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Michael Paterson and Gail Asper talk about their lives and why they’ve given their support to this year’s JNF Negev Gala

Michael Paterson & Gail Asper

By BERNIE BELLAN On June 2 the Jewish National Fund will be honouring Gail Asper and Dr. Michael Paterson, a couple that has long been associated with many aspects of the Jewish community, whether it’s been Gail’s storied philanthropic endeavours or Michael’s years of service on the board of Jewish Child & Family Service.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Michael and Gail via Zoom. Gail was a little bit late joining in, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask Michael to give me an update as to what his sons, Stephen and Jonathan, are doing these days, and to ask Michael about his own activities in the scientific realm, which has been his lifelong passion.

“Jonathan is now a lawyer,” (with Duboff Edwards Schachter) “and Stephen is pursuing his PhD at St. Mary’s University in Halifax,” Michael said.
“He’s studying invasive species,” Michael added. “He’s studying earthworms.”
Now, while I would hardly have thought earthworms would be considered an “invasive species” per se, Michael explained that “they all come from Europe.”
“Really?” I asked. (You never know what you’re going to learn when you set about to interview someone without any pre-conceived questions.)
“Yah, pretty much,” Michael added. “There are a few native earthworms that are primarily in the Yukon, which is where he’s heading this summer.”
Later in the interview, I had the chance to ask Gail about her own attitude to Stephen’s area of study. I don’t think it would surprise you to learn that she’s not a real earthworm aficionado.
“I hate earthworms!” she offered by way of answering how she feels about Stephen’s chosen area of study.
“We have this Covid dog,” she continued. “And every night we take him out for a walk and I’m seeing foxes and coyotes, deer and raccoons – and huge owls. Lately the sidewalk has been littered with disgusting, fat earthworms. It’s so disgusting.”
But, I added, “I didn’t know they immigrated here from Europe. That’s so interesting” – to which Gail added this rejoinder: “And no good can come of it! They should go back where they came from!”

As for Michael’s own particular area of interest, I asked him whether he’s still involved in the study of freshwater lakes. He said he is, with the “experimental lakes area” in “Northwestern Ontario, where we basically study the effect of human activities on water quality.”
The experimental lakes area encompasses 58 different lakes in a part of Ontario which has remained largely untouched by human habitation and which offers an excellent area in which scientists can study the effects that introducing various elements have on otherwise pristine bodies of water.
The experimental lakes project, however, was in danger of being shut down completely as recently as 2012, Michael explained.
At that point Gail joined in the discussion and noted that Michael played a pivotal role in keeping the project alive. It is now under the auspices of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, which is a private institute (that receives funding from the federal government as well as a number of private sector sources). The experimental lakes project also receives funding from the provinces of Ontario and Manitoba.
The fact that Michael Paterson is a scientist who is deeply concerned with the effects that humans have on freshwater lakes is significant in understanding the particular project that he and Gail have now involved themselves with through the JNF. (More about that later.)
I said to Gail that there was an interesting synchronicity in my talking to her prior to our next issue’s being published, as I told her I was also going to be doing a story about Aharon Harlap, the famous music composer, who just happens to be a cousin of Gail’s (once removed; he was actually a first cousin to her father).

Turning to the upcoming gala, which will be viewed virtually once again (as was last year’s gala, in which Ted and Harriet Lyons were honoured), I told Gail and Michael that I already had a heads up about what will be featured in the gala. (Keith Levit had spilled the beans to me.)
I said that I was told that this gala was a major production that will include some fabulous musical numbers.
“Yup, that’s all we know,” Gail noted. “We don’t know what they’re doing.”
“You don’t?” I asked in astonishment.
“No,” she said. “Big surprise.”
“Because I do,” I said. “But I’m not going to tell you.”
“Don’t tell us anything,” Gail insisted. “We heard a snippet when we were there for our taping, but we closed the door because we didn’t want to hear anything. So we’re going to be sitting on June 2nd with our little box of hummus and cookies or whatever they (the JNF) give you, and it’ll all be new for us.”

