|Israel Resource Review
||15th June, 1999
the Israel Resource
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Interview with Rabbi Arik Asherman,
director of the
RABBIS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
conducted by Allan Polak
Allan: Tell me a little about yourself.
Asherman: Sure, my name is Rabbi Arik Asherman. I'm the executive
director of Rabbi's for Human Rights. I also, on a part time basis am the
Rabbi for Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava. I'm originally from the United
States, born in Eerie, Pennsylvania. I have an under-grad degree from
Harvard in 1981, sociology . . . rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College
Jewish Institute of Religion from 1989. I'm married to Rabbi Anot Ramon,
who's the first Israeli woman ever to become a rabbi. It's an
intermarriage of sorts, I'm a reform rabbi and she's a conservative rabbi.
And as of now we're the only rabbinic couple in Israel. And we have a
little baby, Adi, whose now about eleven and a half weeks old. Alright, so
that's our story.
Allan: When did you come to Israel?
Asherman: I've been here off and on since the early '80s. In 81, 83 I
worked for a program called interns for peace which is a committee work
program for promoting coexistence between Jewish Israelis and Arab
Israelis. I did my first year of rabbinical school back here in '86-'87
for a community work program . . . that's also when I met my wife. From then on
pretty much back every summer and officially made Aliya in '94.
Allan: In the U.S were you politically active at all?
Asherman: Yeah. It depends on what period. In my university days I was
particularly active in the struggle against apartheid. There was a very
intense movement on campuses, particularly on Harvard, to push for
universities to dis-invest from corporations doing business in South
Africa . . . In my years in rabbinical school I did also in . . . for five years as
a rabbi out in California. A lot of that time I was very involved with
issues dealing with homeless and this kind of thing. And a lot of other
things here and there. A lot of other things. I went a couple of times to
Russia to work with, former Soviet Union, to work with congregations there.
A lot of things over the years.
Allan: Tell me about Rabbis for Human Rights.
Asherman: Rabbis for Human Rights was founded just a little . . . it was ten
years ago December, during Intifada when many people felt, this is the age
of the orders to break bones and this kind of thing to put down the
Intifada, and many people who by no means considered themselves left wing
felt we'd gone over some form of red line. And that there needed to be a
Jewish rabbinic response to what was happening. And when our founder,
Rabbi David Foreman, wrote an open letter saying "Why is it that all we
ever hear from the Jewish, the religious establishment in this country is
about Shabbat observance and Kashrut . . . keeping kosher. As important as
those things are where are the Abraham Joshua Heschels?" I don't know if
that name means something to you or not but . . . Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
was a scholar but also an activist. "Where are the Abraham Joshua Heschels
in this country speaking to the burning moral issues of our times, of our
day?" And that struck a cord with a number of people. Today we are ninety
some rabbis and some rabbinic students. We are the only rabbinic
organization in this country, to the best of my knowledge, where reform,
orthodox and reconstructionist rabbis coexist. And we work on a number of
issues. We champion universal human rights and interfaith understanding.
And human rights, that's whether we're talking about Jewish Israelis or
foreign workers or Palestinians. So we work on a number of issues ranging
from the Israeli health care system to the whole issue of home demolitions,
Palestinian home demolitions. We work with lobbying Knesset, we work with
the media, we do direct action, civil disobedience. We work in a number of
Allan: Anything else?
Asherman: We also work on educational projects . . . going to schools working
with teachers, with students, talking about Judaism and human rights.
Another project where we're working with the Kibbutz teachers on Oranim to
create a Talmudic style commentary to the Declaration of Independence.
Allan: Did Rabbis for Human Rights, when first created, immediately have
connections with Palestinians?
Asherman: I wasn't around at the time but, yes, I think some of our . . .
pretty much immediately, yes. At the time it was so unusual for rabbis to
be concerned with universal human rights that we worked a lot with groups
like B'tselem . . . because in advertising an issue all we had to do was show up
and pay a visit and that was news because its so unusual for rabbis to be
concerned about these kinds of things . . .
Allan: Today, the PA exists as a governing authority, does Rabbis for
Human Rights deal with the PA or any of its subcommittees?
Asherman: Not to a great deal. We had a meeting with Arafat in 1995,
October of 1995. And a year or so ago our chair person participated in a . . .
as a representative with other organizations that went to meet with Arafat.
