Ignoring Antisemitism Only Makes It Stronger

The recent rise in hatred against Jews is a bellwether of our times, making our complacency that much more dangerous

Ignoring Antisemitism Only Makes It Stronger
An antisemitic mural in London, England, that was at the heart of racism allegations against former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who expressed regret for making comments supportive of the artist. (In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Antisemitism is back in vogue. Books, plays, exhibitions, academic studies and New Lines magazine essays alike are grappling with this age-old hatred and why it continues to morph and flare up in our present day.

As I write this piece in London, some of my fellow citizens are contemplating their evening plans to go see “The Doctor” at the Duke of York’s Theatre, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play “Professor Bernhardi,” which follows a Jewish medical professional in pre-war Vienna experiencing an upswell of antisemitism. Today’s version, by Robert Icke, transposes this story onto the modern world of identity politics and Twitter storms. Some of these theatergoers might have seen last season’s production of “Jews” at the Royal Court, a piece of verbatim theater by Jonathan Freedland that concerns the contemporary Jewish experience of racism. That piece was commissioned in response to the use of casual antisemitic tropes in a previous production at the venue.

Those staying in might prefer to snuggle up on the sofa with a nice hot mug of chicken soup and watch author and sometime comedian David Baddiel’s “Jews Don’t Count,” a documentary on British television confronting antisemitism on the progressive left. The program is a spinoff of Baddiel’s enormously successful 2020 book of the same title, which grapples with antisemitism in the world of contemporary identity politics. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I provided some editorial consultation on this book in my role as an editor at the Times Literary Supplement.) As with Icke and Freedland, Baddiel is less interested in the outright haters (whose animus is a given) than those he perceives to be their enablers: people, particularly on the left, who are so quick to call out racism when it is directed at any number of other minority communities but seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Jews. “Jews Don’t Count” has so far sold over 125,000 copies worldwide — not quite the realm of John Grisham or Colleen Hoover but impressive for what is essentially a thoughtful and passionate polemic about a highly specific area of ethno-political discourse. Jews might not count for some, but plenty seem interested in why this is the case — and, one infers, not only Jews.

Baddiel’s work did not appear in a vacuum. Sitting next to it on my shelves are a slew of similar publications that have appeared over the past few years. “Strange Hate” (2019) by Keith Kahn-Harris attempts to understand what contemporary antisemitism has to tell us about racism and the broader “politics of diversity” from a left-wing perspective. The essay collection “Looking for an Enemy,” edited by Jo Glanville and published in 2021, features eight essays from different authors (again, mostly on the left) looking at contemporary antisemitism in countries including France, Great Britain, Poland, Germany and the United States. The French author Delphine Horvilleur’s 2021 book, “Anti-Semitism Revisited,” translated by David Bellos, offers a biblical perspective, through a contemporary French lens. “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” by Bari Weiss, published in 2019, begins with a massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and ends with a rousing and highly subjective list of directives for creating “solidarity” among (and for) Jews.

There are more, many more. “Antisemitism: Here and Now” (2019) by Deborah Lipstadt, a professor who successfully defended a libel case against the Holocaust-denying historian David Irving, does exactly what it suggests, in the form of an imagined correspondence. “Antisemitism: What It Is. What It Isn’t. Why It Matters” (2019) by Rabbi Julia Neuberger also does what its title suggests in the form of a patient thesis. “Labour’s Antisemitism Crisis” (2021) by David Renton focuses on the controversy over left-wing antisemitism that erupted during the period in which Jeremy Corbyn was the leader of Britain’s opposition party. “Antisemitism and the Labour Party” (2021) by Jewish Voice for Labour insists the controversy was politically motivated, overblown by Corbyn’s enemies.

I could go on — for a very long time. What is most interesting about this list of tracts and cultural artifacts is that they are all concerned, in one way or another, with antisemitism in the present day. I have said nothing, for example, about the legion of new studies, novels or plays about the Russian pogroms, or the Christian blood libel, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” or the Dreyfus affair. I have not mentioned the expulsion of Jews from Manuel I’s Portugal or from Edward I’s England. I haven’t even begun to touch on — you’ve guessed it — the Holocaust, with its dizzying and ever-expanding historical and cultural canon, an output so huge that it has led Dara Horn, of the provocatively titled 2021 book “People Love Dead Jews,” to conclude that the public appetite — among Jews and non-Jews alike — for the grisly details of Nazi persecution and industrial slaughter is a kind of “mania” that slides into the “perverse … and all the more so when it [wears] its goodwill on its sleeve.”

