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A much-belated memorial to the Jews of Gerolzhofen

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Exhibit curator Alyn Bessmann, right, in the newly conserved home of Ravensbrueck’s first commandant, leads a special tour for employees and workers two days before an exhibit opened at the former women’s concentration camp on March 20. Toby Axelrod

BERLIN – It isn’t easy facing the cold stare of a Nazi perpetrator, even in a photo. Increasingly, however, memorial sites in Germany are making the confrontation possible, opening a door that long has been sealed.

A new exhibit at the former Ravensbrueck women’s concentration camp in the ex-East German state of Brandenburg is the latest example.

“The Fuehrerhaus: Everyday Life and Crimes of Ravensbrueck SS Officers,” opened March 20, allowing a glimpse into the life of camp commandant Max Koegel and his SS underlings through informational panels arranged in his former villa, steps away from the barracks that once housed thousands of prisoners.

On April 18, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit the memorial for the first time to mark the camp’s liberation 65 years ago by Russian Red Army soldiers.

During a recent preview, members of the restoration crew and their spouses entered Koegel’s peak-roofed house, passed through the former dining area with its large fireplace, climbed the polished wooden staircase to the second floor, and stepped out onto the balcony from which Koegel himself could survey the camp below.

The spheres of SS and prisoner “were two completely separate worlds,” exhibit curator Alyn Bessmann said. “We hope this [dichotomy] will be more tangible to the visitors now.”

The contrast “should make people think,” said restorer Dietmar Gallinat, 46, standing on the balcony.

Koegel, notorious for his eagerness to punish prisoners for the slightest transgression, “was probably no different from the town baker” who ignored the brutality around him. “And there are still people who think this way today.”

“The whole thing has a kind of nightmarish atmosphere,” said painter Karsten Neumann, 46. “It is astonishing that people were capable of spreading such misery … and it is important to name these people.”

“When I think that they lived normal lives in these rooms, I feel sick,” said Neumann’s wife, Ulrike. “I felt I had to wash my hands after leaving the house because I did not want to touch what they had touched.”

Ravensbrueck reportedly is the third permanent exhibit on Nazi perpetrators mounted at a concentration camp memorial in Germany.

The first, about female camp guards, opened at Ravensbrueck in 2004. The second, also about guards, opened at the Neuengamme camp memorial near Hamburg in 2005.

At both sites, scholars thought it was time to confront perpetrators as a way to help Germans gain insight into a horrid chapter of their own history and prevent future crimes.

The resulting exhibits highlight the victims’ perspective.

“The first thing you hear in the exhibit [about female guards] is former inmates speaking about these guards,” said Insa Eschebach, director of the Ravensbrueck memorial.

Major hurdles had to be overcome to launch the exhibit.

Skeptics, including survivors and their advocates, said such sites should be solely dedicated to the memory of victims. Some feared that exhibits about perpetrators might attract neo-Nazis or feed an unhealthy fascination with horror.

Eschebach counters that it was high time to confront the perpetrator after years of suppression.

In the former West Germany, memorials had been dominated by “a kind of religious intention,” she said, so chapels were built at such sites as Dachau, near Munich. And in the former East Germany, remembrance took on an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist tone.

“If there was any mention of perpetrators, it was to say they were all sitting in West Germany,” Eschebach said.

After German unification in 1990, memorials started “providing historical documentation,” Eschebach said. “And with that came the question: Who were the perpetrators?”

New information centers opened in the early 1990s, including the “Topography of Terror” archive at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin and the House of the Wannsee Conference, a villa outside Berlin where high-ranking Nazis met in January 1942 to map out the genocide of European Jewry.

A trove of archival material was suddenly available, and retired schoolteacher Werner Schubert was among those who took advantage.

At Wannsee, Schubert, now 85, learned that Rudolf Lange, one of the Nazis at the infamous conference, came from his own hometown, Weisswasser, in former East Germany.

