At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden by Yossi Klein Halevi
At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden by Yossi Klein Halevi

Religion, Reconciliation, and Conflict in the Holy Land

Oct 31, 2002

Muslim countries have historically made space for Jewish minority groups, but Islam must evolve to accept a more modern notion of pluralism if there is to be peace in the Middle East, says Yossi Klein Halevi.

Edited transcript of remarks from a 10/31/02 Studies Talk co-sponsored with the American Jewish Committee.


YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: It's truly an honor to be here among new friends and some cherished old friends. The journey that I took into Islam and Christianity in the Holy Land was, in a sense, inspired by the fundamentalists of all faiths. What I mean by that is that I saw their passion, commitment, courage, and single-mindedness as a challenge to pluralists and religious universalists everywhere. To me, it seems that one of the reasons the fundamentalists seem to be winning, or at least why they are on the ascendancy, is they have often managed to take the initiative and to express and embody a sense of overriding commitment to their cause.

What I was hoping to do on this journey was, in some small way, challenge that sense of exclusivist commitment and see whether it was possible for religious pluralists to take the risk of going beyond the inter-religious dialogue. I felt it was time to take the next step. And for me, that step meant going beyond theological discussions (I'm not a theologian, and truthfully, I don't really understand theology, although I've tried). I realized that whatever contribution I could make would be as a lay person, a religious Jew who really did not understand very much about Islam and Christianity but who was seeking to share something of the presence of God in the company of Muslims and Christians.

The journey that I took was an expression of what I call applied monotheism. Monotheism is not primarily a theological principle; for the mystics of all faiths, monotheism is a literal statement of fact. If we take the monotheistic principle seriously, it means that each of us is a cell within a unified divine body and mind. So the monotheistic challenge is to overcome the notion of making peace with the other side, because according to monotheism, there is no such thing as the other side.

As a Jew, this journey was in some ways easy for me and in other ways almost unbearable. Strangely enough, the easy part was overcoming any religious inhibition. Judaism is not a universal faith like Christianity and Islam, and Judaism believes that only Jews need to practice Judaism; it doesn't project a long-term vision of the world being transformed Judaically. So within the Jewish tradition, there is an easy recognition that other people have their own paths to God and to salvation.

Where I did have to struggle, and where I continue to struggle, is in the historical, psychological, and cultural legacy that I inherited from the Jewish tradition and from Jewish history, and especially from my father who was a Holocaust survivor.

By any stretch of the imagination, I was not a natural candidate for this journey. I grew up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn called Borough Park, which for those of you who are familiar with it know it to be not only the heart of the Jewish ghetto - its probably the largest orthodox, even ultra-orthodox neighborhood in the United States - but also, at least when I was growing up, probably the largest concentration of Holocaust survivors in the world. What I was taught by my father, who survived World War II by hiding in a hole in a forest in Transylvania, was that the world was divided into only two groups: Jews and non-Jews. It was almost as if we saw ourselves as belonging to a separate species. My father also believed that the non-Jews themselves fell into two categories: those who actively want to destroy the Jewish people, and those who are quietly grateful to the people who do the dirty work.

I think many of us don't understand how deeply that sensibility runs within a large part of the Jewish people, and certainly within Orthodox and Holocaust survivor communities. The wound in Borough Park was so profound that if we had had the ability to construct a big wall or a moat around the neighborhood, I think we would have physically isolated ourselves from the rest of the world.

Now, there was one interesting exception in my father's theology. My father was saved by a Christian, a forest keeper who used to bring him whatever food he could. My father survived the Holocaust by hiding with two friends, but he never taught me the names of those two friends. He did, however, repeatedly mention the name of the forest keeper who brought him food.

As I got older and started deconstructing the stories of my childhood, I think what my father was really telling me was that the Holocaust experience was so overwhelming that he could only transmit it in absolutist black-and-white terms. Nevertheless, I think he wanted me to know the subversive detail of the one good Christian because he was aware that his picture of the world was probably incomplete and flawed.

