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How the zionist left created Israel and the myth of a new democracy

Poster celebrating 30 years of Histadrut (1920-50) and the creation of the new manly Israeli Jew.

Debunking the Myth of the Zionist Left

Review of False Prophets of Peace: Liberal Zionism and the Struggle for Palestine by Tikva Honig-Parnass.
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011.

By Mich Levy and Max Ajl, Jadaliyya
June 14 2013

Aharon Cohen, a senior member of MAPAM, the Israeli United Workers Party, observed in 1948 that “a state based on national enmity and the rule of one people over another will certainly breed chauvinism and reaction in its internal life.” Cohen understood that the relationship between Arabs—Palestinian and non-Palestinian alike—and Israelis would profoundly shape the new state. And so it did, and MAPAM, bound to its nationalist commitments, enabled and participated in the construction of exactly that antagonism, becoming the early standard bearer of a tendency known as Zionist leftism.

Tikva Honig-Parnass’s new book, False Prophets of Peace, examines the process through which that tendency shapes the ongoing colonization of Palestine. She studies, builds on and reinterprets the prevailing discourse among Zionist left intellectuals and political activists to examine how it is implicated in this settler colonial project. She surveys how this discourse informs both state policies and their justifications. By extension, we are shown how the Zionist left defines the parameters within which policies are challenged, thus shaping the Zionist narrative through that political force’s limited, or even only nominal, opposition.

Honig-Parnass argues that limiting our criticism to revisionist and reactionary strands of Zionism overlooks not only the center, but more importantly the “left” politicians and intellectuals who have played such a central role in building and maintaining the Zionist state and undermining a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As this book shows, since before the founding of the State of Israel, the Zionist left has far too often spoken in the language of universalism while helping to create and maintain legal systems, governments, and a military which have enabled Israeli colonization and apartheid.

Honig-Parnass begins by reaching back to the early 1900s and debunking the myths of Labor Zionism, the historic taproot of the Zionist left. She does so because the Zionist left is often defended by referring to its links with the socialist movements burgeoning in Europe at the time, thereby creating the impression that Labor Zionism was premised on or aspired to socialist principles.

1950s Mapam May Day meeting. Slogan reads ‘1 of May for Peace and Brotherhood of the Peoples’.

Such impressions are not merely false. They were quite deliberately cultivated, and are deliberately dishonest. In its franker moments, the senior leadership of the day dispensed with such appearances. David Ben Gurion, the head of the Zionist Labor movement, confessed as early as 1922 that “The only big concern which dominates our thinking and activity is the conquest of the land, and building it through mass immigration (aliya). All the rest is only phraseology, deserts [sic] and ‘afters’ and we should not deceive ourselves.” Contrary to prevailing mythology, Honig-Parnass notes, “the labor movement’s version of socialism was a tool for implementing colonization rather than a means of creating a new social order.” At the Twentieth Zionist Congress, in 1937, Ben Gurion advocated for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine to address what has come to be known as the “demographic threat”[1] and to make way for a Jewish state because “growing Jewish strength in Palestine will increase our possibilities for conducting a large scale transfer.”

Honig-Parnass also shows how the overarching organization of workers’ trade unions, the Histadrut, was a “central organ of the colonial project,” controlling and coordinating economic production, marketing, defense, and the labor force, as well as institutionalizing a mode of industrial development that avoided competition with cheaper (Palestinian) Arab labor. She explains how labor (“Left”) and reactionary Zionisms complemented each other. Rather than Labor Zionism arguing against private property or challenging the capitalist system, its demand was for private capital to be leveraged to secure and develop land for the Zionist settler colonial project. In this way, the Zionist enterprise in Palestine was informed by an ideological complex more akin to nationalist socialism,[2] and thus had far more in common with right-wing, rather than left-wing, European political tendencies.

The leadership, governing institutions, and organizations that prefigured and helped to build the state in turn became that state’s core infrastructure. The Histadrut became a central institution for managing and controlling labor, thereby playing a role in preventing the building of joint class struggle between working class Jews and Palestinians. Masquerading as a labor union, it undermined independent labor organizing, sought to eliminate Palestinian and joint organizing, or harnessed them to a right-wing colonial project—the calling card of the Zionist left.