We . . . the Palestinian organizations we tend to work with may have
connections with the PA but they tend to be independent. They are just the
people we work better with, found more of a common language with. The
other thing is that as rabbis our primary audience is Jews. So that
certainly when we met with Arafat we expressed some of our concerns about
human rights issues in the West Bank. Same thing when we . . . sometimes when
Palestinian human rights activists have been arrested we expressed our
concern one way or the other. But, basically because our audience is
Israeli Jews we haven't spent so much time dialoguing or whatever with
Palestinian bodies in that way.
Allan: Is that a question of protecting the organizations image?
Asherman: The opposite. Many people on the right say "Why don't you
criticize the PA for this, that, and the other thing?" We say "When we've
had the opportunity we've expressed our opinions." But our audience is
Jews. Secondly . . . its not a matter of image. If there was some project . . .
Our job is to be dealing with human rights abuses done by Jews not done by
Palestinians. By no means do we say there aren't human rights abuses being
perpetrated by Palestinians. But when we have an opportunity, we certainly
make our opinion known; we've always done that. In terms of just working
cooperatively with PA bodies . . . as I said, to the extent that we work with
Palestinian organizations they tend to be organizations which are also a
little bit more distant from the PA. But that's not really a policy or
anything like that.
Allan: What would you like the relationship with the PA to be?
Asherman: Well I'd like it to be cooperative. Listen, if the ideal
situation was that we could call them up and say we're concerned about the
death penalty, we're concerned about what's happening here; and maybe
they'd have an open ear. Or alternatively there are issues, for example,
like the whole issue of home demolitions. We feel that there's a lot more
the PA could be doing. You know, for example, I would think it would be in
the Palestinian national interest to have a fund so that anyone whose home
was demolished would have the money to start rebuilding. And often
representatives of the PA don't even show up when homes are demolished.
So, those things I would definitely like to see them to do. I'd like to
have an open dialogue with where they'd be interested in some of the things
we see on the ground.
Allan: What topics were discussed in the 1995 meeting with Arafat?
Asherman: Basically we talked about . . . first of all praised Arafat for his
courage to enter into a peace process, courage to continue with the peace
process. Then we spoke about MIAs, Israeli MIAs . . . And then we talked in
general about the concerns about human rights abuses in the Palestinian
Authority. His reaction basically . . . he spent a lot of time talking about
all the plots to kill him. And basically said "You Israelis, on the one
hand you want me to stop terrorism, to fight terrorism, on the other hand
you want me to observe human rights and you can't have both and I'm here to
fight terrorism . . . "
Allan: Moving on, I briefly wanted to discuss Palestinian refugees. It is
my understanding that the policy of UNWRA is to keep Palestinians within
refugee camps. I was curious as to your reaction.
Asherman: I don't know if its just UNWRA. Historically the Arab world has
wanted to use refugees as a political weapon, propaganda weapon. So,
because of this . . . because of that . . . yeah, refugees have stayed in camps.
That is certainly true. I'm not totally, I'm not totally up on what is
happening most recently but that is the historical reality. Once again,
there's . . . it's a question of mandate and whether we as rabbis that is an
issue that we need to be working on. You know, there's a terrible . . . there's
a very interesting phenomena, I find it very often in some of the comments
I get, not from serious people but more often from not serious people that
want to be critical of what we're doing, which says "You say you're
interested in human rights so why aren't you doing x, y, and z?" I mean,
that's like going to a housing rights group and saying why aren't you
worrying about health care. There's an infinite amount of issues that
people could work on, and somehow the implication is you're not really
serious if you're not working on this, or it means you're not really
objective or something like this. But it's a . . . Knei Britsute, as we say the
tradition, it's bench reed. It's a misleading kind of thing so that as I
said we . . . it's . . . you ask for example about UNWRA or something it's not a
question of whether or not there's something wrong going on, it's a
question of . . . I'm here on a three quarter time position. We've got another
quarter time staff person. We see our primary mandate as speaking to the
Jewish people as rabbis. So, you know, I would feel we were being one
sided if all we did was be concerned about Israeli oppression of
Palestinians but the answer from what I see as our mandate is not to be
dealing with what UNWRA is doing or what the PA is doing but rather to deal
with issues such as health cares for Israelis which is an issue of what
[the] Israeli government is doing to Israeli Jews, as well as all Israeli
citizens, for example. That's the way that I believe is the proper way, as
opposed to balancing ourselves by finding international or Palestinian
organizations that are also oppressing Palestinians.