Do we need another reinterpretation of the Holocaust? The great playwright Tom Stoppard presumably thinks so. His family story of Nazi terror, “Leopoldstadt,” which premiered in London in 2020, has now transferred to Broadway, a sign that both producers and the public agree. I saw the play in London just before the pandemic took hold. It’s good, moving — how could it not be? Does it tell us anything new? I’m not so sure. And yet apparently some people need reminding. According to one recent poll, cited by Horn, “two thirds of American Millennials … were unable to identify what Auschwitz was.” Whether these are the same people who are currently going to see Stoppard’s play on Broadway is another matter.

That antisemitism — what it is, how much of it there is, what we should do about it and whether the new variety bears any relation to the old variety — is so prevalent in current public discourse is not necessarily a bad thing. It is both a reflection of a problem and a consciousness about that problem, even if it is largely members of the community in question who are raising that consciousness. (Naturally, almost all the writers I’ve mentioned above are Jewish.) Even if it does take members of the community in question to start these conversations, the fact that this is currently being achieved with such a measure of effectiveness is a testament to the power of the Jewish voice. Don’t forget: The Jewish community in the U.K. is tiny — around 350,000 (depending on how you count it) in a population of 67 million. And while the Jewish community in the United States is larger (around 7.5 million out of 335 million), it still represents only about 2% of the population. Jews may still have trouble being counted. But they are, if belatedly, being heard.

Still, there remains a problem. To really understand this problem it is necessary to go to its roots. I’ll spare you the details of the long history of Jewish persecution from the time of the Babylonians and Pharaoh to the age of the Islamic State, via the Roman destruction of the Second Temple and the cruelties of medieval Christianity — a two-and-a-half-thousand-year lament that the great scholar Salo Baro (1895–1989) wryly referred to as the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history. (Baro’s own hometown of Tarnow in Galicia was ravaged by the Nazis, who reduced its pre-war Jewish population of 20,000 to a post-war community of 20.)

My point here is the depth of this story. One thing that characterizes us Jews is our sheer longevity, and yet, for almost all of our history, in almost every part of the world, we have existed as a minority. The reasons for this are complex and interesting and have much to do with the non-proselytizing nature of Judaism. Even the word “Hebrew,” from Ivri — which translates as “he who crosses” or “passerby” — denotes a sense of otherness. Unlike the Greeks, Romans or Egyptians, Hebrews were not tied to land; they always came from somewhere else. And it is precisely the endurance of this minority status that has helped to preserve Jewish traditions and culture over such a long period of time. When you’re not part of the mainstream, you tend to hang on to what distinguishes you, whether by choice or fiat.

The Jews, then, are an ancient tribe, which makes despising them an ancient ritual. Antisemitism is, as the saying goes, “the oldest hatred.” As with all ancient rituals, this form of hatred has morphed and shifted over time. In other words, we Jews have been hanging around for so damned long in our alterity that an agglomerated host of stereotypes have been projected onto us. This is what happens when you’ve been the ultimate “other” for so long, at least in the Western public imagination. As Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “If the Jew did not exist, the antisemite would invent him.” This makes antisemitism a very intricate and versatile prejudice.

Indeed, it has now become a commonplace when discussing antisemitism to note its multivalence. Jews have — and for quite a long time now — broadly been hated and derided as both subhuman (dirty, deformed, physically puny, eternal victims, that which T. S. Eliot — or perhaps just his mouthpiece Burbank — referred to as “underneath the lot,” including the rats) and superhuman (rich, fat, physically grotesque, at the nexus of a sinister cabal of string-pullers, directing global politics and global finance for personal benefit). This is what Baddiel calls going both “high” and “low.” We see it throughout history, tapping into the prevailing currents of the day.