Schubert’s work exposing the biography of Lange and naming other local Nazi criminals led a town leader to accuse him of “nailing perpetrators to the wall.”

“I answered that the perpetrators themselves are long dead, but they have children and grandchildren, and … they should deal with the past,” Schubert told JTA.

Increasingly, descendants of Nazi perpetrators have sought information themselves. At Neuengamme, a discussion group was started for them, said historian Oliver von Wrochem.

“The need to confront our own history is relatively large today, much more than 10 years ago,” von Wrochem told JTA. “That is partly because most of the perpetrators are no longer alive, so one can deal with this more intensively and more easily.”

But it is also because this history “is a part of their biography and they have started to think about it again.”

The daughter of a camp commandant and a granddaughter of a camp doctor once told Bessmann that “they very much wished to love their relatives and that they could not. And I think that this is something quite central in the country from which the perpetrators come,” she said.

But in a sense, all Germans might feel “related” to the criminals.

“In that moment when I stand before the perpetrator, I have a personal relation to him,” said Schubert, a former Wehrmacht soldier, though never a Nazi Party member, he said. The perpetrator “becomes like a neighbor. And when a personal relation is there, it is always hard.”

Empathy is a natural risk. Many debates have been heard in recent years in Germany as to whether films portraying Hitler, Goebbels, or other high-ranking Nazis are too humanizing.

Bessmann isn’t concerned, having learned years ago from Israel’s Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem “to show the perpetrator as a person whom we must confront.”

“And as a normal person, you just have to distance yourself from them,” said Schubert.

At a reception following the recent preview tour of the new exhibit, one of several roofers having a few beers together said he resented the fact that “we as grandchildren are still paying” for the crimes of the past. Another said he wanted his own grandchildren one day to learn about the past, “but it should not be exaggerated.”

Such views are not uncommon in Germany. But the resources are there for those who actively seek to know more.

“The confrontation with the perpetrator is so fundamental and important in this country,” Bessmann said, and “increasingly, people are ready.”

Today, however, the closest they may come to a confrontation is with a photo on the wall.

JTA

 
 

Is Netanyahu alienating Israel’s friends in Europe?

JERUSALEM – On the day last week that Israel gained admission to the prestigious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel’s continued control over the Palestinians was eroding its global standing.

Whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Israel’s joining of the OECD as an economic and diplomatic coup, Barak warned of a growing tide of international isolation unless Israel comes out with a major peace initiative of its own, irrespective of the OECD membership.

News Analysis

The differences between Netanyahu and Barak lie at the heart of the debate over how central the Israeli-Palestinian process is to Israel’s diplomatic efforts worldwide.

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Angel Gurria, right, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, congratulates Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 10 after Israel’s admission into the OECD. Moshe Milner/GPO

Some believe Israel can safely ride out the storm of international pressure for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. But many others argue that a credible peacemaking orientation is an essential component of Israel’s standing in the world, and that Netanyahu is alienating Israel’s few friends.

Barak, the Labor Party leader, makes no secret of his concern at the way differences over peacemaking have embroiled the Netanyahu government not only with the Obama administration, but also with some of its closest allies in Europe.

Israel long has had a rough ride in European public opinion, but since Netanyahu came to power in March 2009, there have been growing signs of tensions with friendly European leaders and governments, particularly Britain, Germany, and France.

Part of Netanyahu’s image problem has been his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is widely perceived in Europe as a crude anti-Arab bulldozer against peace. But mainly it is skepticism over Netanyahu’s own seriousness about peacemaking that is hurting Israel. European leaders are not convinced of the genuineness of his commitment to the two-state solution, and they also see his declarations about continued construction of Jewish housing in eastern Jerusalem as unnecessarily provocative.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s oscillation between peace commitments to satisfy President Obama and construction promises to appease his right wing have led to a loss of credibility on the international stage.