Allan: Then, is it (dealing only with Israeli abuses of human rights) a
policy based on lack of time?
Asherman: No, it's a number of things. A, Our mandate as rabbis is to
speak to the Jews, it's not to speak to international bodies or to the
Palestinians. So, once again, when there's a need to do so, or when
there's an opportunity to do so. For example when we were invited to speak
to Arafat it would have been wrong for us go and speak with Arafat and not
bring up some of our human rights concerns as a human rights organization
if we're already . . . but, but, if I'm looking to balance our activities, I
would balance them by looking at issues by looking at issues where Jews are
oppressing Jews to balance the activities were we look at where Jews are
oppressing Palestinians as opposed to balancing by looking for where
Palestinians are oppressing Palestinians. Do you see what I'm saying?
Allan: Yes . . . Would a more appropriate name for the organization then be,
Rabbis Against Jewish Violators of Human Rights?
Asherman: I mean . . . that's a rhetorical question . . . I mean . . . that's a
rhetorical question, it's like does your name have to . . . You could also say
should we be Rabbis for Human Rights who are currently working on the Jali,
on Israeli health care, on this, this, this, to explain why we're not
working on . . . as I said we're working on health care but not working on
improving income tax. The reality is, we do dialogues with rabbis who live
in the West Bank, we do dialogues with all kinds of groups. It's only the
totally non-serious people that even bring those things up. I mean . . . I mean
people with different views than ours but are serious don't bring those
kinds of things up because it's so not important. Now . . . in terms of, in
terms or our image the thing that does concern me more is that there aren't
enough people that realize we also work for Jewish human rights and this
kind of stuff. And there are people who think all we do is work for
Palestinians. That is something of greater concern to me than these other
things . . . that are only brought up by people who are doing it for the sake of
argument and aren't very serious.
Allan: Let me ask you one more question, before we change topics. Do you
believe the human rights abuses of today are more prevalent in concern to
Palestinian against Palestinian or Jew against Palestinian?
Asherman: I don't really know how to answer that. I never try to quantify
it. And it's also, sometimes not so easy to sort out for example, we're
starting a new project, we're concerned about health care in the
territories. Now, on the one hand, as today 90 percent of Palestinians
are, their health care is being managed by the PA, not by Israel. So, if
you look at problems in health care the primary address today is the PA.
On the other hand you can argue . . . but this after 30 years of neglect by
Israeli authorities that didn't develop the infrastructure, that didn't
develop the hospitals and left things in a mess. And on the third hand,
what was there before then? And how much did Jordan or anybody else invest
in health care in the territories? Maybe in another couple of months I'll
be . . . after we've finished the research stage it'll be an interested test
case for the question you're bringing up. I would say . . . Most Palestinians
will tell you, many Palestinians will tell you, that in some ways, I don't
know about the PA, but other Arab countries had a very . . . at least as
responsible as Israel for many of the problems that they're in today. Once
again, as a rabbi, as a Jew, as an Israeli, the question is how important
is that? In other words, if you were to say that 90 percent of the
problems of the Palestinians are caused by Palestinians or other Arabs and
ten percent by Israel, I as an Israeli religious Jew would still be
terribly concerned about that ten percent. And it doesn't matter to me if
that was 10 percent or 15 percent or 75 percent, what is more important to
me in terms of how we define our agenda is the seriousness of the problem
as opposed to other problems we could be working on. In other words, in
other words, if someone said to mean, "The problem of the Israeli
government is giving all kinds of educational resources to North Tel Aviv
and not to development towns is a much more acute problem than demolition
of Palestinian homes." That to me . . . so let's talk about that. Have we miss
set our priorities because we're not really looking at the most serious
human rights issues? And if you can tell me that A, that it's a more acute
problem, and B that it's more systematic, and C that . . . there's nobody else
working on that problem, that would be something I would take to our board
and say "Maybe our priorities aren't straight." But the issue of what
percentage of the problems the Palestinians are by Israelis and what are by
Palestinians . . . it wouldn't make sense to be a factor. The only other thing
I can say . . . is that our board decision is that we must always have a balance
in terms of being . . . we must being working on something . . . because there is a
balance . . . it's true that we are working today on more things concerning
Palestinian society than Israeli society, but there must be something we
working on that's dealing with Israeli society . . . The image projected by the
vast majority of . . . of religious Jews in this country today, it wasn't
always that way but that's the current situation today for all kinds of
reasons we could get in to, is a very inwardly focussed lack of concern for
the non-Jew. And many secular Israelis also interpret that as being the
true face of Israel because that's what they . . . it's the dominant image. I'm
not saying that all religious Jews are that way because that certainly
wouldn't be true to make a blanket statement. But that's the predominant
image. And therefore, therefore, it would always be important for us to
make a statement that we, as religious Jews, are concerned not only with
Jews but also with non Jews. But on the other hand, you know it's the old
statement by Hillel, "If I'm not for myself than who am I, If I'm only for
myself what am I?" So . . . obviously . . . The other option of being concerned only
about the other would also be wrong. So we try to always being working on
projects that deal with each of those . . .
