a brief and minor “famous philosopher” internet meme. The point was to apply it to figures such as Yogi Berra.
          Since I have a philosophy degree sandwiched between my two engineering degrees, it kinda stuck with me.

  2. There was a piece the last couple of days in the Globe and Mail called “Writers call for a more nuanced alternative to ‘cancel culture’” (now pay walled, but it wasn’t when I read it). My first reaction to the headline was, How about free speech?

  3. IMO, he should be dismissed. Had he expressed equivalent animus for any other group, he would be gone by now. His anti-semitism cannot be construed as criticism of Israel, as many try to do.

      1. I am not a lawyer, so my opinion on that is worthless. But, FWIW, government agencies should be able to regulate employee speech consistent with their missions. In this case, the mission is education of students, some of whom may be jewish. Employing instructors who engage in public hate speech toward possible students seems contrary to the universities prime mission. But I am not SCOTUS, so my view does not matter.

        1. You are a citizen (I’m assuming) so your opinion on matters pertaining to constitutional free expression is hardly worthless.

          I take it you disavow the “Chicago Principles” concerning freedom of expression? It’s the hard cases (such as this) that test those principles. If such principles stand for something only up to a point, they stand for nothing at all.

            1. Well, that maxim makes precisely the same point: If you’re unwilling to uphold your governing principles in the face of egregious circumstances — if you’re willing to carve out exception or to adopt new principles when the going get tough — then you wind up with bad law.

      2. And I somehow think that, had an instructor posted comparable hate speech about Blacks or Hispanics, the university would let them go, First Amendment or not. They would buy out the contract.

    1. I certainly agree that employers should be consistent in how they deal with offensive speech and I agree he’d almost certainly be out of the door without his feet touching the floor if he had made similar offensive tweets about African Americans or gay people or transsexuals.

      However, the question is whether he should be dismissed in either case. I think Jerry would argue that dismissing him for any speech against that is not illegal against any group would be unconstitutional for a public institution in the USA.

  4. I voted no but feel a need to say something. This guy is not worth investigating for spreading his garbage, but Twitter should most definitely shut him down. This is exactly the kind of stuff the platforms should be going after and eliminating. They need to remove lies and misinformation from infecting the public in general. If you have as example, another guy who twitters out lies about election fraud it should also be shut down. In a couple of days we are going to see elected officials in our congress lying about election fraud in public, on national TV, in order to received praise from Donald Trump. In affect attempting a coup after a completely legal election. In fact some of these clowns will be attempting to overturn an election that put them in office. They also need to feel the shame and heat from the public as should the people who voted them into office. After all, if you do not believe in the process that put you in office, what are you doing there?

  5. I did not respond to your poll because it is 2 questions in one: Should he be investigated? – yes – and should he be punished? – no. If for no other reason, the university needs to investigate whether this raving lunatic is competent to teach a class that might include Jewish students. What is a Jewish student to do? Ask to take a reading course instead of Ghassemi’s? Or just assume that he or she will be treated fairly? There is more to the problem than merely Ghassemi’s freedom of speech; speech has consequences.

      1. And what if he won’t change his behavior. Yes, I couldn’t somehow combine two questions in one poll, but the only thing worth investigating, to my mind, is whether he’s doing his job in the classroom and as a University employee.

    1. Actually I think your points make the case for taking action against him. His own public rants quite likely will cause problems for some of the students taking or attending his classes. The school administration has a duty to avoid such problems.

      1. You could say the same thing about anybody who works for any organization-. “Causing problems”–do you mean “causing offense”? And no, you can’t be fired as a government employee because your public speech offends people. Nor should you be.

    2. I think you’ve helped me clarify my own position in my mind. I think he should be investigated, but only to see if his attitude towards Jews compromises his ability to do his job. If he can’t engage properly with his Jewish students, rendering his teaching ineffective or if he can’t engage with his colleagues rendering him ineffective at his other duties, there’s a case for taking some action (that may or may not include dismissal).

      1. Can anyone think Ghassemi can treat jews fairly given his expressed views? Are not his tweets prima facie evidence of bias? It is sort of like asking if Hitler could treat jews fairly after threatening to exterminate them in Mein Kampf.

        1. No it isn’t like asking if Hitler could treat Jews fairly. Hitler had six million of them murdered. This man has published some insulting tweets.

          I do not think he is necessarily beyond redemption. I’d want to know what he is thinking, can he change his behaviour and can he do his job before destroying his career.