It is from this vantage point that Honig-Parnass explains the justifications of Zionist left intellectuals and political activists for the erasure of the Nakba, the building and maintaining of a theocratic and ethnocratic Jewish state, the need for a Jewish majority, the logic of “separate but equal,” and the denial of Palestinian rights and national aspirations. She also shows how the Zionist left rationalizes its assertion of the democratic nature of the state and its role in “peace” initiatives. The first portion of the book abounds with examples and explanations of the mechanisms through which these arguments are not only defended, but in turn go on to inform state and military policy and practice.

In later sections, the author outlines the development of a new breed of internal Israeli Jewish challenges to the Zionist discourse that emerged in the late 1980s. She also shows the limitations of such challenges and how they remain ultimately committed to Zionism. For example, she critically highlights the Zionist left’s claims that the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is at the center of the conflict. Accordingly, the withdrawal of the 1967 occupied territories (with “border corrections”) would bring the much-aspired-to peace with Palestinian leadership. On the other hand, post-Zionists depict the root cause of the conflict as the 1948 ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. And a few of them even acknowledge the colonial dimension of the Zionist settlement in Palestine. However, they do not see Zionist colonialism in the context of historic imperialist colonization throughout the world, and do not condemn Zionist colonialism on principled or ideological grounds. Such a position would have led them away from Zionism and to an internationalist politic through which they would be able to stand with those fighting against colonialism writ large. Instead, they see fault in the act of the 1948 Nakba but not in the Zionist project itself; they don’t recognize in the event the unfolding of the very logic that drives it. This truncated reading of history allowed them to remain reconciled to Zionism and its crystallization in the Jewish state.

Furthermore, she contends that post-Zionism’s reliance on identity politics in Israel/Palestine, rather than on anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, class analysis as informed by popular movements and critical analysis across the region, laid the ground for critiques of Zionism that lack an analysis of it as a settler colonial project bound to Western imperial domination. Additionally, and more importantly, the term “post-Zionism” is misleading in crucial ways. Zionist ideology has never stopped making way for the expansion of Israeli conquest and military aggression and for US imperial wars and occupations across the region. Israeli wars continue apace. The settlement project continues to expand. The term “post-Zionism” carries connotations that neither history nor political program nor struggle have reflected.

Indeed, through her analysis, Honig-Parnass deftly shows how both left Zionism and post-Zionism have been easily incorporated into the political project of an expansionary Zionist state and its role as a regional wrecking ball. That function comes into sharp relief amidst the encounter with the Palestinian movement. For that reason, she adds that Palestinians threaten more than just the Israeli apartheid state, but also “the stability of US rule” in the area, through the way Palestinian mobilizations works as both accelerant and catalyst for struggles in the broader region. Ultimately, then, through this incisive examination of limply oppositional politics, we get a rich and textured anatomy of how a failure to break with nationalist and Zionist politics, themselves a tool for capitalist accumulation in a settler colony, leads to a fundamental accommodation with right-wing, imperialist political and economic power—foreign and domestic.

The book ends with deconstructions of what the Zionist left defines as peace, highlighting the Oslo Accords and the Geneva Initiative. Both of these plans reinforced the occupation they purported to resolve. Honig-Parnass deals with the recent past and shows the growing irrelevance of the Zionist left as its contradictions become increasingly less tenable and the Right adopts its rhetoric, effectively incorporating “dissident” voices to disguise the real power that sustains the Zionist project in Palestine. One example of this is Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, which the Zionist Left eagerly supported. He promoted it as an Israeli move in support of Palestinian autonomy. What it did was to create an isolated Palestinian enclave that could be blockaded, attacked with white phosphorus, and starved of food, water and electricity.

The importance of this book is in exposing and explaining how liberal and left Zionist political and intellectual ideas and institutions have been organic parts of the Zionist project, allowing us to identify and delimit—or sort out—the components of the Zionist “peace” camp. Once this is done, which way forward?

Tikva Honig-Parnass in November 2007 speaking at the London conference “Challenging the Boundaries: A Single State in Israel/Palestine,” organised by the London One State Group and the SOAS Palestine Society.