With that as preamble to the edgy interview that I had really wanted to conduct, I launched into what I thought would be a really tough question: “You must be a really hard ‘get’,” I suggested. “How many times have you been asked to be the honourees for the JNF Gala in the past?”
“We actually have not been asked,” Gail answered. “I mean our family was honoured a few years ago. The Asper Foundation and my family were honoured, so we were up on stage a few years ago. So, this was the first official ask for us. I didn’t think we needed to be asked because the Foundation has been recognized – and we’re part of that. But, it was with a lot of trepidation (that we accepted) because along with the honour comes a lot of responsibility.
“I happen to be very fond of the work the Jewish National Fund does,” Gail continued, “and the project this year – the Climate Solutions Prize, is also meaningful, so we felt it was appropriate to accept this wonderful honour.”

I turned to Michael to ask him about his own involvement in fund raising for the Jewish community. I noted that I had received a phone call from him back in the fall when he was phone soliciting for the Jewish Child & Family Service. I wondered whether that was something he’s been doing on a regular basis, i.e., phone soliciting for different organizations?
“Oh yah,” he answered. “Frankly, I don’t know why I’m being honoured. I am involved with a bunch of organizations. I sat on the board of Jewish Child & Family Service, on and off, for over 20 years, and I was the chair of the board many years ago,” to which Gail added, “and he was the first non-Jewish chair of the board, for which he received a Shem Tov Award.”
Of course, Gail being Gail, she had to add: “He received the Shem Tov Award for being the only chair who started and ended the meetings on time. He was so beloved!”

Michael also observed that, in addition to being on the JCFS board for many years, “I was also on the (Jewish) Federation board. I’ve been on the Federation Allocations Committee in the past, I’ve been on the (Jewish) Foundation’s Allocations Committee.” In addition to those Jewish organizations, Michael noted that “another organization I’ve been very involved with has been the Nature Conservancy of Canada. I’ve been on the regional board and the national board, on and off, since 2000. I’m currently the regional co-chair and I have been the chair in the past.”
He added that he’s also been involved with the Public Interest Legal Centre “on their board.”

I said that I wanted to take a step back and ask how Gail and Michael had met? (I had remembered reading that they had met at university, but I had the wrong university in mind when I asked whether they met in Halifax?)
“We met at the Elizabeth Dafoe Library,” Gail corrected me. “We both worked part time there. It was 1979. I was in Arts and Mike was in Science.”
I asked whether they met in the stacks?
“That would be a good story,” Gail retorted: “Love among the stacks. No, I was actually in ‘circulation’,” (to which I had to comment: “What a great double entendre”), “but every time Mike from ‘reserve’ would walk by, all my friends would look at cute ‘Mike from reserve’ as he bounded by to his little reserve area, and Thursday nights, for 20 minutes, we had our break together in the cafeteria. I got to know him, he got to know me, I would give him rides home; I really liked him so I asked him out on a date in March of the following year (1980). I asked him out to a Jets game in March – and it was a very wonderful night, but like, nothing happened, so I thought, ‘Okay, I guess we’re just going to be friends’ and I was going off to Europe with Jonathan Kroft – my dear friend – just a platonic friend, and I went to the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and there’s a song: ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ so I stood on the edge of the Trevi Fountain, and I sang that song, and I wished for true love with Michael James Paterson – threw my coin in the fountain, and the next day I went to American Express to pick up my mail, and there was a letter responding to a letter I had written to Mike where I expressed my affection for him and wondered what was wrong with him to not feel the same way about me – and he wrote back, saying ‘I thought anyone traveling in Europe with a guy is otherwise engaged – and, if you’re not, let’s get together’,” and so, when Gail did get back they did get together and, as she noted: “We’ve been together ever since.”

“We got married in June of ’84,” Gail noted. “I was going to law school here.”
Mike explained that he had been “doing a Masters in Indiana” prior to their getting married, “and then we went to Halifax where I started on my PhD at Dalhousie.”
It was in Halifax also that Gail articled as a lawyer. “So it was in Halifax that we started our married life together,” she said. “We had no family, we didn’t know anyone. It wasn’t a bad way to start out,” she observed.