During the medieval period, when religion trumped all, Jews were swept up in the wars over tolerance and heresy, as happened during the Inquisition. They were routinely cast as both petty swindlers and perpetrators of the greatest cosmic crime of all: deicide. (Only in 1964 did the Vatican formally repudiate collective Jewish guilt for the Crucifixion.)

Fast-forward to the 19th century and the prejudice inserted itself into the burning new questions about nationality and the nation-state, especially following the European revolutions of 1848. Jews were both hated for failing to fit in and, as restrictions on their civil liberties relaxed, despised and feared for their assimilation. Either way, they were seen as contaminating the national body politic. The person who gifted us the term “antisemitism” (a strange coinage that makes little contextual sense, given that “Semitism” comes from linguistics, referring to a language group rather than a religious or ethnic category) was a man named Wilhelm Marr, whose main concern was to turn Jew hatred on the basis of religion (which one could escape through conversion) into Jew hatred on the basis of ethnicity, or race. His League of Antisemites (Antisemiten-Liga) fretted about the “Germanization” of this eternal other, the sense that “Germanized” Jews would simply be old-school Jews hiding in plain sight. (Marr’s second wife, Helene Sophia Behrend, nee Israel, was Jewish, and the marriage was allegedly a happy one, a reminder of the nonsense of the “But some of my best friends are …” line of defense.)

During the 20th century, this Janus-like prejudice evolved again, inserting itself into both of the two dominant political movements. Jews were, according to who was talking, either communists, responsible for pulling down the global capitalist edifice, or arch-capitalists, responsible for shoring up that very edifice’s foundations.

In certain ways, the 19th-century obsession with the nation-state has parallels in contemporary identity politics, in the affirmation of unique characteristics and heritages of multifarious individuals and groups, a phenomenon that has, in its turn — and in ways that are depressingly unsurprising — sprung up alongside (and helped to trigger) an upsurge in various ugly new forms of nationalism. Sure enough, antisemitism has once again become a lightning rod for these clashes. Thus, we see Jews simultaneously cast as inveterate racists and imperialists for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, and as dangers to national cohesion in Britain, France, the United States, Hungary and elsewhere, in our capacity as “rootless cosmopolitans,” Soros-sponsored globalists and — in our most extreme manifestations — vectors for the triumph of ethnic and racial “others” over the white “majority,” architects of “white genocide” (a different sort of “racism”), by dint of that most insane of conspiracy theories, the “Great Replacement.”

What the likes of Baddiel and Freedland have been pointing out is less that this clash is happening again than that so many people, particularly on the left, have sought to downplay it or repeat its tropes without realizing it. This was at the root of the problem in the British Labour Party during the Corbyn years: the repetition of lazy tropes (and some outright vicious ones) combined with the refusal to take responsibility. Significantly, downplaying this problem represents something qualitatively different from the antisemitism of the past. As Keith Kahn-Harris writes in “Strange Hate”: “While antisemitism has never been the same thing in all times and places, denying antisemitism is a much more recent, modern phenomenon.”

One cause of this denial can be found in the perceived status of contemporary Jewry as a bulwark of the establishment. While this perception is reductive, homogenizing and heedless of all the different sorts of Jews there are (rich, poor, empowered, disempowered, secular, religious, left-wing, right-wing or politically apathetic), it is not entirely divorced from reality. It is true — and often pointed out by both antisemites and Jews themselves — that the long-established Jewish diaspora is, by many measures, prospering. As Kahn-Harris shows, a 2013 survey in the U.S. found that 58% of U.S. Jews were college graduates, compared to 29% of the general population. 25% of Jews had a household income exceeding $150,000, compared to 8% of the general population. In Britain, the pattern is similar.

This success story has become a stereotype. And the fact that Jewish prosperity is perceived to be a given, often in ways that assume this monolithic entity known as “Jews” to have more power, wealth and privilege than it really does, leads to the assumption that antisemitism is somehow less important or worrisome than other forms of racism. If you’re materially privileged, how can you be oppressed? As Abigail Morris of the Jewish Museum in London’s Camden Town has commented (as quoted by Julia Neuberger): “People think we’re making a fuss; they see a settled, wealthy, high-achieving community. They don’t understand that, within our parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes, it was all destroyed.”

