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10 years and 318 million words later, Sefaria brings Torah study into the digital age

 (JTA) — When I spoke earlier this week with Sara Wolkenfeld, chief learning officer at Sefaria, she referred to a “story in the Talmud” about Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah. I wasn’t familiar with Elazar or the story, so I clicked over to Sefaria, the digital library of Jewish texts that this year is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

With one search I found a helpful list of sources featuring Elazar posted by a London-based rabbi. Elazar’s digital paper trail included stories about him in the Passover Haggadah, the Mishnah (a Jewish legal text compiled around the year 200 C.E.) and various tractates of the Talmud, the compendium of rabbinic law and lore that, when printed and bound, fills over 70 dense volumes. 

I quickly searched another term Wolkenfeld had mentioned, and there was the story (Berakhot 28a:1-4), in its original context and English translation: When Elazar took over the study hall, they added 400 benches (some say 700). A commentary I was able to access with another click told me why: “to accommodate the crowds that sought admission,” according to Abraham Cohen, an editor of the Soncino translation of the Talmud, published in Great Britain in the early 20th century.

One more click, under “Topics,” brought me to another page of sources explaining that Elazar “was among the scholars in Yavneh at the time of Rabban Gamliel. When the Sanhedrin temporarily deposed Rabban Gamliel, they installed R. Elazar as his replacement.” 

If you don’t often try to find a needle of information in a haystack of Jewish text, you may not appreciate how difficult this would have been, especially for an amateur like me, without a tool like Sefaria. Founded by Google alum Brett Lockspeiser and journalist Joshua Foer to provide what its current CEO, Daniel Septimus, calls “free and unfettered access to the Jewish canon to learners the world over,” Sefaria has become an essential tool in schools, yeshivas, university classrooms, rabbis’ studies and the homes of anyone interested in accessing the massive, ever-growing corpus of Jewish text. (Septimus is a member of the board of 70 Faces Media, JTA’s parent company.) 

Its offerings of more than 3,300 texts add up to some 318 million words (75 million in translation). Sefaria offers 20 different Torah translations in English and other languages, including the brand-new, “gender-sensitive” revision of the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh. According to Wolkenfeld, the number of unique monthly users is closing in on 700,000, in 239 countries and territories. This year’s budget was $6.6 million.

Sefaria’s success has both powered and been powered by a growing democratization of Jewish learning. The page-a-day study of the Talmud, known as Daf Yomi, was once the domain of mostly haredi Orthodox men. Since the start of the latest seven-and-a-half year cycle in 2020, it has been taken up by women’s groups, queer Jews and men and women across the denominations. Hadran, a women’s Daf Yomi project, uses Sefaria in their learning. 70 Faces Media and its My Jewish Learning site have daily Daf Yomi emails that include links to Sefaria.

Sefaria wasn’t the first institution to digitize Jewish text (Bar Ilan University’s Judaic Digital Library has been available, on various platforms, for decades) but no other project went so far in making the materials free and shareable.

“Sefaria demonstrates the power of new open-source tools,” Heidi Lerner, a librarian at Stanford University Libraries, wrote in 2020. “For the first time, a platform has been developed that will greatly widen the availability of Jewish religious texts in the public domain and make accessible and expand the centuries of ongoing scholarly conversations and discourse about these works.” 

Sefaria is marking the 10-year anniversary of its database with a “Global Community Torah” project. Users can help create a digital Torah letter by letter and receive a series of emails about the weekly Torah portion. Wolkenfeld, who before coming to Sefaria in 2013 was the director of education at Princeton University’s Hillel, told me the emails are “designed to be a series of scaffolded links so that you can get inside the text.” 

Wolkenfeld, who is also a Rabbinic Fellow at the David Hartman Center, studied Talmud and Jewish law at several institutions of Jewish learning in Israel and America, including Midreshet Lindenbaum, Drisha, Nishmat and Beit Morasha.