The final transition for me, the experience that helped me overcome that legacy of "us and them" that is the basis for all fundamentalist and extremist movements, happened when I moved to Israel in 1982. The shock of making that transition from minority status in the Diaspora to joining the boisterous, cranky Jewish sovereign majority in Israel was the liberating force that helped me realize that the Holocaust was over and that there was no need for me to vicariously inhabit my father's reality. In fact, the gap between my father's experience as a Holocaust survivor and my experience growing up in the United States and then going to Israel was so vast, psychologically and practically, that the gap should have been measured not by decades but by centuries. In our generation, Jews have taken a leap into an entirely new psychological dimension.

The complex experience of Jewish power was both liberating and sobering. I was drafted into the Israeli army during the first Intifadah, and I served as a soldier in the Gaza refugee camps and West Bank villages and towns, and as paradoxically as it may seem, I found the experience profoundly liberating. It liberated me from my identity as a victim and helped me realize that the notion that Jews are history's preeminent victim has become, in a profound way, outdated.

When I began to realize how much Jewish reality had changed in our generation, I realized that Israel provided the Jewish people with both a gift and a challenge. For the first time, the dynamic between Jews and Christians and between Jews and Muslims had been suddenly reversed, at least in Israel. For the first time, the Jews are the sovereign majority, responsible for both Christian and Muslim minorities, and that gave me, as an Israeli, an opportunity to try and overcome those centuries of accumulated rage and fear that so many of us carried towards Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Islam, although in contemporary times, that fear and rage has intensified.

Here again, I would say my journey was a gift of Zionist empowerment. It was precisely what Zionism had set out to do a hundred years ago - to free the Jewish people from their mentality of victimization. It made it possible for me as a religious Jews to confront these deep resentments and these two faiths that I share the Holy Land with.

In trying to encounter Christianity and Islam, I was confronted with opposite psychological problems. The Jewish relationship towards Christianity has a tortured history but a promising present and future. While Jews and Christians have been almost completely incapable of any intimacy or even basic civility, we are now on our way towards developing a relationship of civility and perhaps even intimacy. With Islam, our relationship is essentially reversed. There are extraordinary examples in our past of spiritual intimacy among Muslims and Jews. These examples come not only from Spain, which is the best known example and was probably the high point in Medieval times of Muslim-Jewish-Christian symbiosis, but also in Medieval Egypt where there was a lesser known interaction between Jewish and Muslim mystics that deeply penetrated Judaism. The children and grandchildren of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides who lived in Egypt about a thousand years ago actually became Sufi Sheikhs and ordained Sufi Sheikhs while remaining rabbis in fairly good standing. They also incorporated elements of Sufism - the mystical, devotional path of Islam - into the synagogue life of Medieval Cairo. So there was something to draw on from the distant past. Judaism had managed to develop intimacy with Islam. In our present relationship, of course, Jews and Muslims find it hard to maintain even basic civility.

In my journey into mosques, monasteries, and churches, and in my attempt to learn something of the devotional life of my Muslim and Christian neighbors, I was hoping to learn how to pray with Christians and Muslims and to experience something of the Divine presence in the Holy Land. I am privileged to be part of the first generation, arguably in human history, which has the chance to experience other devotional lives without having to convert to another faith. Today, the literature of the world's faiths is available to us even in paperback, and the temples, synagogues and mosques were, at least at that moment in time from 1998 to 1999, open to me to some extent in the Holy Land. I wanted to see whether I could cross those borders, and I found I was welcomed to Christianity by monks and nuns and to Islam by Sufi Sheikhs.

I learned two significant spiritual lessons from the monks and nuns of the Holy Land. The first was the power of silence in prayer. Now, some of you may notice that Jews like to talk, and Israeli society is an extraordinarily talkative place. Even our synagogues tend to be rather noisy ("full of life" would be the positive way to look at it). So there was something liberating in experiencing silence in a monastic setting, and especially in Israel where silence is so rare. I was privileged to become friends with a group of nuns who live in silence - they have a convent near Jerusalem, and I was welcomed there for retreat. In their presence, I learned not only the powerful techniques of Catholic monastic meditation, but also something of the power of celibacy, which I also learned from monks. I think it is important to mention that given the trauma the Catholic Church is currently going through, how precious celibacy is when used in the right way. Celibacy creates the grand stage for expanding one's love in a narrow sense from family and friends to the potential capacity for universal love - the capacity to see oneself as responsible in one's prayer life for the well-being of the whole planet.