Certainly, assimilated Austrians and Germans of the interwar era, a few of whom are still alive today, learned quickly that status, money and education counted for little in the face of murderous oppression. But one thing that has changed since the 1930s is the establishment of the state of Israel. Now, for the first time in millennia, Jews enjoy concentrated political power in the form of a Jewish state. Meanwhile, those who accuse Jews of inordinate influence can now justify this stereotype through the existence of this state, with its ever-growing geopolitical importance.

Much has been written about the evolution of conceptions of Israel in the West over the latter half of the 20th century, particularly the way in which the United States went from being wary of Israel to embracing it as a strategic and vital ally in the Middle East. Much, too, has been written about how Israel has simultaneously transformed in the progressive Western imagination from the specter of an oppressed nation in need of help to an oppressor in need of restraint — largely beginning with the aftermath of the Six-Day War and the country’s illegal seizure of territories from Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967. What has since come to a head in the 21st century, especially in more recent years, is a progression of this tension allied with an increased awareness of marginalized groups. As Israel has become ever more entrenched in its stranglehold on occupation, whether through militarism and settlement building, disenfranchising its Palestinian-Israeli population or participating in the erosion of its own democracy — most recently under the various governments of Benjamin Netanyahu (the most hideous version of which, featuring quasi-fascists and religious zealots, is currently presiding over a huge upswell in violence after mere weeks in government) — a greater progressive consciousness of oppressed groups, from women (see #MeToo) to Black communities (see #BLM) to Muslim ones (including Palestinians), has rightfully gained enormous political power on the left. It is bang in the middle of this interplay — the winds further whipped by social media — that the bellwether of antisemitism has found itself buffeted about in recent years.

And buffeted it has been, even when the weather is putatively calm. Because another reason for the denialism is the way in which criticism of Israel has frequently been exploited by those who wish to attack the progressive left. During the worst years of Labour’s antisemitism crisis in the U.K., I frequently found myself reacting to both the stupid, crass things various people associated with the Labour Party had said about Israel and Jews — the one about Hitler being a Zionist, the one about relocating Israel to the U.S., the one about Jews having run the global slave trade, various ones attempting to negate or downplay the Jewish element of the Holocaust — only to find myself then reacting to the stupid, crass way in which people on the right seemed to revel in these misdemeanors, crying antisemitism and panic among Jews every time anyone criticized the Israeli government. For example, then-Conservative Party Chairman James Cleverly made a throwaway and unevidenced claim in the right-wing Sunday Telegraph that various Jewish “individuals and groups, including entrepreneurs and other business figures” whom he knew personally were planning to leave the U.K. if Labour won the forthcoming general election. “Jews Will Leave If Corbyn Wins” became the headline of the next day’s paper. I constantly found myself arguing to people supportive of Corbyn (a man I reluctantly chose to vote for in 2019) that Labour did in fact have a problem, and then arguing to people on the right (as well as plenty of fellow Jews on various sides of the political spectrum) that Labour’s antisemitism crisis was being horribly exploited. (As a nice little contrast between public perceptions of the problem and the reality of it, see “Bad News for Labour” (2019) by Greg Philo et al., which cited a national Survation poll showing that, on average, people believed a third of Labour Party members had been reported for antisemitism, when the actual figure was well below 1%.)

In other words, it’s all very muddy and complicated. And, when it comes to Israel, it’s not as if there’s any consensus among Jews themselves about exactly where criticism of the country ends and antisemitism begins. For a writer such as Bari Weiss, who describes herself as “a Jew, an American, a Zionist, [and] a proud daughter of Pittsburgh,” anti-Zionism is akin to antisemitism, both “because of current reality” (the fact that Jews remain threatened and need somewhere to go in case things get bad again) and “because of history.” But I think that such a stance presupposes a single definition of Zionism, and this seems troublingly reductive.