Britain, for example, has been one of Israel’s staunchest allies in Europe. On a visit to Israel in July 2008, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown underlined the intimacy of the relationship by addressing the Knesset and launching a new Britain-Israel partnership for research and academic exchange. Brown also was one of six European heads of government who made a solidarity visit to Israel at the height of the war with Hamas in Gaza in January 2009.

But after Netanyahu came to power two months later, the Brown government’s policies quickly took an anti-Israel turn. In July, Britain decided not to renew five military export licenses, all for spare parts for naval guns, to protest Israel’s alleged use of disproportionate force in Gaza.

“We do not grant licenses where there is a clear risk that arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression,” a British Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv declared.

In December, the British Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs ruled that produce from west bank settlements could no longer be labeled “produced in Israel,” but must be tagged “product of the west bank.” An optional additional label could clarify whether the origin was an Israeli settlement or Palestinian — a move Israel saw as encouraging a boycott of settler produce.

Also in December, much to Israel’s consternation, Britain backed an abortive Swedish move to have the European Union recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.

Relations were strained further by the British government’s failure to take promised action against legislation enabling anti-Israeli groups to bring war crimes charges against Israeli leaders and generals.

Alarmed by a move to press war crimes charges against Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, British leaders in December again vowed to repeal the offending legislation — but so far to no avail.

Tension between the two countries came to a head in February when it became apparent that suspected Israeli Mossad agents allegedly used forged British passports, among others, for the assassination in Dubai of a leading Hamas operative. The British responded by expelling an unnamed Israeli diplomat from London.

Things may be worse with Germany, where Netanyahu got into a spat with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who probably has been Israel’s best and most influential friend on the continent. It happened in a telephone conversation in mid-March.

According to the German version, Merkel called Netanyahu at Obama’s request to urge no further building in eastern Jerusalem. She asked that the call be kept secret and promised to refrain from public criticism of Israel’s construction policies.

Netanyahu, however, immediately arranged for a briefing of Israeli journalists and told them he had called Merkel to inform her of Israel’s building plans in eastern Jerusalem.

Merkel felt Netanyahu had betrayed her trust, according to senior German sources. The Germans then released their version of the conversation and, during a news conference the next day, Merkel publicly criticized Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem.

Netanyahu apparently also is on the outs with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, once a close friend. In mid-April, Sarkozy told Israeli President Shimon Peres that he was disappointed in Netanyahu and found it hard to understand the prime minister’s political thinking.

“I don’t understand where Netanyahu is going or what he wants,” the French president was quoted as saying.

Sarkozy also has been outspoken about Lieberman’s presence in the government. In a meeting with Netanyahu in Paris last June, he urged Netanyahu to replace Lieberman as foreign minister with Livni and “make history.”

“You must get rid of that man,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying.

The fact that Israel has strained relations with its three most important backers in Europe has yet to translate into dramatic change in EU policy. Israel’s requested upgrading of ties with the European Union remains on hold, but that was the case before Netanyahu came to power. And Israel’s acceptance to the OECD was unanimous by the group’s members.

However, if there is a showdown between Israel and the Palestinians over the peace process, Europe could well be more supportive of the Palestinians. As with the Obama administration, the major European powers make the distinction between fundamental support for Israel’s security and right to exist, and criticism of the policies of the current government.

That same distinction is also being made by Jews on the left in Europe, following the lead of J Street in America. In early May European Jews, backed by notable intellectuals such as Bernard Henri Levi and Alain Finkielkraut, formed JCall, a new Jewish organization “committed to the state of Israel and critical of the current choices of its government.”

The friction with Obama and Europe and the loss of automatic Jewish support in both Europe and America are causing concern among many in Jerusalem.

“For first time we have a government that is succeeding … in causing the rest of the world to hate us,” Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel’s most respected political scientists, wrote recently in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The conclusion of politicians on the center left, from Livni to Barak, is the same: Israel under Netanyahu needs credible peace policies to turn around in its diplomatic fortunes.

Some of Netanyahu’s defenders say the perception that he isn’t serious about peacemaking is not fair. The question is, does Netanyahu believe his policies are alienating Israel’s friends, and what will he do about it?