          1. “This man has published some insulting tweets.”

            I agree with your opinion on the situation overall, but I disagree that these tweets are merely “insulting.” They’re extremely bigoted. It’s the difference between calling someone stupid and saying “black people are stupid.” The latter is far more serious than the former because it evinces a prejudice against an entire group of people based on their ethnicity.

          2. To be fair, Darwinwins’ comparison was with Hitler after publication of Mein Kampf not with Hitler after the implementation of the Final Solution. In 1925 Hitler did not yet have the blood of millions on his hands but he was certainly not someone you would trust to treat Jews fairly.

    3. I also thought Jewish students might have a problem. But this is best dealt with by waiting for students’ complaints, not by putting the inquiisition on him and publicly encourage denunciations that may be politically motivated in today’s climate.
      I assume that he is okay to his Jewish students, if there had been any problems so far one would have heard. I once had a teacher (an Arab) who was probably a raving antisemite, still, I was his favorite student.

      Being a fair teacher to everyone is part of his job, having acceptable non-chemistry opinions isn’t and shouldn’t lead to an enquiry.

      1. I dunno. If I were a Jewish student I think I’d try to go into the closet if I had this guy as my professor because I wouldn’t want my grades affected. That’s not really fair to the students. For this reason the BDS groups have found themselves booted from some campuses in that their aggressive demonstrations made many Jewish students feel unwelcome.

    4. Yes I thought the university should investigate him and then reach their conclusions. It’s an issue universities should take seriously (free speech) and whether there is a line crossed. This is, in my opinion, something very well suited to the intellectual pursuit of universities.

  6. He should be investigated, most importantly to determine if his outward hatred of Jewish people has impacted his ability to fairly teach and grade Jewish students — and if he has in any way made those posts accessible to his students (which could be an intimidation tactic).

    As a public university, it has an obligation to both freedom of speech, and also to providing an education free of religious discrimination and intimidation. It’s fair to make sure his public behavior has not compromised that requirement.

  7. It should be noted that the university is Investigating what to do about this. This is technically not interference with free speech, nor is it a promise of punishment. Although of course the investigation itself would probably have a stultifying effect.

  8. OK, so now: what if this guy had done exactly the same thing—while serving as a K-12 teacher in a public school? How would we think about it then? And if there’s a difference in the two situations that *makes* a difference, what is it, and how does the First Amendment come into it in *this* scenario?

    1. Persons who would feel directly disenfranchised by the professor would be university faculty and staff, and students. These are all adults. They can be exposed to offensive opinions and are called upon to deal with it on their own so long as the offense isn’t directed to them personally. By name. However, if this was a K-12 instructor, then children are directly affected. This seems different to me somehow.

      1. Because I wanted to check a hunch I have, one that the difference in grade level might be a probe for. If people in general have the same reaction as Mark Sturtevant—which is what I was anticipating—it suggests that a perceived difference in the vulnerabliity of this individual’s students is important in the position people take on the question you in effect posed. Which I think would in turn would suggest—and this was my hunch—that the issue of free speech is confounded in this case, for many people at least, with the perception that someone with such attitudes is much more likely than not to carry them out in behavior towards his Jewish students. Since grade school children do not have the kind of resources to resist the kind of hostile pressure that people think Ghassemi would apply in his classes, there would be a greater tendency to distinguish the two scenarios.

        The point is, people wouldn’t be just making a judgment about First Amendment issues here. They would see those issues in the light of assumptions about Ghassemi’s actual behavior.

  9. Repugnant though I find Ghassemi to be, I agree with our host that a university, — particularly a public university — has no business sanctioning a professor for his or her speech outside the classroom (or other official university proceedings), Do we really want to jump on the slippery slope of delimiting a professor’s First Amendment free speech rights based on what the feelings of his or her potential students may be?

  10. Re: investigation. Most likely the investigation is to see whether his speech violates his contract.

    Separately from that, I think it’s worth some university time and coin to investigate his past grading, and see if he’s discriminated against Jewish students. Because even if his tweets are protected speech, they provide a prima facie reasonable suspicion of bias. If he’s not treating Jewish students fairly, then he needs to go…regardless of his speech.

    1. IANAL but I would have thought that a contract from a US government institution that sought to abridge an employee’s free speech rights would itself be unconstitutional. (Yes, I know there are exceptions such as matters of national security).