The author suggests that the answer lies in the “unification of all progressive social forces, both Jewish and Palestinian, in a struggle for the democratization and de-Zionization of the state.” But which segments of Israeli Jewish society are poised for this project? As Honig-Parnass shows to devastating effect, it seems extremely unlikely that the white Ashkenazi[3] “peace camp”—which has so much invested in the occupation—might be the impetus for a bloc that could overturn it and the settler-colonial structures with which it is braided. Where else? Given the class and race claims of the Mizrahim,[4] it seems logical that therein lays some potential for this collaboration. And indeed, aware of such a threat, the Israeli power structure has always hastened to destroy any radical Mizrahi political formation—or failing that, to hybridize or enfold Mizrahim within state structures.

Here again Honig-Parnass makes a strong contribution. She outlines a trajectory of Mizrahi struggle, and notes where it has—and has not—been able to challenge liberal Zionism, as well as the specific ways in which the Mizrahi struggle has been undermined by both liberal theory and state repression. This history includes rejection of the Zionist left political parties manifested by the militant resistance of the Black Panthers in the early 1970s. This incarnated the unthinkable: a movement of working class and low-income Mizrahim opposing Israeli racism and class oppression against their own communities, some of whom made genuine attempts to reach out to Palestinians. It is thus unsurprising that state repression has fallen far more heavily on oppositional Mizrahi movements such as the Israeli Black Panthers than it has on anti-Zionist Ashkenazi movements.

Honig-Parnass reminds us that as early as 1972, mass arrests, the opening of criminal files, and a smear campaign presenting them as members of a global terrorist network undermined the Black Panthers. And these are the same strategies that are in full force today in delegitimizing anti-imperialist and therefore anti-Zionist social forces elsewhere in the region and around the world.

The more recent post-Zionist trend in Mizrahi politics has accepted the Zionist project and its consolidation into the “Jewish” state. Honig-Parnass masterfully deconstructs the ways in which emphases on identity (in particular Mizrahi) has undermined anti-Zionist politics and organizing by failing to address the foundational antagonisms of colonialism, racism and class oppression. In turn, she dissects post-modern arguments and their inability to articulate direct opposition to Israeli colonialism, or even acknowledge it as a root cause of the differently located Palestinian and Mizrahi oppression.

The issue of new bank-notes in May 2013 featuring Ashkenazi/European poets- Rachel (NIS 20), Shaul Tchernichovsky (NIS 50), Leah Goldberg (NIS 100) and Natan Alterman (NIS 200) – drew protests from Mizrahi leaders who saw it as yet another example of the exclusion (delegitimisation?) of the Mizrahim from Israeli society.

However, we are concerned that this assessment, while important and necessary, perhaps limits our ability to recognize (and then support) certain embryonic possibilities. For example, a group of Mizrahi Jews in Jerusalem is currently organizing around housing rights and making connections with Palestinians whose homes in East Jerusalem are being demolished. Whether it will grow to take an unequivocal stance on the colonial nature of Zionism is yet to be seen. But this example invites us to make a distinction between guarding against the roles that ”identity politics” can play to inhibit movement building and the use of different locations of struggle from which to join together against common enemies and toward similar aims. Indeed, all struggle begins amidst and against a particular experience of oppression.

The struggles which will emerge from within Israeli Jewish society that have within them the potential to contribute to overcoming Zionism are unknown, but to recognize them, we must relinquish false hopes. What Honig-Parnass proves with a catalog of facts, and what is crucial, is that there is nothing libratory or salvageable about “left” or liberal Zionism. She concludes her book by stating that rejection of a comprehensive view of US imperialism and the impact of Zionism as a colonial project ”has made the Zionist Left and post-Zionism the main obstacles to the development of a radical movement in Israel that would be part and parcel of the resisting forces among Palestinians and throughout the Arab World.” Those of us committed to challenging imperialism and colonialism are encouraged to consider the impediments, in Israel and everywhere, to grassroots struggles for liberation and justice, and to find ways to circumvent them.

False Prophets of Peace has the odd luck of being both long overdue and arriving at the perfect moment, offering an invaluable contribution to destroying the myth of the progressiveness of the Zionist Left. Honig-Parnass shows definitively that it has been a conservative—if not reactionary—force.