The discussion turned to politics and how both Michael and Gail have been able to navigate the sometimes choppy waters of dealing with politicians of different stripes (and bureaucrats) at various times in their lives – Michael in his efforts to kept the experimental lakes area alive, and Gail, most notably in her efforts to get the Human Rights Museum built.
Michael described his experiences to me, but in the end he put it succinctly: “It’s not that I don’t have political opinions, but I like to think that I’m reasonably respectful of different points of view.”

Although ordinarily one might have expected that, this having been an interview that would be published just prior to the JNF Gala, I would have led off my questions by asking about the particular project for which Michael and Gail agreed to lend their support by becoming this year’s Winnipeg honourees for the Gala. Instead, in a short piece following this article, you can read about the Climate Solutions Prize, which is that project.
For Gail, the notion of contributing to further scientific study in an area as important as the climate crisis is an extension of what the Asper Foundation has been doing for years with various Israeli institutions of higher learning, she observed.
“I’m involved with Hebrew U, we’ve supported Tel Aviv University, Ben Gurion (University), lots of other places. It’s strengthening Israel – and that’s aligned with our values; it’s helping the world, and that’s aligned with our values. I like to think that Israel can come up with something that will help the world – and that’s good for Israeli ‘hasbara’.”
As well, Gail noted that she “likes the idea of the JNF getting back to its ‘roots’ (“no pun intended,” she added), “and doing something more environmentally focused.”

For his own part, Michael noted that some years back he was invited to attend a water quality conference in Israel sponsored by the JNF. “I had the opportunity to meet some of the researchers on water quality in Israel and they were really an amazing, inspiring group. It was a reminder of all the research power in Israel.
“Of course, I’m deeply concerned about the environment and one of the biggest threats to the environment is climate change. It’s stating the obvious, but any threat to the environment is a threat to all of us if we care about the future – of our economy, our health, our way of life, our well being in general. I’ve given my professional career to protecting the environment, so the idea of bringing together Israeli innovation and research power and the environment is very attractive, so when the JNF brought this project to us for us to lend our support – of course, it made a lot of sense.”

In addition, some of the proceeds from the Gala will be going to JCFS, along with the World’s Jewish Museum in Tel Aviv (which is also a project in which Gail is deeply involved).

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Israeli representative in Canada Sarah Mali talks about October 7 heroes

By MYRON LOVE Conflict often produces acts of heroism – but it is not only warriors who become heroes.  As Sarah Mali noted, heroism can come in many forms.  
Mali, the Director General of JFC-UIA Canada in Israel, made a stop in our community on Thursday, May 30, on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, during which she did a presentation at the Berney Theatre providing an update on the situation in the Jewish State from her perspective as  an Israeli – with a  focus on the different faces of heroism..
The British-born Mali made Aliyah in 2000 after earning a degree from the London School of Economics.  She also has degrees from the Hebrew University and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.  The mother of four – the older two currently serving in the Israel Defence Forces – was the Director of Israel Engagement for the Jewish Federation of Toronto from 2007 to 2012. She returned to Israel to undertake her current assignment in 2012 and now lives in Jerusalem.
Mali is an accomplished writer and public speaker who was named one of “50 of Our Favorite Women Right Now” by ”Future of Judaism” in 2022.
Mali was introduced by Paula Parks, the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg’s President.  She presented her stories of heroism through a series of photographs. She began by recalling the first time in Israel that she heard sirens going off.  “I was in the car with one of my daughters,” she recounted.  “We weren’t quite sure what to do at first. But we got out of the car and did what all Israelis do.
“These past eight months, sirens have been sounded almost daily. Just recently, there was renewed rocket fire toward Tel Aviv.” 
The first group of heroes that Mali highlighted was the group of 14 young female soldiers who were kidnapped from their IDF base near Kibbutz Nahal Oz – near the Gaza border – which was overrun on October 7.
She spoke of the 60,000 residents of Israel’s north who were forced to leave their homes because of the danger from Hezbollah in the north and the heroic way that their fellow Israelis throughout the country have opened their homes and hearts to these internally displaced refugees, along with survivors of the attacks by Hamas in the south.
While Mali noted that she and her family are safe – living in the centre of the country – she described a recurring nightmare of loss. 
She told the story of Avitel Aladjem from Kibbutz Holit.  When the kibbutz was attacked, Aladjem was tasked by her neighbor, Canadian-born Adi Vital Kaploun, with looking after the latter’s two children – a three year old boy and a baby. Kaploun was murdered and Aladjem and the children were put on bicycles and driven to the Gaza border. For some strange and miraculous reason, the terrorist left the threesome at the border.  So Aladjem put the baby in a sling, picked up the three-year-old boy and carried both children back to safety.