Ahead of this weekend’s celebration of Simchat Torah, the holiday marking the completion of one Torah-reading cycle and the start of a new one, we spoke about the future of Torah study in the digital age, how Sefaria is expanding the canon and the impact Jewish learning is having outside the classroom.

Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

You walk into the Sefaria office in 2013. What was happening at the time?

There was no office. There’s never been an office. There was me and our co-founders, and the 1917 JPS. And maybe we had the Talmud in the original, maybe Maimonides in the original. The site was already up when I was hired, a prototype kind of thing. There was a real spirit of volunteerism, we got people to experiment with the site and translate texts and do all kinds of things. And when I went out into the world and told people what I was doing a lot of people were excited and a lot of people thought we were crazy and that we would never kind of make any headway. And I think it’s been fun to see those same people use Sefaria on a regular basis. I also hear from people who say “Oh, I was dreaming about something like Sefaria for years before it happened.”

After 10 years, what are your measures of success?

At the beginning Sefaria was especially attractive for people who were already studying Jewish texts on a regular basis. Now we know that fully a third of our North American users don’t have a regular practice of studying Jewish texts, and two-thirds say that they require scaffolding — translation and contextual information — in order to engage with these texts, and Sefaria supplies that.

The interface of the Steinsaltz Talmud on Sefaria includes line-by-line translation, along with links to commentaries and references to a range of Jewish sources, which appear in a separate vertical. (JTA illustration)

We also know that over half of our North American users are younger than 45 years old. We’re reaching so many young people. We had a recent user analysis completed by Rosov Consulting telling us that engagement with Sefaria enhances a sense of connection to the Jewish people and a sense of confidence to engage in Jewish practice. That was the dream at the beginning. 

Anecdotally, so many people have heard of Sefaria. I spent yesterday in a local pluralistic Jewish day school and gave out Sefaria stickers and you would have thought it was like getting swag from a rock concert. All of the kids know Sefaria, all the kids use Sefaria. Wherever I am, rabbis, educators, students come up to me and say, “I can’t imagine my life without Sefaria.” Rabbinical students say they are so glad they don’t have to go through rabbinical school without it. Elementary school and high school teacher students talk about how much they use it in their studies. 

Why? What were you offering that didn’t exist?  

We were offering free and open access, first and foremost. When I started at Sefaria, I had been on college campuses pretty continuously for a long time. I always had access [to Jewish texts and databases] through whatever institution but otherwise, it’s expensive. So free and open access is important, translations are really important and part of access is the idea that anyone who wants to can contribute to the text of our tradition. That was really the value proposition of Sefaria.

Does anyone complain in the other direction: that searching a database isn’t a substitute for the traditional way of learning Talmud — that you have to sit in the library and turn the pages and know your way around the layout of a traditional page of Talmud?

I think the Bar Ilan [Digital Library] kind of absorbed a lot of that criticism for us.

In the sense that an Orthodox university was among the first in making Jewish text available in digital form.

Yes. But I think there’s a live conversation, not a criticism or complaint, about the ways in which technology is changing what people need to know and how they’re going to know it. And people have the sense that what we’re seeing right now is probably just a drop in the bucket. What will learning look like in five years, in 10 years? The rate of change feels so fast. But Sefaria is here for that. Our mission is to bring Torah into the digital age. And we’re building the infrastructure and building the tools to allow people to do the best possible learning, given the technological tools available.  

I’m told students at the Modern Orthodox Yeshiva University have their laptops open when they learn Torah, but how deep is your use in the right-wing, haredi Orthodox world, which, I know, tends to discourage the use of the internet in the first place. 

Sefaria doesn’t currently have an offline platform. But we know there are people who download texts and use them so, yes, I think there’s quite a bit of downstream use by people who wouldn’t necessarily log on to Sefaria but they’re using our data in other forms. That’s also a measure of success. We want to empower as many different people as possible to create whatever they feel they need with Torah. 

Our database, our code is open-source, and to the extent possible, we negotiate free and open licenses. We’re releasing data into the commons and there’s around 200 powered-by-Sefaria projects. 

Do you have specific examples of people who piggyback onto the site and then create something new?