As we enter President Obama’s second term in the US, and Mahmoud Abbas claims on Israeli television that he does not believe he has a right to live on the land on which he was born, the usefulness of the analysis offered in this book remains clear. And Honig-Parnass’s embrace of regional struggles oriented towards decolonization is most welcome. All of this makes the book a much-needed addition to the critical literature on the issue. Above all, she is clear that the resolution to the struggle for Palestinian self-determination—and therefore a just peace—will not come from a kinder, gentler form of Zionism. It will come from its mass rejection.

[1] The concept of demographic threat (or demographic bomb) is a term used in political conversation to refer to population increases from within a minority ethnic group (in this case Palestinians) in a given country (in this case Israel) that are perceived as threatening to alter the ethnic identity or desired ethnic majority of that country.

[2] Since the rise of Germany’s Nazi party, Nationalist Socialism has become synonymous with Nazism and other political parties that combine patriotism and national identity, often racial supremacy of some kind, and some or majority government run services, resources and businesses.

[3] Ashkenazi refers to the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union who largely spoke Yiddish. In the early 1900s, Ashkenazi Jews were the dominant Jewish settlers in Palestine and constitute the political and economic ruling class in the historic and current day State of Israel.

[4] Mizrahim is a political term used to describe Jews of African, Arab and West, Central and East Asian descent living in the State of Israel.

Palestine and liberal Zionism

By Hadas Thier, International Socialist Review
Issue #85
In recent years, Israel’s reputation as “the only democracy in the Middle East” has become more difficult to sell. The whole world watched in horror as Israel Defense Forces (IDF) forces pummeled Gaza in “Operation Cast Lead” of 2008-9, murdered human rights activists aboard the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in 2010, and required a heroic and massive struggle by Palestinian political prisoners on hunger strike before conceding even minor reforms.

As a result, Israeli “hasbara” (the government’s propaganda campaigns, literally translated as “explaining”) has kicked into overdrive through “pinkwashing” (i.e., advertising Israel as “LGBT-friendly”) and other media campaigns, organized volunteers to flood websites with pro-Israel messages, and provided resources to Zionist students to counter the growing movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) at their campuses.

Opportunities for activists organizing against Israel’s apartheid policies have grown tremendously. At the same time, political questions about the conflict’s roots and solutions continue to dog progressives around the world. Why did the “peace plan” fail? Was its intention ever peace? And who’s to blame for its collapse? In large part, these confusions stem from the fact that many progressives follow the lead of the Israeli left, and take at face value its claim that it wants peace with Palestinians. Peace initiatives fail, they argue, because “extremists on both sides” won’t let them succeed.

A clear analysis, therefore, of the Israeli Left—its goals and its politics—is long overdue. Tikva Honig-Parnass’s False Prophets of Peace: Liberal Zionism and the Struggle for Palestine, recently published by Haymarket Books, couldn’t come too soon. In it, Honig-Parnass, a long-time insider within the Israeli Left establishment before she broke definitively with Zionism in 1960, charts out a political landscape of the country’s left.

The extent to which Zionism has maintained legitimacy, despite decades of atrocities and occupation, stems from the myth of its so-called liberal (even socialist) democracy. This image was constructed by the liberal wing of Zionism—from politicians of the liberal parties, Labor and Meretz; to the academics which provide the ideological base for their policies; to the Histadrut national trade union; to peace groups Gush Shalom and Peace Now.

“This underscores the important task of this book,” explains Honig-Parnass in the book’s introduction,“… Both Zionist Left and post-Zionist intellectuals speak of and within a liberal, humanist, conceptual and ideological framework. This has enhanced their credibility among genuine progressives both in Israel and abroad. The Zionist Left role in granting legitimacy to Israel’s version of Apartheid and ‘close to Fascist’ political culture could not have been played by right-wing intellectuals and politicians.”

Labor and Liberal Zionism
At the root of the Zionist left’s political perspective is a rejection of the notion that Israel is a colonial-settler state. For Honig-Parnass, and for the millions of displaced Palestinians, the Zionist movement was reactionary from the start. Indeed it required the colonization of a land and the dispossession of its inhabitants. But the Zionist left sees Zionism as a sound and democratic political project—even if at times it has gone too far.