Mali further praised the courage of the Magen David Adom medics who unhesitatingly put themselves in danger in those early desperate hours to save lives – and have continued saving lives throughout the war.  She recounted one story about an Israeli soldier who was shot in the neck and pronounced dead.  One medic, however, noticed that he was wearing a wedding band.
The medic noted that meant someone was waiting for the soldier at home and suggested the first responders should check him again  for any vital signs.  They found a pulse and had him evacuated by helicopter right away.  He was able to make a full recovery.
(Mali also noted that more than 15,000 Israeli soldiers have been wounded in the current conflict.)
One of the photos that Mali put on screen was the rescuer visiting the recovering soldier in hospital.
She spoke of the tremendous efforts of Israeli mental health professionals who have been having to deal with tens of thousands of traumatized Israeli of all ages.
She noted the miracle of her own daughter recently giving birth – bringing a new life into a world gone mad.
Another photo she posted was of a letter from a seven-year-old girl in Toronto who wanted to donate $23 to Israel to help with food, clothing and housing.
Mali’s final paean was to all the Jewish communities in the Diaspora – including our own – that have raised tremendous sums of money (over $4 million alone from our community), have staged rallies in support of our Israeli brethren, and many of whom have travelled to Israel, not only to show their support, but also to volunteer to help in many ways. 
“You are all heroes,” Mali told her audience.
Following her presentation, Mali took several questions from the audience.  One question concerned the ongoing conflict with Hezbollah in the north. “My head tells me that the IDF has to end Hezbollah,” Mali responded.  “But, as a mother with children serving in the IDF, I would be terrified.”
In answer to a second question about what some view as Israel’s poor public relations record, Mali pointed out that a major problem is that the Western media see the conflict – and the world –  in terms of victims and oppressors, and the Palestiniand in this worldview are ever the victims – and therefore, can do no wrong – while the Israelis are the oppressors whose every actions are judged as criminal or evil.
In concluding, Mali described the strong sense of determination and solidarity among most Israelis – an attitude exemplified by her own 17-year-old son who is impatient to join the IDF and take up the fight.
She added that “We Israelis want you to come to Israel, hear our stories and share them back in your communities.
 “Israel is a strong country with a strong army,” she observed.  “We are fighting not just for our own people but also for all Jews – and we are fighting against evil. This is our moment.”

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New York-based choreographer Josh Assor returning to hometown and Rainbow Stage for upcoming “Mary Poppins” production