We have a “Powered by Sefaria” contest, and the first winner was Shaun Regenbaum, who co-founded the GT Jewish Digital Humanities Lab at Georgia Tech and has been working on a Talmud ChatGPT app drawing on our API [application programming interface]. Someone from a new website called sent us a note saying that they created a free service that allows people to create digital Mishnah charts for shloshim and yahrtzeits [for mourners looking for the appropriate Jewish texts to study on those days] and they use our API for the Hebrew and English text. The Orthodox Union’s All Daf web app uses the English text from Sefaria. 

Who are your target and potential audiences, and how much knowledge do you presume they need to have to enter the site?

We think a lot about both enhancing learning for the people who are already learning or would be learning anyway, as well as people who might not have the background, the skills or just the access. And we are actively working to build more and more pathways into the texts so that people without that background can come and be a part of the conversation. When it comes to kids, I say that tech savviness and not text savviness is the best predictor of success on the site. We anticipate that Sefaria will be able to reach people who just have a question, they just have an idea, they’re just curious whether there’s Jewish wisdom on a question or a subject that they’re interested in.

We have a new project called the Digital Torah Encyclopedia — the name is probably a placeholder — and we want to make it easier and easier for people to navigate Jewish wisdom topically. Currently, if you search for a book about Shabbat in the Jewish canon, you will most likely come across Tractate Shabbat [in the Talmud] which is a horrible way to learn about Shabbat if you don’t know anything about Shabbat. So we are building these pages that provide both a little bit of an introduction to whatever the topic is, and then scaffold the learning experience for numerous related texts. This is a way to draw people inside the original texts themselves and give them the tools they need to explore those texts firsthand.

There’s a story in the Talmud about when Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah took charge of the Beit Midrash [study hall] and they added 400 benches to welcome more people. We see ourselves as adding millions and millions of seats to the Beit Midrash worldwide.

 The classical Jewish canon is overwhelmingly male. I know over the last couple of years you’ve added diverse voices, like essays on the weekly Torah portion by the contemporary Israeli scholar Michal Tikochinsky. Tell me a little bit about the other modern sources you’re adding, by women like Tikochinsky and other under-represented groups.

Let’s face it, a lot of people are going to feel more drawn in and feel more welcomed if they can read a voice that sounds like it came from 2023 rather than 1917. I picked 1917 because that’s when the original JPS translation [of the Hebrew Bible] was published and it’s hard to feel embraced by the Bible when you read that text. And similarly with diverse voices. We think it’s important that people living in 2023, in whatever community they’re in, feel that somebody is speaking to them from within their milieu, their understanding of the world.

Left to right: Daniel Septimus, CEO of Sefaria, with its co-founders, Brett Lockspeiser and Joshua Foer, in 2017. (Courtesy Sefaria)

So we are working towards more modern texts and more diverse texts. We recently announced the addition of quite a large number of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ works [the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and Modern Orthodox theologian died in 2020]. They speak to a very broad audience. We’ve also done a lot of work around adding women’s Torah to the site. We have our Word-by-Word project, which is designed to support 20 women in writing works of Torah over the course of three years, and I work on that in partnership with Dr. Erica Brown [the vice provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University]. There were 20 slots, and there were 121 applicants.   

 Besides bringing more and more content being online, what’s changed over the past 10 years as a result of Sefaria being in the world?  

 The content is a huge game changer. Before I worked for Sefaria, I worked at Princeton University. I remember googling to get English translations of the Talmud and carefully typing out a translation of yet another source.

 But perhaps the most important thing that Sefaria offers is the interconnectivity. An analogous technological breakthrough to the digital revolution is the printing press. That made a huge difference, but the printed page has limited real estate. So if you think about a Mikraot Gedolot [a printed collection of classic rabbinic commentaries on the Bible] there’s a limit to how many commentaries you can include. And Sefaria doesn’t have that limit. 