In this convent, the Mother Superior monitors the news and every Sunday gathers together with the sisters and presents them with a list of the week's tragedies - disasters, areas of tensions, etc.; if there is famine in Africa, an earthquake in Turkey, they will appear on the prayer list - and the sisters are then dispatched to their cells for the next week. And here again I realized that Judaism has something to learn from the Christian tradition: the sense of responsibility for the universal well being of humanity. One of the unfortunate legacies of the long centuries of ghettoization and exile of the Jewish people was that we internalized those ghetto walls, and they even seeped into our devotional lives. In our prayer book, for example, we tend to focus on prayers for the well being of the Jewish people. In some ways, we have forgotten how to pray for the well being of the world. One of my hopes and goals as an Israeli is to help bring about a transition from the ghettoized Judaism that we have largely imported into Israel and to help create a new Israeli Judaism that is more suitable to a sovereign people that have returned to its land and is no longer living in an adversarial relationship with the rest of the world. These two components that I learned from the nuns and monks are things that Christianity has preserved but that Judaism, especially in Israel, needs to relearn.

What I learned from Islam was in some ways the opposite experience. Where the deepest level of Christian prayer tends to be in the silent contemplative tradition, the deepest level of Islamic prayer tends to be the most effusive sense of prayer - the Sufi circle - zikr - the remembrance of God.

There are many different forms of zikr. The form of zikr that I encountered was a sophisticated, complex joining together of breath, movement, and chant, and after an hour or so, you feel as if you don't know who or where you are, and you have this extraordinary sense of embrace. For one, you are part of the circle, and the circle continues to expand seemingly endlessly out into the universe. So the same result that one can achieve in silent contemplative prayer - that sense of losing one's individuality and merging with the whole - is precisely what is reached through the exuberance of zikr.

I was also privileged to be admitted, in several cases, into the Muslim prayer line to experience something of that remarkable choreography of prayer where the entire body is immersed in a coordinated, rapid series of prostrations. There again you find yourself losing your individuality. So what I tasted in Islam was the Islamic genius for surrender that allows the individual to transcend the limitations of our singular consciousness and being made to realize we are parts of a unified whole.

The second insight into Islam that really moved me was the Islamic ability to impart a constant awareness of human mortality to believers. In the West, we tend to place veils between daily life and an awareness of our ultimate end. What Islam manages to do is to help the believer incorporate mortality into one's daily consciousness and to face it with courage. In conversations with almost any Muslim, it is commonplace to hear a variation of the phrase that says, "Who are we anyway? How many years do we have left? What is the point of arguing or disagreeing?" So built into Islam is a great capacity for reconciliation and humility.

Which brings me to the final part of my discussion, which is, inevitably, the political situation. It is precisely because I learned to so deeply love and venerate Islam that I feel the responsibility as an Israeli to speak honestly. I think that the central question for an Israeli, in terms of our future relationship with Islam, comes down to one question: Can Islam accept the legitimacy of Jewish sovereignty in any borders?

Is it possible for Islam to go beyond the model of tolerance that was advanced and sophisticated in Medieval times where Islam created space for "the people of the book," as the Koran refers to Christians and Jews, to live under Muslim sovereignty? Is Islam capable of taking that idea as the basis for a modern notion of pluralism, seeing parallel sovereign nation states in an interconnected world?

I believe that Islam is capable of that growth. Certainly the Muslims I have come to know, respect, and love are more than capable of bringing Islam to its next evolutionary phase, much as Christianity grew after the Holocaust by not only undoing its anti-Jewish theology but, in fact, reversing it. The greatness of the Christian-Jewish dialogues is that they fostered an entirely new theology. The transition within the Catholic Church was especially pronounced as it moved from seeing the Jews as cursed by God to being blessed by God.

Some of you may remember when the Pope came to Jerusalem two years ago and placed a note into the Western Wall. The media tended to focus on the message of that note, which was asking God for forgiveness for the centuries of Christian anti-Semitism. But within that note there was the far more significant aspect of how the Pope referred to the Jewish people. He called them "people of the covenant." For the Pope to reaffirm the continued validity of God's covenantal relationship with the Jewish people was a theological leap and replaced the notion that the Church had come in place of the old Israel. This gives me hope by helping me recognize that religions are capable of change. They do evolve.