By MYRON LOVE Josh Assor has a lengthy history, both with “Mary Poppins” and Rainbow Stage. So it would seem to be a no-brainer for Canada’s only summer theatre to invite the former Winnipegger-turned New York-based choreographer to return to his home town to choreograph this summer’s Rainbow Stage production of Mary Poppins (August 15-September 1).
Assor’s first experience with the beloved musical came just a short time into his stage career.  In 2011, the son of Hanania and Leslie Assor was cast in a touring production as Neleus, the statue who is brought to life by Mary.  In February 2012, he was elevated to the Broadway production in the same role.  In 2018, having transitioned from acting to choreography, he was tasked with choreographing a production of “Mary Poppins” at the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre in Arrow Rock, Missouri.  (He was invited back to Arrow Rock in 2019 to choreograph “Cinderella”).
“It is always nice to come back to Winnipeg where I started my career,” Assor says.
When it comes to musical theatre, Josh Assor has written a story of great success.  He was attracted to theatre and acting from a very young age. He actually began with some television roles, followed by stage work.  Some of the shows that he appeared in at Rainbow Stage were: “Peter Pan”, “Beauty and the Beast”, “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat” and “The Little Mermaid”.
Along the way, the young performer began taking dancing lessons.  “I started training rather later in life in dance,” he recalls. “I enrolled in Ken Peter Dance Express when I was 15.  Originally, I was most interested in hip hop.  I then followed with tap and, a couple of years later, I began studying all forms of dance, including jazz, ballet and musical theatre.  By the time I was 17, I had decided to seriously pursue a career in the theatre.”
Assor attended Gray Academy to the end of Grade 9, then moved to Grant Park High School for Grades 10-12 to take the school’s well-known performing arts program. 
The budding performer left Winnipeg after graduation for Los Angeles where he had scored a scholarship to study at the prestigious EDGE Performing Arts Center.  He then moved to Toronto – at age 19 – to begin the next phase of his career.
“I signed with an agent in Toronto,” he said in an earlier interview with the Jewish Post. “Toronto is where most of the auditions take place.  I did some television but mostly worked on the stage.”
His first major role was in a production of “West Side Story” at the Stratford Festival in 2008, he recounts.
While he may have been based in Toronto over a period of three years, he notes, he spent a year in Montreal and the rest of the time in touring productions, which continued after his move to New York in 2010. 
In addition to touring with “Mary Poppins,”  he also toured as a  member of the cast of “The Wizard of Oz” and Disney’s first national tour of “Newsies” (in which he was the assistant dance captain).
After more than two years in ‘”Newsies,” Assor explained in that earlier interview, he was ready for a change of pace.  “From day one, to become a choreographer was always my goal,” he noted.   “I am happiest when I can be at my most creative.  I felt that I had had a good run as a performer.  I accomplished what I had wanted.  It was time to focus on my development as a choreographer.”
Back in New York,  his goal was to become a member of the faculty of the world-renowned Broadway Dance Centre.  He started as a substitute teacher, became a guest instructor and, for the past several years, has been a member of the faculty, focusing on musical theatre.
“People come from all over the world to study with us,” Assor said.
In addition to his teaching, Assor has continued to work professionally as a choreographer. Choreographic credits include: New York Fashion Week, the New York City Knicks, Audi, Celebrity Cruise Lines, Modos Furniture, Hard Rock Hotel, and Soho House, as well as regional productions of “Mary Poppins,” “Anastasia,” “Fiddler On The Roof,” “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812,” “Cinderella,” “Newsies,” and the world premiere of “Medicine the Musical,” which ran off-Broadway. He also choreographed Cedar Point (Ohio) Amusement Park’s 150th Anniversary Spectacular ,as well as the series ‘DJ Burnt Bannock,’ produced by Eagle Vision. He was the associate choreographer for the “Saturday Night Fever” National Tour as well as the Canadian Premier of “Newsies.”
In March 2020,  due to the pandemic lockdowns, Assor came home to Winnipeg for a while and, once here, he got a job with Eagle Vision, working with them for almost a year behind the scenes on a number of large scale television and film projects, such as “Burden Of Truth” and “Esther”.
Assor is currently choreographing a production of “Fiddler On The Roof” that just opened at a theatre in the Boston Area called North Shore Music Theater. He reports that he will also be choreographing “Fiddler” again in Connecticut in early 2025.
He adds that he has a new show that he choreographed – titled “Retrospect” – that will be mounted in various theme parks across the US.  Also coming up is a  week-long dance retreat at the End of August – which he co-owns with Orielle Marcus – titled “The Reset Dance Retreat”. 

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Penny Jones Square passionate advocate for Israel