In a recent New Lines essay titled “What Theodor Herzl’s Zionist-Utopian Novel Says About Israel Today,” Ariel Sophia Bardi reappraised Herzl’s seminal novel “Alteneuland” (“Old-New Land,” 1902), reminding us that the father of Zionism’s vision of what a Jewish state might look like (essentially a social cooperative using land leased from Ottoman sultans) was wildly different from the state we have today. For some Jews, Zionism was never meant to be anything more than this. For others, a political state, with an army, was a necessity. Still others, such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the father of today’s Likud Party and a man admired by Benito Mussolini as a “Jewish fascist,” had more maximalist territorial ambitions. Earlier last century, there were many clashes over these different conceptions of Zionism, to the point that it wasn’t even clear what language was to be spoken in this new land.

Then history happened: the Balfour Declaration and the McMahon letter, the Jaffa riots of 1921, the Hebron massacre of 1929, the Jaffa riots of 1936, the Holocaust, British decolonization and withdrawal, and the Nakba, along with the invasion of the nascent Jewish state by its Arab neighbors — the two went hand-in-hand — and history has continued from there. Now we are faced with an Israel that even Jabotinsky could hardly have dreamed of in its land-grabbing militarism. If this is contemporary Zionism, then count me out.

But with what can I be counted in? David Baddiel’s line on Israel is that it has little to do with him. He may be a Jew but, he argues, expecting him to speak up for or against Israel just because of this is antisemitic. I understand this and even agree with it up to a point. Ultimately, it is his prerogative. But the fact remains that Israel is not a country about which the majority of Jews feel neutral. Many of us have relatives there (including me) or have at least visited. Many were, rightly or wrongly, brought up with stories about its “miracle.” Many do feel strongly about it, one way or another. A 2015 survey quoted by Kahn-Harris found that 84% of British Jews “express pride in [Israel’s] cultural and scientific achievements” and 93% claim that the country “forms some part of their identity as Jews.” The trouble is that there is no consensus among that 93% about what Israel means, is doing or should be doing. How could there be a consensus on the modern meaning of Zionism or anti-Zionism? We can’t even agree whether “antisemitism” is a suitable term (some prefer “anti-Judaism” or “Judeophobia”), nor even how to spell it. (For clarity: all one word, lower-case, without the hyphen. That way, the red herring of “semitism” is elegantly elided.)

Even my individual thoughts on Israel seem like a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, I detest what the country has been doing over the past few decades, and especially the past few years, to its Palestinian citizens and neighbors — the occupation, the military interventions, the settlement building, the Palestinian evictions, the attacks by Jewish settlers on Palestinian villagers with Israeli soldiers standing by. Given the country’s relationship to the U.S. as an ally in the Middle East, I fully understand why it has become a lightning rod for broader debates about oppression and imperialism, along with racism and geopolitics. On the other hand, I do think that Israel is singled out for criticism above many other countries with terrible human rights records. (An intriguing 2003 European Commission poll, quoted by Delphine Horvilleur in “Anti-Semitism Revisited,” found that respondents considered Israel the gravest threat to world peace among all countries, including North Korea, Iran and Iraq.) And yet I think one of the reasons Israel gets talked about so much is the healthy presence of a flourishing and polyphonic Jewish diaspora, whose members wish to talk about it. You’re reading one of them banging on about it right here. Interestingly, the working definition of antisemitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) — a vexed and imperfect and controversial standard that has nonetheless been adopted by many political parties and organizations — includes, among its examples, the application of “double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Yet, as Jo Glanville argues in “Looking for an Enemy,” Israel is not like “‘any other democratic nation’: it is an ethnic state that has occupied territory in breach of international law for more than 50 years.”

This brings me to another personal contradiction. On the one hand, I am convinced there is something intrinsically troubling about a state with a specific ethnic primacy; what the controversial Israeli anti-Zionist Shlomo Sand, in his 2014 book “How I Stopped Being a Jew,” called a “Zionist ethnocracy.” On the other hand, I’m not quite sure, Herzlean ideals aside, how a Jewish state could have practically been designed in any other way. And I do think there’s a need for some kind of Jewish state. But, then, what was right for 1902 or 1948 is not necessarily right for 2023. As the decades tick on, I am increasingly uncomfortable about the fact that I, a second-generation Briton, could easily and with great assistance settle in Israel, while Palestinians forcibly removed from their land and still living in refugee camps or elsewhere cannot. Would it be right for me to settle in Israel as things stand? I’m not sure it would be. Does the prospect of Israel’s existence nonetheless provide me with a great deal of emotional and psychological and political security, given Jewish history? I’m afraid it does.