      1. Historically that doesn’t appear to be the case. Just going on my memory, it seems like every couple years there’s a case of a H.S. teacher (also State employees) getting fired for being a pole dancer in their spare time or posting something embarrassing on Facebook.

        So I think in practice there are many legal precedents which weigh in favor of the school. I’m not saying such firings are right. I’m saying us 1st amendment supporters are not likely the favorite in this race, because it’s been run many times before, and the court-defers-to-the-state’s-decision horse has won it most of the times in the past.

        At least, that’s the way it seems to me just going on memory. My memory could be selective though. [shrug]

  11. I agree that professors shouldn’t be fired for their speech, but, if he was being held to the same standards as others, is there any question that he would have been immediately protested and fired months ago if he was tw**ting stuff just as nasty as this about Muslim, black, or LGBT people? I don’t think so. Instead there’s going to be an “investigation,” after he’s been doing this for half a year.

    Like I said, professors shouldn’t be fired for exercising their free speech, but one can’t keep from noticing the double standards regularly at play when it comes to antisemitism.

  12. This has been done to us for ~2,000 years. I just shrug and move on. I agree with Dr. Coyne that his first amendment rights are paramount, but I also am concerned about his attitude and bias toward Jewish students in his classes. I voted ‘No’.

  13. I have slightly different views that many who voted and I voted yes that the guy should be investigated and I might even support him being sacked. I think his views make it impossible for him to do his job effectively and he should be fired for that not for his personal views. He may be able to teach engineering just fine, but I think there is more to being a prof than that. One issue is that I am not sure that students can just avoid taking classes from this guy and, if they do have to take a class, that they can protest his views. There is a big power differential here—the professor controls the grades—so students will be wary to jeopardize their grade. I can imagine that Jewish students would worry about not being treated fairly. Interestingly, there is asymmetry between hiring and firing people. I suspect that if this guys views had been public before he was hired he would not have been hired. Does the same apply to other jobs? For example, if a Neonazi hides his views and is hired by a police department, could he later be fired if those views are discovered, simply for having those views, or does the cop have to actually have to take some specific action to be fired. Even more so than a prof, a police offer with extremist views would be very unlikely to do their job properly and fairly and I would think this along would be grounds for dismissal.

    1. There was a case in a nearby city to me where an IT professional was outed as a member of a racist group. This professional worked for the City so he had a government position. They did dismiss him but I suspect he got a big settlement as “shut up” money because he could have taken them to court over it.

  14. I voted yes because I think he needs investigation not because he has insulted Jews but because the university needs to determine if his views are compromising his ability to do his job. For an extreme example, consider a professor who always gave Jews failing grades for no other reason than they are Jewish. Such a professor is not doing his job and should be fired.

    Furthermore, I would fire somebody who was repeatedly antagonistic to certain colleagues for any reason and who couldn’t be persuaded to amend their behaviour. That would include directing antisemitic comments at them (obviously).

  15. I don’t think he should be investigated for violating some sort of hate speech rule, but I do think they should investigate to see if he has fairly graded students with Jewish-sounding names and if his antisemitic views were apparent to Jewish students in the classroom. If he was not fair in the classroom, he should be dismissed as unsuitable.

    I think the university can demand this his university affiliation be removed from pages where he expresses these views. And I think it is good for the university to disavow his views simply to make it clear that Jews as well as anyone else are welcome on campus, and everyone is to be treated with respect. (I don’t mean all ideas should be treated with respect–just all individuals who come to campus to learn.)

    But I do not think he should not be punished for his off-campus views if they are otherwise invisible to everyone when he does his job.

  16. I always felt uncomfortable when some racist or sexist was let go from their job when they sent out tweets but I’m also uncomfortable with them being allowed to thrive in a work environment where they interact with those they clearly despise. So I’m torn about this. Back before social media it was easier because their stupid ideas weren’t heard by everybody at all times. Now, they can blast away constantly and those who are subordinates to them at work don’t have a lot of recourse (even if they aren’t doing it during work, who would want to have to work for someone who was a known bigot?)

  17. It seems possible that a public employee can be fired for postings on his own account without violating his first amendment rights. In the case of Grutzmacher v. Howard County, Md., 4th Cir., No. 15-2066 (March 20, 2017), the 4th circuit court of appeals “affirmed the District Court for the District of Maryland’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, holding that the defendant’s termination of plaintiffs did not violate the plaintiffs’ First Amendment Free Speech rights.” The decision did not give the public employer an absolute right to fire an employee for postings on social media, but under certain circumstances, it can. Am I reading this decision properly? If so, could it apply in the situation under discussion? I haven’t noticed that the Supreme Court has made a ruling.