Therefore the “peace camp” in Israel denies the atrocities that accompanied Israel’s “War of Independence” of 1947-48— known to Palestinians as the Nakba (or “disaster”)—and instead focuses on the 1967 war as the root of the conflict. The founding of the state of Israel is accepted—even celebrated. The 1967 occupation, in their eyes, jeopardize the legitimacy of Zionism to the rest of the world.

As Honig-Parnass explains, “The focus on the 1967 occupation as the sole cause of the Israel-Palestine ‘conflict’ denies the structural discrimination against Palestinian citizens [of Israel—ed.], and their history and current oppression are excluded from the political discourse and activity of all wings of the Israeli ‘peace camp.’”

Indeed, it was the labor movement and left-wing Zionist parties that led the Jewish settlement of Palestine in the pre-state days. As Honig-Parnass explains: “The Zionist Labor movement justified these policies by using slogans that camouflaged their imperatives for dispossession of Palestinians: ‘Kibush H’kara’ (conquering soil), ‘Kibush H’avoda’ (conquering labor), and ‘tozeret haaretz’ (the produce of the land—implying ‘Jewish’ produce).”

It was also the left-wing parties that organized armed forces to ethnically cleanse Palestinians in the 1947-8 war. After the establishment of the state, it was again the leftwing politicians and ideologues that immediately set about re-writing history in order to create a collective memory and coherent national consensus of the new “Jewish Democratic” state.

Honig-Parnass explains how this took place:

There is ample evidence, from Zionist sources during the period of the 1948 war and immediately afterward, that indicates ‘members of the military and political elite, secondary leaders and intellectuals close to them knew very well what happened to the Palestinian Arabs in 1948, to say nothing of rank-and-file soldiers and kibbutz members, who actually expelled Palestinians, expropriated their lands and destroyed their homes.’ But soon after the war ended, state officials, with the help of Zionist Left intellectuals, began to consolidate an official discourse that enabled most Israeli Jews to ‘forget’ what they once knew about the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

The extent to which liberals in Israel were willing to delude themselves and others about what happened in the war is stunning. Uri Avnery, founder of Gush Shalom, writes:

When I think of our youth, yours and mine, one scene is never far from my mind: the 1947 Dalia folk dances festival. Tens of thousands of young men and women were sitting on the slope of a hill in the natural amphitheater near Kibbutz Dalia on Mount Carmel. Ostensibly it was a festival of folk dancing, but in reality it was much more—a great celebration of the New Hebrew culture which we were then creating in the country, in which folk dancing played an important role. The dancing groups came mainly from the kibbutzim and the [Zionist Left] youth movements, and the dances were original Hebrew creations, interwoven with Russian, Polish, Yemenite, and Hassidic ones. A group of Arabs danced the Debka in ecstasy, dancing and dancing and dancing on.

The Zionist left’s move to erase, or occasionally celebrate, the disaster of 1947-48 certainly add heaps of insult to heaps of injury. But as Noam Chomsky argues, “historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.”

Rewriting 1948 as the founding of a “Jewish Democratic” state, rather than a colonial state, leads to several conclusions. First, if Israel is not a settler-colonial state then the most we could demand is for some of its most egregious crimes to be rectified—perhaps to return some land or free political prisoners. But solutions that address fundamental demands of Palestinians—the right of return for refugees of the 1948 and 1967 wars, the granting of national minority rights within Israeli borders—are off the table.

Second, if one is to engage in major theoretical acrobatics in order to square “Jewish” and “democratic” as the planks of the state, then this requires a commitment to maintaining a demographic Jewish majority within Israel. In this way, “democracy,” in the most technical sense of the term, can remain the will of the majority.

Indeed, liberal sociologist Sammy Smooha, who coined the term “ethnic democracy” in analyzing the Zionist state, argues that this cannot be a “coincidental majority,” but a planned one. “A majority,” he explains, “which was planned throughout history, [as] a part of the [Zionist] national aspirations, part of an intentional policy which entailed the expulsion of Arabs in 1948 and many other additional decisions.”