JTA

 
 

Not wild about Wilders?

Anti-Islam message has European Jewish leaders worried

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Populist Dutch politician Geert Wilders gets a standing ovation from a Berlin audience on Oct. 2. Toby Axelrod

BERLIN – Geert Wilders, the rock star of European politics, is riding the crest of a populist tsunami.

The pro-Israel founder of Holland’s Party of Freedom shouted that Islam is a threat to Germany’s identity, democracy, and prosperity, while his audience of 500 reacted with evangelical zeal, offering big-time applause and standing ovations.

“Stand by the side of those who are threatened by Islam, like the State of Israel and its Jewish citizens,” he exhorted the crowd.

This was not a Jewish event, though former Israeli Knesset member Eli Cohen of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party was a guest speaker.

Ethnic Germans made up much of the crowd Oct. 2 at the Hotel Berlin. Their chief bugaboo? The failure of Muslims to fit in to mainstream society.

Wilders allowed them to vent their frustration (critics would say racist views). And for the crowd, having an Israeli join them seemed to make things more kosher, as the anti-immigrant rhetoric has been associated typically with far-right extremists.

Wilders’ dismissal of “so-called ‘Islamophobia,’” as he calls it, also supports those who say the real problem is Muslim anti-Semitism.

In recent weeks several populist parties — including Wilders’ — have gained parliamentary seats or ministry positions in European countries. Even mainstream leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have decided to weigh in on “the Muslim integration problem.”

Pure politics, critics say.

So why are so many Jewish leaders in Europe not wild about Wilders and his ilk?

Populists “want a Sweden for the Swedes, France for the French, and Jews to Israel,” says Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary general of the European Jewish Congress.

“Islamism certainly is a danger to the Jews and to Western democracy,” offers Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. “The way to fight [Islamists] is not, however, to demonize and ostracize all Muslims.”

Ron van der Wieken, the chairman of Amsterdam’s liberal Jewish congregation, says that “perhaps more Jews support Wilders than they openly admit,” but “when his party fiercely opposes halal slaughter, kosher butchering will not exist much longer as well. And if headscarves would be forbidden, how about yarmulkes? And circumcision?”

In Germany, emotions also run high over another purveyor of populism, author Thilo Sarrazin, who was fired from the board of the German Central Bank because of his comments about Muslim inferiority and Jewish superiority.

Jewish leaders condemned Sarrazin’s remarks, but some Germans on the street, including some Jews, seem more forgiving. Meanwhile his book, “Germany Undoes Itself,” is a major best-seller.

“His analysis of the socio-political situation in Berlin is 110 percent correct,” retiree Georg Potzies, 64, says at Bleiberg’s kosher dairy restaurant here. “A large part of the Muslims — and he never said all of them — have no interest in integration. Just open your eyes in Berlin and you will see it.”

As for the supposedly higher Jewish IQ, “I found that very good,” Potzies adds, laughing.

“What he said was a provocation designed to wake people up,” says restaurateur Manuela Bleiberg, 56. Muslims living here “don’t have to totally assimilate, but they should keep German law.”

But Sarrazin is not really interested in integration, counters Jan Aaron Voss, 46, who runs a Jewish Internet portal.

“What he is really doing is pitting people from different groups against each other to incite them,” Voss says, “and that’s simply wrong.”

Populist doomsayers like Wilders predict a Muslim takeover of Europe, but experts says a gradual demographic shift is more likely. A 2005 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life showed that about 5 percent of the EU population is Muslim, with the percentage growing because of higher birthrates among migrants and low birthrates among “native Europeans.”

The report concluded that “the successful integration of European Muslims is crucial to the future of Europe.”

Indeed, reports have shown there are serious challenges: language acquisition, unemployment, forced marriage, rare but horrific honor killings, and anti-Semitism, especially among young men.