I don’t want to overplay my own fears about modern antisemitism and the insecurity it causes and should rightly cause. Stupid tweets by people about Israeli “Nazis” or Jewish “globalists” are not the pogroms or the Holocaust. Nor are claims about “the Great Replacement.” Nor even are the murders of Jewish worshippers by Islamists in France or white supremacists in Pittsburgh. But Jews do have the right to feel anxious. And I think it is fair to identify the current moment as one of those periodic junctures at which antisemitism has been flaring up.

As Julia Neuberger — a level rabbinical head if ever there was one — writes: “the music has changed.” Neuberger lists countless recent violent incidents involving Jewish targets across Europe, the rise in verbal attacks, along with a disturbing report of 2017 by the Jewish Community Security Trust and the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, which identified a “hard-core” antisemitic U.K. population of around 5%, along with “a further 25% who feel negatively about Jews and hold one or two viewpoints that most Jews would consider antisemitic.” Throughout her book, Neuberger considers antisemitism on the right and left and among various Muslim populations (which, she demonstrates, have “picked up on old Christian antisemitic tropes”), along with casual slurs, such as by the then-Tory member of Parliament Patrick Mercer, who, in 2013, was recorded commenting on an Israeli soldier: “You don’t look like a soldier to me. You look like a bloody Jew.”

Bari Weiss goes further: “To be a public Jew — a religious Jew, a Zionist, or even a person with a Jewish last name or a Jewish-looking face — in several of the most refined European cities means, increasingly, to risk one’s physical safety.” I don’t like that casual conflation of an ethnic identity (Jewish name, face) with a political position (Zionist), but she’s not incorrect. Then again, recorded hate crime in general has been on the rise (42,255 incidents in the U.K. in 2013, steadily rising to 155,841 in 2021) and many other groups — from Muslims to trans people — can claim similar fears. Harry Freedman, in his new book “Britain’s Jews” (2022), emphasizes that antisemitism is felt particularly acutely in France, from which thousands of Jews have emigrated in recent years (many to Britain and Israel): Between 1990 and 2015, “the Jewish population of France decreased by 13% … [at the same time] the total population of the country increased by 14%.” Since 2015, however, according to the European Union Agency of Fundamental Rights, recorded “antisemitic actions and threats” have steadily decreased, from a decade high of 841 in 2014 to 339 in 2020.

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Tom Stoppard put antisemitism squarely in the current moment. He pointed to his ending of “Leopoldstadt,” a scene set a decade after the Holocaust, in which one character says to another, “It can’t happen again.”

“It’s almost a foolish remark now,” Stoppard said. “Whereas when the play was being written, I didn’t think of it as being a foolish remark.” Stoppard then pointed to the enduring nature of antisemitism and its tendency to erupt at particular times. “My own feeling is that marginal social attitudes never go away. They’re something like a latent virus that becomes activated under certain conditions. For my money … it has a lot to do with the polarities in the economics of America and Britain — the inequality. When the economics that are supposed to bind us together become so divisive, anger breaks through.” (Interestingly, he didn’t even mention Israel.)

When Keir Starmer succeeded Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in April 2020, one of his very first acts was to apologize to the British Jewish community. Minutes after winning the contest, he gave a speech in which he referred to antisemitism as “a stain on our party” and vowed to “tear out this poison by its roots.” The speech was passionate and well-received, and it was good to hear, but I still find it extraordinary that the subject had become such a flashpoint — for good reasons and bad — that it appeared front and center of Starmer’s new agenda, up there with economic and foreign policy and climate change and what the hell to do about Brexit. This fact, this primacy, did not actually make me feel good.

Because I, and many Jews I know, would actually prefer the subject of Jews not to dominate political debate. I, for one, don’t want antisemitism to take up endless column inches and television airtime when there is so much else wrong with the world. In some ways, I don’t even want to be writing this essay. I don’t want antisemitism to be in vogue. I can only hope that, by giving the subject so much attention, we can help to keep a lid on it, until the next time.

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