I think all three monotheistic faiths will be able to evolve and meet the primary challenge that faces religion today, which is very simply this: Can we, as religious people, use our religious traditions to help save the world from self-destruction, or, God forbid, will religion be used to further those processes of danger and destruction?

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: You gave an extraordinary talk that was very insightful. I have a multi-question. First of all, when you went to Israel as a Jew from Brooklyn, did you become more Jewish? And did you find that living in a completely Jewish environment changed the nature of how you thought about yourself, who you are, what you have been, and what you will do? And given the present circumstances of what is going on in Israel-Palestine and the change of government in Israel, it seems that Jews are likely to become more conservative. How does is all come together?

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: Interestingly enough, in moving to Israel, I think I became more and less Jewish. I became more Jewish religiously; I was not observant in almost any way when I lived here in the United States. It was only when I moved to Israel that I began to take Judaism seriously.

At the same time, I became culturally and psychologically less Jewish, at least in terms of how American Jews understand Judaism. Our reality over there is not very Jewish in the sense of what American Jews think of as Jewish. One of the tremendous changes in terms of our ability to make peace with the Middle East is the gradual transformation of Israel from a Western cultural society into a multicultural society, and in particular one which incorporates the East and the Middle East into things like music and other forms of culture.

I think that many American Jews tend to look at the world in a very different way than Israelis do. The Holocaust, for example, is not very central to Israeli consciousness. The Holocaust relates to your second question, which is that by becoming part of a Jewish sovereign majority, the Holocaust really lost its relevance. The first Intifadah accelerated this process. In Tom Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem, he described Israel in the late 1980s as Yad Vashem with an air force -Yad Vashem means the Holocaust museum - and I think that description might have been apt for that time, but it almost completely fell apart in the 1990s. Certainly the younger generation in Israel looks at the Holocaust with a fair amount of interest, but its more like when I look at the Spanish Inquisition - it is interesting to me but it doesn't really have relevance to my life.

Your third question was about the fall of the unity government in Israel, which I just read about this morning. I think this is a tragedy for Israel. The unity government was the single, best development that had happened in Israel in the last two years. By bringing together the moderate left and the moderate right, it neutralized the excesses of both sides - the naiveté of the peace camp and the provocations of the Israeli hawks. And there was something extraordinary seeing the architect of the settlement movement, Sharon, sitting together with the architect of Oslo, Peres. In a sense, these two men were stalemating each other after their two ambitious polices had both collapsed.

I think I can speak for the centrist majority in Israel, which is the non-ideological pragmatic majority. We are in principle prepared for almost any concession that will end this conflict. In practice, we don't believe we have the right partners on the Palestinian side at this moment in history for implementing a workable solution, and I think most Israelis today would agree with the statement that both the occupation has failed and the peace process has failed. My guess is that if this situation continues, what will eventually happen will be a unilateral Israeli withdrawal to predetermined borders, which will allow two things to happen: it will allow a Palestinian state to emerge, and Israel will also retain certain areas that are of strategic value that Israel was prepared to concede at Camp David but which I believe Israel will not be prepared to concede after our experience of the last two years.

QUESTION: I have a comment and a question. The comment is that it is not always evident to me that the recent changes in the theology of the Catholic Church and the Vatican on the acknowledgement of the covenant with Jews has been featured as a break-through for Christianity as a whole. Also, it should be noted that mainline American Protestant denominations reached that insight some decades or so ago, and that, too, is worth celebrating.

My question is this: your illustration of the nuns praying for the world is very touching, and it revived a question that has become perennial for me, and that is, how does the suffering that one's own people have endured become a prism into the suffering of others? One of my heroines is a young African-American schoolgirl who went to the Holocaust museum in Washington, and when she was midway in that terrifying museum, she turned to her companion and said "See, other people have suffered too." That for me is the key to a politics of empathy and compassion, without which peace may never be possible, where religion becomes part of the fortifications of that ghetto rather than a door out of it.

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: I would like to respond by elaborating on the process that happened in Israeli society during and immediately after the first Intifadah because I think that is a classis example of how people really did try to overcome their ethnocentric self-pity and begin to open up the Zionist narrative to incorporate the competing narrative of the Palestinians. What happened to a generation of Israelis after the first Intifadah - and this is something that I think has been underestimated and not sufficiently appreciated - is that the Israel centrist majority came to a very painful point where we began to realize that our narrative was incomplete. This helped result in the emergence of the new historians in Israel, who created an entirely new Israeli historiography in the 1990s. That new historiography even penetrated our textbooks, so Israel high-school students began to study not just the Israeli version of history but also the Palestinian version. It went, in fact, so far that there was a backlash, and there needed to be some form of balance to reinsert the Israeli version into our own histories.