And what’s more, Sefaria can show you related texts, so that texts that have never ever been printed side by side are now in conversation with one another. That’s tremendously important to changing the ways that we think about the Jewish canon and just extends what our brains can do with these sources, because you can put older sources in conversation with newer sources and modern voices in conversation with older voices.  

What’s the impact of that culturally? Do you see evidence of an impact outside the classroom? 

We all benefit in different ways. I would give myself as an example, as a very East Coast, Ashkenazi Jew. I have a very rich Torah education that was somewhat limited in terms of the sources I was exposed to. My Modern Orthodox high school in New Jersey did not teach us Kabbalistic [Jewish mystical] sources. It did not emphasize Sephardic sources. It wasn’t a thing. And so I think it expands my horizons. It expands my understanding of the Jewish people and who we are.

There are also people who learned X number of sources, and all those sources were boring and not exciting to them. And suddenly they’re on Sefaria and they see well, there’s a totally different thing nobody ever told me about. I was in a fifth-grade classroom once, and a student clicked and found a modern article, and she said, “Oh, you mean people are still writing about the subject?” Those moments of discovery are hugely important.

They can also be threatening to some people too, I imagine. 

There are definitely people who would rather, for themselves as learners or for their students or their colleagues, stay only with a few familiar sources. I don’t think that that is a problem specific to Sefaria. And the great thing about the internet is you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to.

The post 10 years and 318 million words later, Sefaria brings Torah study into the digital age appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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US ‘Strongly Opposes’ China-Brokered Deal to Form Palestinian Unity Government With Terrorist Groups

Mahmoud al-Aloul, Vice Chairman of the Central Committee of Palestinian organization and political party Fatah, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Mussa Abu Marzuk, senior member of the Palestinian terror movement Hamas, attend an event at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on July 23, 2024. Photo: Pedro Pardo/Pool via REUTERS

The US on Tuesday said it “strongly opposes” a Beijing-brokered declaration signed earlier in the day by the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah movement and the Hamas terror group, aimed at reconciling their longstanding divisions and establishing a unity government to manage Gaza after the war.

The declaration, which was also signed by more than a dozen other Palestinian factions, is seen as a symbolic win for China’s role as a global mediator, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi describing it as a “historic moment for the cause of Palestine’s liberation.” However, doubts linger about its effectiveness in addressing the years-long rift between the groups.

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller responded to the announcement, saying Hamas had “blood on its hands, of Israelis and of Palestinians,” and could not be in any leadership role.

“When it comes to governance of Gaza at the end of the conflict, there can’t be a role for a terrorist organization,” Miller said.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) — which currently exercises limited self-governance in the West and has long been riddled with allegations of corruption and authoritarianism — should be in control of both the West Bank and Gaza, Miller said, adding that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), unlike Hamas, had renounced terrorism.

The PLO is a coalition of Palestinian factions, including Fatah.

“If you look at the death and destruction that Hamas’ decision to launch the attacks of Oct. 7 has brought on Gaza, they have — there’s no one that has brought more pain and suffering to the people in Gaza than Hamas through their decisions — first to launch the attacks of Oct. 7, and then their ongoing decision, which continues today, to hide among civilian communities and use civilians as human shields.”

Miller also addressed China’s role in the mediation, saying that the US has generally encouraged China to leverage its influence with regional countries, especially those where the US has less sway, to prevent conflict escalation. One example was the Chinese-mediated deal last year restoring ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US also urged China to discourage both Iran from financing proxies attacking Israel and the Houthis from targeting commercial shipping. “We have asked China to use its influence to try to bring those attacks to an end, and we’ll continue to do that,” Miller said.

Tuvia Gering, a China and Middle East analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, said the move is part of China’s effort to rival the US by building alliances with developing nations as well as the Arab and Muslim world to prioritize its interests and stifle Western dominance.

China is “challenging America in every space possible as a new type of major power that takes in the considerations of the Global South and the coalitions of those oppressed by imperialism and Western hegemony” to create “a new global order,” he told The Algemeiner.

Gering condemned Beijing’s move, saying it “normalized terrorism” and will embolden the Palestinians into further intransigence in talks for any future peace accord.