  18. As a professor is it assumed he has all his marbles lined up, or, are they smashing around in his head.
    If you’re going to make outrageous allegations about a group where’s your evidence.
    A professor that does not make… smashed marbles it does. He should be demoted (is that possible) to cleaning the blackboard for being unfit for professor hood.
    If you’re wacked enough to proclaim that garbage is true without evidence I doubt very much you would be an independent arbitrator of student performance, let alone a mentor for critical thinking.

  19. The whole “slippery slope” business would be avoided if US had hate speech laws like in Europe. Then it wouldn’t be up to individual universities to bound hate speech.

    Incitement against ethnic groups (initially also called Lex Åberg) is a hate crime that involves publicly spreading statements that threaten or express contempt for one or more designated ethnic groups. The crime has this name in Sweden and Finland, but similar legislation exists in all the Scandinavian countries (for example, the racism clause of Denmark and Norway) as well as Germany, France, Ireland, Great Britain, South Africa and Canada, but not the United States, whose Bill of Rights provides strong protection of freedom of expression. Which ethnic groups and institutions are protected and which criteria must be met for the statement to be a crime varies between countries and is a controversial issue.

    [ ]

    By the way, I see there the claim that US do show a slippery slope tendency [“more extensively”}:

    The first amendment to the United States Bill of Rights gives the people broad protection against restrictions on freedom of expression or the press. Therefore, it is difficult to regulate expressions of contempt for ethnic groups. Only laws on obscenity, slander and incitement to riot are allowed, and only with strict restrictions. Especially during wartime, however, these laws have been applied more extensively, though mainly with reference to the security of the nation.

    But really – obscenity is where US draw a line in the sand!? What happened with “free” speech?

  20. I voted yes, as, despite my belief that this scumbag should be free to say what he likes, students paying large sums for his tuition deserve better. The man is a cretin and his racist tweets demonstrate as much. A Star of David dripping with blood isn’t far from a Swastika, or a hooded Klansman. Would black (or any) students be expected to accept a blatantly KKK supporting bigot as their professor? I don’t think they would, nor do I think they should. At the very least, students deserve to be taught by someone who doesn’t despise them, and with whom they feel comfortable.

    It could be argued that his views are personal, but his Twitter profile says otherwise. It associates him and by extension his views, with his position at the University of California. Students have enough issues to contend with, and dealing with a nasty, bigoted teacher should not be one of them. No student should have to contend with him and his egregious opinions. At the very least, I would insist that all his students be able to switch to another prof with no penalty.

  21. I agree that he should not be investigated or punished, with one exception.

    The university should take a look at whether his Jewish (and/or pro-Israel) students are (or have been in the past) graded more harshly or otherwise disfavored. His public comments give rise to at least a suspicion of that, and that would be conduct directly connected with his work.

  22. C’mon, boss, why do you even take the Huff Post seriously?
    Sometimes (if I drink) I’ll hate-watch Fox News and it can be absurdly entertaining (but I have to drink just enough to not remember it the next day and I don’t touch One America Network or Christian Broadcasting in any state – that hard stuff is too rich for my blood). So it is a tipsy, entertaining hate watch.

    Is *that* why you read Huff Post?

    D.A., NYC

  23. I don’t see any issue with the university authorities decrying the professor’s views as abhorrent and repugnant – I think we are all agreed that they are. The professor has the right to express whatever views he chooses in his personal capacity but if the university accepts this right it nevertheless has its own right to make absolutely clear that those views are at odds with the values and beliefs of the institution – after all, the man’s twitter account very clearly associates him with the UC. I take the point about slippery slopes but surely people who are appointed as the leaders of universities on the basis of their intellects and wisdom *should* have the capacity and judgement to recognise and decry totally egregious and unacceptable statements such as this without necessarily having to be drawn in by every contentious statement issued by any employee.

    As has been pointed out above, the professor’s comments are not entirely irrelevant to the running of the university anyway since any Jewish students in this man’s classes may not simply be offended or hurt by his comments but also have justifiable concern that they will not be treated fairly by the professor when he grades their work. A failure by the university to disavow the professor’s comments on Twitter publicly might also be taken by Jewish students who are still choosing which university to study at, as an indication that they will not be as welcome there as students of other ethnic or religious backgrounds.

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