The Zionist Left’s obsession with maintaining a Jewish majority requires suppressing the rights of Palestinians within Israeli borders in order to curb their ability to thrive and grow. Thus, the Zionist Left has always supported the Law of Return, which allows Jews from anywhere in the world to immigrate to Israel, while denying the same right to Palestinian refugees. It has also continually backed right wing, “close to fascist” land laws that allow the Jewish citizens of Israel to expand on to new land, while Palestinians are squeezed into smaller and smaller enclaves. Today 1.3 million Palestinians live on 3 percent of the land in Israel.

“Israel, according to its self-identification and vision,” explains Honig-Parnass, “is not a state for all its citizens. Rather, it is a state for the Jewish people throughout the world.”

A Viable Alternative?
While liberal Zionism has legitimized Israel’s apartheid treatment of Palestinians, Honig-Parnass argues that the main critiques of its policies from within Israel—under the umbrella of post-Zionism—have failed to provide an effective alternative. Post-Zionism encompasses both the New Historians and the critical sociologists who emerged at the end of the 1980s to challenge the prevailing historiography and social analysis in Israeli academia.

“They primarily concentrated,” explains Honig-Parnass, “on debunking the established Zionist narratives regarding the pre-state colonization period, the 1948 war, and the expulsion of Palestinians. Until the rise of the New Historians, the pro-Zionist interpretation of each of these historical narratives had uncritically enjoyed the ‘scientific’ authority of the historical and sociological professions.”

The works of the New Historians unmasked the mythology of the creation of the state of Israel: That Zionist leaders had accepted the United Nation’s partition plan, but found themselves suddenly under attack; that Israel was the underdog in a “David and Goliath” war of 1948, in danger of annihilation by the surrounding states; that Palestinians “abandoned” their land willingly or were encouraged by Arab leaders to do so. The critical sociologists, meanwhile, challenged the idea that Zionism was a national movement inspired by Jews’ aspirations to return to their homeland. “The appearance of the critical sociologists marked the first time in Israeli history that Zionist colonialism became a topic of Israeli academic research and examination,” Honig-Parnass writes.

Despite the critical breakthroughs made by many post-Zionists, mainstream Zionism has been unwilling to allow any critical thought that breaks through the dominant narrative. But, as Honig-Parnass argues, the theoretical foundations of post-Zionist thought have also hampered its ability to provide a clear vision for those looking to break with Zionism.

“Even the first genuine attempts of post-national scholars to criticize Zionism,” explains Honig-Parnass, “developed rapidly into versions of identity politics based on the discourse of ‘difference’ and ‘otherness,’ which also characterized a large part of postmodernist thought.”

Post-Zionists, in rejecting the so-called “grand narrative” of colonialism, and adopting instead a framework of “otherness,” have tended to equate the national oppression of Palestinian with any group of the “other,” most notably Mizrahi Jews (i.e., Jewish immigrants to Israel, originating predominantly from the Middle East). Rather than this leading to a “unification of all progressive social forces—both Jewish and Palestinian—in a struggle for the democratization and de-Zionization of the state… [post-Zionists] fall into identity politics, which diverts the potential for radicalism among the Mizrahim into ethnic interest groups.”

Instances of principled resistance to Zionism from within the Israeli left have been few, but notable. Honig-Parnass spends some time chronicling these inspiring examples.

Front cover of Israca, a journal produced by Matzpen for sale abroad. Co-founders Moshe Machover and Aki Orr both ended up living in London.

Matzpen, a socialist organization founded in 1962 by a group of Israelis and Palestinians, has consistently identified Zionism as a settler-colonial project, playing the role of regional enforcer of imperialist interests. In contrast to the dispersion into “interest groups,” that post-Zionism has facilitated, Matzpen also helped to ideologically and logistically support the rise of the Israeli Black Panther Party in the early 1970s, made up of Mizrahi Jews from Arab countries.

The two organizations built genuine solidarity between Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians. And though both organizations were harassed, repressed, and vilified as traitors; roundly ignored by the Left; and dismissed by Israeli masses, their principled stances and theoretical clarity provide an inspiring vision of what genuine left politics in Israel/Palestine could look like.

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