Allan: Do you coordinate activities with the Israeli Committee Against
Asherman: The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions is a umbrella
organization and with different individuals and organizations more or less
formally represented. And yes, we see ourselves as a part of that coalition.
Allan: How do you feel about civil disobedience?
Asherman: In general I think there are times when that's the right course
of action. For example, there are a lot of things that groups . . . you know in
the U.S, you hear people crying gevult about the religious right and mixing
religion with politics. You hear people talking about the orthodox parties
here, religion and politics. I have a problem with some of that criticism.
I disagree with the religious right in the States or a lot of the policies
of the orthodox parties in this country on the issues, and certainly when
it, on anything that has to do with coercion. But for me to say that you
shouldn't mix religion and politics . . . that's what I do too. I do what I do
because of my thing . . . My problem wasn't that the idea that somebody, based
on their beliefs is willing to engage in civil disobedience . . . Obviously, in
a democratic society if you engage in civil disobedience you must also be
willing to pay the price for your beliefs. In fact, many people engage in
civil disobedience, if you look at the theory of civil disobedience
historically and around the world, even welcome that because it gives you
the chance to challenge those things which are legal in the society you're
part of and which you think are wrong. And, you know, so that's another
aspect of civil disobedience. And maybe, I'm just talking a little bit
associatively now, but to bring up another thing, is you also heard this
whole thing . . . "How can religious parties or establishments challenge the
supreme courts?" Now, I also find there are problems where there are
decisions of the supreme court which I think were mistaken. The fact that
the supreme court consistently uphold home demolitions, or torture, I think
is awful. So, one thing it would be hypocritical for me to say that
automatically that someone who dares to criticize a decision of the supreme
court to say that's out of bounds in a democratic society; that's not the
problem. The problem is when you say, "We don't recognize legitimacy of
that institution," you incite against that institution . . . and the line can be
a very fine line but there is a distinction between those two things.