By MYRON LOVE Perception is not reality.  While the perception may be that the world is once more against Jews and the State of Israel, we are not reliving the darkest days of the 1930s and early 1940s.  Polls consistently show that in both Canada and the United States, the great majority of the population is on our side.
In our own community, we can see the strong support we receive from such Christian Zionist friends as Reverend Don and Victoria James and their fellow Bridges For Peace members,;Pastor Rudy and Gina Fidel and the members of his Faith Temple; and John Plantz and the Church and Field Ministries.
But there may not be a more ardent supporter of Israel and fighter against antisemitism in our community than Penny Jones Square.  Penny has long had a strong feeling for Israel and the Jewish people but, since the horrendous events of October 7, she has taken it to an entirely new level.
Over the past eight months, Penny has been ubiquitous.  She has been attending pro-Israel rallies and speakers as well as counter-protests against anti-Israel protests.  In May alone, she was at the reading of the Megillat Shoah,  B’nai Brith’s “Unto Every Person There is a Name”, the Yom HaZikaron ceremony at the Rady Centre,  the JNF’s “Warriors’ Journeys” with two IDF reserve soldiers, and the Bridges for Peace event, “It’s about Time”, a ceremony in honour of Jewish Heritage Month at the Manitoba Legislature, the weekly rally in support of the hostages at Kenaston and Grant, and the Jewish Federation evening “Update from the Ground” with Sara Mali, Director General of JFC-UIA Canada in Israel.
Penny has also found time to pop up at one of the anti-Israel protests at City Hall  and the pro-Palestinian student encampment at the University of Manitoba  to take photos and report on them – as well as Ron East’s screening of his Oct. 7 massacre video at the University of  Winnipeg encampment.
I first met Penny seven years ago while on a JNF mission to Israel.  We found that we had similar views on a range of subjects.  On Tuesday, June 4, I was able to meet with Penny at the Asper Campus and gained an understanding of what inspired her devotion to Israel and the Jewish people.
Penny –  who grew up in Riverview and River Heights, attended the University of Manitoba and has an MA in English from there –  recalled that she “was awakened to the horrors of the Holocaust” at the age of 13 after seeing the 1959 movie, “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“That led me to an ongoing study of antisemitism and the Holocaust and my abiding interest in standing up for Jews and fighting antisemitism,” she said.  “Along the way, I have acquired a profound admiration for Judaism and Jews who are, to my mind, ‘the light unto the nations’ that they were commanded to be.”
At the age of 22, she married David Square (who passed away almost three years ago) and they moved to a plot of land near Tyndall, Manitoba – off the grid, so to speak.  Penny and David spent four years building their own log home, cutting down trees from their property for the logs.
“We pursued our vision of living a self-sufficient lifestyle,” she recounted, “living mortgage-free, cutting our own firewood, growing our own food, and creating a magical sanctuary with flower gardens, two Zen gardens, a vegetable garden and numerous forest trails for walking and cross country skiing.”
She concedes that “it was a difficult life maintaining gardens, lawns and trails and bringing in the winter firewood – as well as working as one-of-a-kind art furniture designers and builders, but it was also a life blessed by the natural beauty surrounding us and by the beauty we created in our home, our art, and our cherished refuge”.
After almost 20 years, the couple closed their custom furniture business. While David pursued a career as a journalist and novelist, Penny worked at the University of Manitoba in the bookstore and as a tutor.
(A few months ago, Penny sold her property in the country and moved into Winnipeg.)
It was in 2007 that Penny really began to immerse herself in the study of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.  It started when she signed up for Dr. Catherine Chatterley’s course on the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust.  (Chatterley specializes in the study of modern European history and the Holocaust and is the founder of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism.)
“I spent some time as a grader for her course and as a copy editor for her journal, “Anti-Semitism Studies,” Penny said.  “David and I promoted her annual lectures.  David took photos and I published articles about them.”
The couple also joined Winnipeg Friends of Israel – founded by Yolanda Papini-Pollock – and Penny helped with some of Papini-Pollock’s initiatives.
Penny notes that her love for Israel and admiration for the Jewish people was greatly strengthened by that 2017 trip to the Jewish State.  “To witness the transformation of a land of malarial swamps and desert to the wonder of Israel’s astonishing natural beauty, its olive and almond groves, forested areas and vibrant and thriving kibbutzim,  moshavim and cities – as well as the joy, resilience and exuberance of the Israeli people was awe-inspiring – while our tour of Yad Vashem was overwhelming and intensely saddening.
“In this present moment, I believe that it is my moral responsibility to denounce the immoral and irrational hatred of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism fiercely, fearlessly and honestly and state my allegiance  with the righteous and ethical example of Israel and the Jewish people.  Moral courage and a commitment to the truth are what is required of us to stop the lies and prevent this radical evil that is Islamic Jihadism from prevailing over the good and the humane, democratic values.”

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