“Until today, China failed to criticize [the Palestinians] and put all the onus onto Israel. This means effectively that the Palestinians will only adhere to the most maximalist positions in negotiations for the two state solution [which] will become even more of a distant reality,” Gering told The Algemeiner.

Gering also predicted that the “golden age” of China-Israel relations, which burgeoned over the last decade with the inking of major bilateral deals, was over because of China’s decision to “legitimize terror” since Oct. 7. Gering warned that moving forward, Israeli strategy in the region must also take China into account.

Gering expressed doubts that the declaration signed on Tuesday would lead to any major developments, noting “a large amount of skepticism” in the Arab world.

Indeed, the declaration gave no outline for how or when a new unity Palestinian government would be formed.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, which was also a signatory on the declaration, issued a statement later in the day outlining its demand for all factions in any future unity government to reject recognition of Israel.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz blasted the agreement, saying it underscored Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ embrace of “the murderers and rapists” of Hamas, which rules Gaza.

“In reality, this won’t happen because Hamas’ rule will be crushed, and Abbas will be watching Gaza from afar. Israel’s security will remain solely in Israel’s hands,” Katz said.

In his statement, Wang reiterated China’s commitment to a “comprehensive, lasting, and sustainable ceasefire” in Gaza and advocated for an “international peace conference” aimed at pursuing a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dina Lisnyansky, an expert in Middle East affairs and Islam, warned that while the deal may not come to fruition, China’s role is of growing concern for Israel. Egypt and Algeria — both mediators in failed past attempts at rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas — were far weaker than China as regional actors. “When China sets its sights on something it usually achieves its goals, so it should worry us greatly,” Lisnyansky told The Algemeiner.

Lisnyansky also said that Israel should sanction the PA for signing the declaration. “Israel should negate any entity that has any ties at all to Hamas, which needs to lose both its authority and legitimacy.”

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Here’s every Jewish athlete competing at the 2024 Paris Olympics

And who has the best chance of medalling in Paris.

The post Here’s every Jewish athlete competing at the 2024 Paris Olympics appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Kamala Harris’s Record on Israel Raises Questions About Support for Jewish State if Elected US President

US Vice President Kamala Harris. Photo: Erin Schaff/Pool via REUTERS

Following US President Joe Biden’s stunning exit from the 2024 presidential race, allies of Israel are looking for clues as to how Vice President Kamala Harris, the new presumptive Democratic nominee, could approach issues affecting the Jewish state if she were to win the White House in November.

Harris’s previous statements reveal a mixed record on Israel, offering signs of both optimism and pessimism to pro-Israel advocates.

Though Harris has voiced support for the Jewish state’s right to existence and self defense, she has also expressed sympathy for far-left narratives that brand Israel as “genocidal.” The vice president has additionally often criticized Israel’s war effort against the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in Gaza.

In 2017, while giving a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), then-Senator Harris delivered a 19-minute speech in which she showered praise on Israel, stating that she supports “the United States’ commitment to provide Israel with $38 billion in military assistance over the next decade.” Harris stated that America has “shared values” with Israel and that the bond between the two nations is “unbreakable.”

In 2020, while giving another speech to AIPAC, Harris emphasized that US support for Israel must remain “rock solid” and noted that Hamas “maintains its control of Gaza and fires rockets.”

Despite such statements of support, however, Harris has previously exhibited a degree of patience for those who make baseless smears against Israel. 

In October 2021, when confronted by a George Mason University student who angrily accused Israel of committing “ethnic genocide” against Palestinians, Harris quietly nodded along and then praised the student. 

“And again, this is about the fact that your voice, your perspective, your experience, your truth cannot be suppressed, and it must be heard,” Harris told the student. 

Following Hamas’ slaughter of 1,200 people and kidnapping of 250 others across southern Israel on Oct. 7, Harris has shown inconsistent support for the Jewish state. Although she initially backed Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas’ terrorism, she has also levied sharp criticism against the Jewish state’s ensuing war effort in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

During a call with then-Israeli war cabinet leader Benny Gantz earlier this year, Harris suggested that the Jewish state has recklessly imperiled the lives of Palestinian civilians while targeting Hamas terrorists in Gaza.