Allan: Has the Israeli government done anything to help the house
Asherman: Well, good question. After, there was a tremendous amount of
Israeli and international pressure on the, after last summer around the
demolition and then our public rebuilding and the re-demolition of the
house of al-Shwarme house in Anata. As a result of that fact the civil
administration floated a trial balloon. Which apparently was adopted
because also it's been in the Prime Minster's office it's been the states
policy of retroactively legalizing seven hundred homes. The problem is
we've never been to get guidelines in terms of which homes are in this and
which aren't. No one has been able to receive a list of whose homes have
been retroactively legalized. So, I don't know, have they really done
anything or not? It's a very good question. I can tell you that in the
Jerusalem area . . . with the civil administration, for pretty much from October
from February, we stopped rebuilding homes and during that period we . . . all
kinds of negotiations with the civil administration on particular cases,
kind of an attempt at constructive engagement. One of the reasons that we
went back to rebuilding was a feeling that we were just being carried along
for a ride and, taken for a ride, and that nothing was happening. In fact,
we just recently got, finally, detailed written answer to all the specific
questions we asked about specific families and things. And this was after
we met with the head of the civil administration and talked about what his
principles were and being invited by him to bring up issues that seemed to
violate the principles that he was saying they worked according to. So we
brought up all these specific cases and every one was white washed one way
or the other. Now in Jerusalem, there seems to be a more serious attempt
at constructive engagement. So, for example, there a number of the
different communities which, the Palestinian villages, which have been
absorbed by the Jerusalem municipality, that have been working on
agreements with the municipality whereby homes would not be demolished
while the communities are preparing new zoning plans. One of . . . there's a
whole system of, legal system, which leads up to the bottom line in this
catch 22 situation which is it's virtually impossible for a Palestinian to
get a legal permit, a legal building permit, and then when they have no
choice but to build there house is legal tender to demolition. There's
almost always a legal justification. In other words, so it's a question in
the narrow sense of the word, the demolition is legal even if it's not just
or moral. And even if you were to step back and look at the pattern you
would have to say is the whole thing legal at all. Not to mention
international law or Jewish law, but within Israeli law, in a narrow sense
it's legal. One of those things . . . wide tracks of land are zoned as green
land or agricultural land or open land and not to be built on. And so, a
place like, Isuweia, some 70-80 percent of their land has been expropriated
since 1967 and of the remaining, over a quarter of it has been zoned as
land you can't build on. I mean there's a real problem here. But some of
these communities work with city planners, with architects to do rezoning.
And there has been some willingness of the municipality to play ball and
have unwritten understandings, although for example, in Jabu Vkaver there
were a couple of homes, and they had an agreement like this, demolished
three weeks ago. But that was really a problem because there was
overlapping responsibilities between the interior ministry and the
municipality itself. The interior ministry had never been signed on to
this unwritten understanding and that's what we're trying to do now. So
that might be, to answer your question, might develop into a model of more
constructive engagement where the government authority does agree to look
for constructive solutions. Our policy is not against planning. It's in
everybody's interest to have decent planning. My problem is that we don't
have true partisan or non-partisan fair play, we have a politically
motivated catch 22 system. I've had Likud members in the Knesset . . . and
found some people that are open to this . . . I tell people you can be in favor
of the greater land of Israel, the medium land of Israel, or the small land
of Israel . . . So, and some of these people are receptive. And what I always
say, this should be above politics. It's not an issue of right or left or
government or opposition. It's an issue of human rights, things that
should be above politics. And what I try to tell folks is that . . . there
needs to be a fair set of principles which are the same whether you're
Jewish or Palestinian, or whatever that for a reasonable price that people
know they can apply for a permit according to a fair set of principles and
that their application will be accepted or denied according to those
principles. There probably are some people that are building their homes
places where they shouldn't be getting permits. But when you have a
situation when nobody's getting permits, then you're not talking about a
fair equally applied set of principles, which is what's necessary.
Allan: Does Rabbis for Human Rights affiliate with any Jewish organizations?
Asherman: There's no official connection with any Jewish organization.
There are rabbis who are members or Rabbis for Human Rights who are
affiliated with or even work with some of those organizations. But there's
no official connection.
Allan: Could you name some of these individuals?
Asherman: Sure, one of our founding members was Rabbi David Rosen who
today is the director of the Israel operations for the ADL. He actually,
when he accepted the position as director, he stepped down from our board,
but he's still a member . . . I think he felt that as a . . . that in some ways it
wasn't appropriate . . . And I know that he's continued sometimes on our behalf
sometimes in the name of ADL on issues that we have common concerns, to
write letters. Two examples I can give you are when there was an issue in
January when the Greek Orthodox Christian community from Yaffo went to the
courts because the rabbi from Bat Yam was going to withdraw the kashrut
certificate from the place that allowed them to have their New Years
celebration. Or just now, we were a . . . because the chief kaddi of Israel
asked us to look into case of a mosque in Ashkelon which, its sanctity is
not being respected . . . by the city of Ashkelon. And when I spoke with the
municipality they sent me a letter which was a response to a letter written
by Rabbi Rosen so I assume . . . he probably decided to write and express
concern about that.
Allan: Today is Yom Yerushaliyim, how do you feel as a Jew and a rabbi
knowing that you can freely go to the Old City, to the Kotel, and pray?