But reports also show that most “foreigners” contribute to society, and only a tiny minority of Muslims in Europe are thought to identify with banned extremist movements, like the German al-Qaida cell that spawned the 9-11 terrorists. Yet some “native Europeans” persist in labeling, observers say.

“Youth of Turkish origin who were born here and have studied here feel they are being typecast,” said Cicek Bacik, a board member of the Turkish Association of Berlin-Brandenburg. “They sometimes have the feeling that they will always be considered foreign, that they will never be at home.”

They shouldn’t get too comfortable, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Cohen suggested at the Wilders event, which launched a new Freedom Party in Berlin.

“Muslims seem to be about to take over Europe,” Cohen said, stoking the audience. “Is that what you want?”

Increasing numbers of Europeans are embracing the message. And some Jewish leaders are worried.

“We are quite upset about having a party [in the Parliament] that says they are only addressing Muslims and immigration,” says Lena Posner, president of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities. “History has taught us about where this can lead, and this is not necessarily good for the Jews.”

But what’s wrong with a pro-Israel party that highlights Muslim anti-Semitism, asks Kent Ekeroth, 29, a new legislator with the right-populist Swedish Democrats.

Ekeroth, whose mother is a Polish Jewish émigrée, admits that his party’s opposition to circumcision of minors and to the import of halal or kosher meat is “a sticking point.” But few Jews are observant, he says, “And we feel that if those adaptations are too much to handle, then Israel is an alternative.”

Europe’s Jews aren’t all about to move to Israel, but should they be a little more forgiving?

“It’s akin to the evangelical Christians,” says Abraham Foxman, national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League. “On one hand they loved and embraced Israel. But on the other hand, we were not comfortable with their social or religious agenda.”

“Our goal has to be to build and help with the development of a moderate Islam that (Wilders) says doesn’t exist and can’t exist,” Daniel Pipes, a U.S. conservative pundit, says in a telephone interview. “So we are allies, but there is a significant difference.”

Maybe Wilders needs less treble and more bass, suggests Leon de Winter, a prominent Dutch Jewish novelist who publicly defended Wilders’ right to compare the Koran to “Mein Kampf.”

“What I like about (Wilders is that) he is a true friend of Israel and a true friend of America,” de Winter says in a call from his home in California. His “opponents call him a racist and a Nazi, all of these things that he is clearly not. Still, often his ideas are over the top and I hope he will soften the way he expresses himself because the themes he touches on are really serious.”

Pipes hopes populist parties will drop their “neo-fascist conspiratorial ideas, strange economic ideas, anti-Semitic and racist ideas” and develop broader platforms.

“What is serving them [now] is to talk about Islam and related subjects,” he says. “And they are attracting votes because ... established parties are not dealing with the issues that are on people’s minds.”

JTA

 
 

Will Bibi go left or right?

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Israeli army officers during a March 8 visit to the Jordan Valley in the west bank, said the Israeli army must maintain its presence along the length of the Jordan Valley in any future peace arrangement reached with the Palestinians. Moshe Milner/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – Israel is staring at a fork in the road, with potential disaster along either path.

On the path to the left lies a major Israeli peace initiative that deals with all the core issues under dispute with the Palestinians. On the path to the right lies more waiting, possibly with some kind of offer of an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians, until conditions are right for something more.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man behind the wheel at this critical juncture, is expected to announce a new peace initiative within the next two months, and the battle over which path it will hew to is causing serious divisions within his cabinet.

News Analysis

His defense minister, Ehud Barak, says the only way to head off a “diplomatic tsunami” that will engulf the Jewish state is by pressing for a major initiative on the Palestinian track that deals with all the core issues. Likud moderates such as Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan support Barak’s stance.

Hard-liners from the ruling Likud Party warn that if Israel makes premature territorial concessions, disaster will follow. Benny Begin, Silvan Shalom, and Moshe Ya’alon are leading this very strong and vocal campaign against Barak’s proposal.

The debate has brought to the fore the fundamental differences within the cabinet on the Palestinian issue.