“Far too many Palestinian civilians, innocent civilians have been killed,” Harris said. 

The same month, while delivering a speech commemorating the 59th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, Harris called the conditions in Gaza “devastating.”

“And given the immense scale of suffering in Gaza, there must be an immediate ceasefire for at least the next six weeks,” Harris said.

While speaking with Israeli President Isaac Herzog to mark the Jewish holiday of Passover in April, Harris shared “deep concerns about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and discussed steps to increase the flow of life-saving humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians and ensure its safe distribution.”

Harris also pushed the unsubstantiated narrative that Israel has intentionally withheld aid from the people of Gaza, triggering a famine. 

“People in Gaza are starving. The conditions are inhumane. And our common humanity compels us to act,” Harris said. “The Israeli government must do more to significantly increase the flow of aid.”

The United Nations Famine Review Committee (FRC), a panel of experts in international food security and nutrition, released a report in June arguing that there is not enough “supporting evidence” to suggest that a famine has occurred in Gaza.

Harris has also expressed sympathy for anti-Israel protesters on US university campuses. In an interview published earlier this month, Harris said that college students protesting Israel’s defensive military efforts against Hamas are “showing exactly what the human emotion should be.”

“There are things some of the protesters are saying that I absolutely reject, so I don’t mean to wholesale endorse their points,” she added. “But we have to navigate it. I understand the emotion behind it.”

Some indicators suggest that Harris could adopt a more antagonistic approach to the Jewish state than Biden. For example, Harris urged the White House to be more “sympathetic” toward Palestinians and take a “tougher” stance against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a Politico report in December. In March, White House aides forced Harris to tone down a speech that was too tough on Israel, according to NBC News.

Later, she did not rule out “consequences” for Israel if it launched a large-scale military offensive to root out Hamas battalions in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, citing humanitarian concerns for the civilian population.

Harris initially called for an “immediate ceasefire” before Biden and has often used more pointed language when discussing the war, Israel, and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. However, her advisers have sought to downplay the notion that she may be tougher on the Jewish state.

“The difference is not in substance but probably in tone,” one of Harris’s advisers told The Nation.

Meanwhile, Halie Soifer, who served as national security adviser to Harris during the then-senator’s first two years in Congress, said the current vice president’s support for Israel has been just as strong as Biden’s. “There really has been no daylight to be found” between the two, she told Reuters.

Still, Biden, 81, has a decades-long history of maintaining relationships with Israeli leaders and recently called himself a “Zionist.” Harris, 59, does not have such a connection to the Jewish state and maintains closer ties to Democratic progressives, many of whom have increasingly called for the US to turn away — or at least adopt a tougher approach toward — Israel

Former US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman suggested that Harris would be a far less reliable ally than Biden, pointing to her ideological alignment with the most progressive lawmakers in Congress. 

“Biden made many mistakes regarding Israel, but he is miles ahead of Harris in terms of support for Israel,” Friedman told The Jerusalem Post. “She is on the fringe of the progressive wing of the party, which sympathizes more with the Palestinian cause.”

“This will move Jewish voters to the Republican side,” the former ambassador argued. “Harris lacks any affinity for Israel, and the Democratic Convention will highlight this contrast. This could lead to a historic shift of Jewish voters to the Republican side.”

Meanwhile, J Street, a progressive Zionist organization, eagerly endorsed Harris the day after Biden dropped out of the presidential race, citing her “nuanced, balanced approach” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflictt.

“Kamala Harris has been a powerful advocate for J Street’s values in the White House, from the fight against antisemitism to the need for a nuanced, balanced approach on Israel-Palestine,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a statement. “She’s been a steadfast supporter of hostage families and Israel’s security, while also being a leading voice for the protection of Palestinian civilians and the need to secure an urgent ceasefire.”

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