Asherman: I want to answer that in . . . I want to expand the scope of your
question a little bit. Last year in particular, for Israel's fiftieth
anniversary there was a . . . and here I'm talking as an individual not as
director of Rabbis for Human Rights because these are things that as an
organization we don't take positions on, necessarily. Especially around
the fiftieth anniversary we had all our huge celebrations and there was
this whole parallel thing where commemorating fifty years of El Nakba, the
catastrophe. And, I know some people that were so wrapped up in El Nakba,
Jews, that they couldn't celebrate our fiftieth anniversary. To me, that
is to become terribly estranged, to cut yourself off from your own roots.
And . . . Yom Yerushaliyim . . . I think its which we legitimately celebrate. So the
question is, is there any model within our tradition to celebrate and yet
remember the pain of others, and somehow remember what we're celebrating is
the same thing that is a catastrophe for somebody else? I think we've got
a couple models in our tradition. First of all in Mseked Tanit, which
tells us a lot about rain and lack of rain. There's this whole thing
about . . . the rain which for us is a, for the farmer is a blessing, is a
disaster for the person whose roof gets blown off. Or even, more
importantly, look at Pesach. On Pesach we celebrate with great joy our
liberation from Egypt. Any yet we recite the plagues and take out the ten
drops because our joy cannot be complete when, even if there was no way
around it, other people suffered as part and parcel of our liberation. On
the seventh day of Pesach, which is the day according to our tradition the
day that we actually crossed the Red Sea, we only do a partial hallel,
every other day of Pesach we do a the full hallel, the joyous songs that we
chant on many of our holidays. So, we have a perfect model. To suggest
that we should stop to celebrate or be joyful about our liberation from
Egypt because Egyptians died and suffered . . . it would be crazy. But yet
Hazall had the greatness of spirit to be able to incorporate within our
celebration the fact that we can't forget the pain of others. And so what
I think about Yom Yerushaliyim, I don't want to stop celebrating Yom
Yerushaliyim, that is an important joyful day for me, but at the same time . . .
it would be wrong for me to forget that it's El Nakba for other people . . .
Allan: Does Rabbis for Human Rights have a formal relationship with the CPT?
Asherman: No formal relationship with them, we cooperate with them where
it's appropriate. Once again . . . I always hear from folks like David Bedein
that, "How can you have any connection with these anti-Semitic folks?", and
this kind of stuff. But . . . sometimes I find them naive (the CPT), some of
them I have occasionally found a little bit of, at least latent,
anti-Semitism to my understanding. But the question is on the issues and
on which issues . . . we don't have any formal relationship with them, we don't
work with them on everything but things like home demolitions are things we
Allan: In what way have you noticed "latent anti-Semitism"?
Asherman: Well . . . there are some of them. Their international director is
great and he's here and has a deep understanding how we feel as Jews and
the role for American Christians in a situation like this . . . But . . . every once
in awhile some of the people that come here, there are always people coming
in and out, rotating, you know, I've heard stuff, basically [they] try to
see this whole situation as a black and white situation as oppressed and
oppressors. But . . . you know, it would be almost unethical to reprint a
statement like that out of context . . . .
End of Transcription
As the tape reached its end Rabbi Asherman continued to speak of the
dilemma of reprinting his statement concerning the CPT and his fear of
being taken out of context and misunderstood. It was explained to Rabbi
Asherman that his statement would be transcribed and nothing would be
written which he did not in fact state.
I suggested that the interview come to an end as I did not wish to continue
without the aid and security of the tape recorder. Asherman agreed
although one more question was asked concerning the position of Rabbis for
Human Rights on the issue of the Orient House. Asherman explained that
while certain members of Rabbis for Human Rights may attend demonstrations
the organization takes no official stance.
The remainder of the time spent with Rabbi Asherman focussed on his concern
of what was to come of his tape recorded words, primarily those concerning
the CPT. It was, at this point, explained to Rabbi Asherman that unless
otherwise stated his statements were considered on the record and suitable
for publishing. Again Asherman expressed concern over his CPT related
statements and requested that he be sent an advance copy of the interview
prior to its publishing. It was made clear to Asherman that standard
journalistic practice allows for only the editor to review a story or
interview before its ultimate publishing. Asherman consented to this,
courtesies were exchanged and the interview came to a formal conclusion.
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