Barak argues that unless Israel has a peace plan on the table within the next few months, it could suffer its worst-ever diplomatic defeat. With Israel failing to offer any alternative, he envisions a situation in which the Palestinians take their case to the United Nations in September and get wall-to-wall international recognition of their state along the 1967 lines without having to make concessions on borders, refugees or Jerusalem — or even declare an end to the conflict.

In Barak’s view, if Israel wants its case to be heard, it must offer an alternative plan. Otherwise, it will find itself under increasing international pressure to withdraw to the pre-1967 lines without even its most basic security demands taken into account. Israel also will face growing delegitimization as an occupying power in defiance of the will of the international community.

“It would be a mistake to ignore this tsunami,” he said Sunday at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “Israel’s delegitimization is just over the horizon, even if the public doesn’t see it. It’s very dangerous and we need to act.”

For the hard-liners, the danger lies in what they call Barak’s “delusional” approach. Ya’alon, who like Barak is a former Israeli army chief of staff, argues that it is dangerously naive to think the conflict can be solved by territorial concessions when the real problem is a fundamental Palestinian refusal to come to terms with Israel’s existence.

Ya’alon says that even moderate Palestinian leaders such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas would like to see Israel disappear, and that peace will be possible only when the Palestinian mind-set changes and all forms of anti-Israel education and incitement stop.

It’s a view that has gained some more traction among the Israeli public following the brutal killings last Friday night of five family members in the west bank Jewish settlement of Itamar.

For now, Ya’alon says, the focus should be on Palestinian institution-building and economic improvement; in other words, slow bottom-up building of a Palestinian capacity for peace. Big ambitious peace moves like Barak’s inevitably will fail and likely spawn new violence, he says. Ya’alon insists that any proposed new peace plan should have no territorial dimension.

Which way is Netanyahu likely to go?

On the one hand, he and his closest advisers have a great deal of respect for Barak and are well aware of the widespread international perception that it is Netanyahu’s foot-dragging on peacemaking that is responsible for the current impasse. Indeed, the leaks on Netanyahu’s purported new peace plan followed a heated telephone exchange in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly accused Netanyahu of having “done nothing to advance peace.”

Similarly, on March 1, President Obama told a roomful of American Jewish organizational leaders that they and their friends and colleagues in Israel should “search your souls” over Israel’s seriousness about making peace.

On the other hand, Netanyahu’s circle is comprised of hard-liners who are widely believed to wield much influence over the prime minister. The prime minister also has made some recent hard-line moves — for example, appointing the hawkish Yaakov Amidror as his new national security adviser and holding talks with the far right National Union Party on joining the governing coalition.

The question is not whether Netanyahu will present a peace plan but how far he will go.

Despite Ya’alon’s reservations, the plan is expected to focus on territorial and security issues, and the linkage between them. The way the plan is shaping up, Israel probably will offer to hand over more territory to full Palestinian jurisdiction ahead of negotiations on final borders and allay Palestinian fears that the interim stage will become permanent.

Under the plan, the United States will assure the Palestinians that final borders will be based on the pre-1967 lines with relatively minor land swaps, and Israel will seek U.S. assurances for an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and for retention of large settlement blocs as part of Israel proper.

On the basis of the plan, reflecting Israeli good will and seriousness about peacemaking with a strong international underpinning, the Palestinians will be invited to talks on all the core issues.

Due to the differences between cabinet moderates and hard-liners, Netanyahu has not discussed the plan in the Forum of Seven senior ministers, which includes Barak, Meridor, Begin, and Ya’alon. Instead he is holding a series of one-on-one consultations.

There will also have to be detailed talks with the Americans to finalize a package in which they have a major role.

Despite the hype surrounding the new peace package, it remains too early to gauge whether Netanyahu is serious about peacemaking, as he insists, or simply playing for time, as his critics contend.

But with perception growing overseas that Netanyahu is the problem, not the Palestinians, the onus is on the prime minister to prove that this time he means business.

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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