The Oslo process was an outgrowth of that psychological process. Oslo could not have happened without the majority of us going through the pain and introspection of the first Intifadah followed by that sense of the incompleteness of the history that we had been taught.

The tragedy of the collapse of the peace process, to my mind, is that we didn't see the beginning of reciprocity among the Palestinians and the Arab world in recognizing that we also have a case. This is not a conflict between absolute good and evil, which was once the normative Israeli narrative, and remains largely the Palestinian and Arab narrative, but a conflict between two traumatized nations - the Jewish nation and the Arab nation.

The Arab world understandably saw Zionism not as a people returning home but as the next phase of a colonialist invasion of the Middle East. The Jews understandably saw the Arab attempt to wipe Israel off the map as the next phase of the Final Solution. So instead of seeing ourselves as fellow traumatized nations, Jews saw the Arabs as the new Nazis and the Arabs saw Jews as the new colonialists. What Israel society began to do in the mid-1990s was reexamine how we view the Arab world, and to some extent, my journey into Islam would not have been possible had all of that work in Israeli society not been done first. What I tried to do spiritually, Israeli society did psychologically and historically.

In order to jump start the peace process, the Palestinian side and the Arab side will have to make some gesture showing they recognize that we also have a case. The only successful precedent that we have so far in the Middle East of land for peace was the Sadat initiative, and that worked because it wasn't land for peace, but peace for land. By that, I mean that Sadat came to Israel and made a gesture of reconciliation that moved Israelis. When he stood in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and addressed the Israeli people and said, "We welcome you to the Middle East," he won the hearts of the Israeli public. We forget sometimes that Israel is in a very complicated relationship with the Middle East. Toward the Palestinians, we are the Goliath and they are the David. But when you widen the lens to incorporate the entire Middle East into the picture, Israel becomes the David and the Arab world is the Goliath. So to be an Israeli means that you continually find yourself veering between opposite roles.

In terms of the psychology of the Israeli public today, we are incapable of continuing that process of reconciliation that began in the 1990s until we hear from another Sadat saying the Middle East accepts our legitimacy. I think the key word here is "indigenousness." We are not a colonialist implant, we are not a crusader state - we are an indigenous part of the Middle East with rights to sovereignty over some part of that land. The word "peace" is not enough. That will not change Israeli attitudes. We have heard "the peace of the brave" from Arafat for the last eight years. We don't need to hear this; we need to hear an explicit acceptance of Israeli legitimacy. That is the requirement for renewing the process that began and was aborted in the 1990s.

QUESTION: Do you have any thoughts on whether the potential for conversion that exists in Islam and Christianity has the potential to problematize peaceful, productive dialogue?

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: It's a very good question, and the short answer is yes. Here again, I think that the Catholic Church and some of the mainline Protestant churches have made significant progress in terms of backing away from missionizing Jews. That is a post-Holocaust theological reaction. Obviously, the model that I hope for would be a religion that welcomes converts - my wife is a convert from Christianity - but doesn't seek conversion as its overriding mission. And that is very difficult. That model works very well for Jews, but I understand the deep dilemmas for both Christians and Islam as universal faiths. The question that Christianity and Islam are grappling with is what is an appropriate model for conversion in a globalizing, nuclear world? What is an appropriate model that balances the need to make your message of salvation accessible to others while at the same time accepting that monotheism means many paths to one God?

QUESTION: In your presentation, you described Islam, Christianity and Judaism in broad, monolithic terms, yet at the same time you talked about the political realities and the divisions. How do you harmonize these two separate tracks? Can there be a bridge? Or are we overly simplistic if we deal with the religious aspect as of one unified group?

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: That is exactly is my dilemma. Having written this book, having experienced this journey, and learning something of this monotheistic oneness, and then to find myself on the front lines of this war has been an almost unbearable, schizophrenic challenge. I find myself veering back and forth in my writing between defending Israel and being very much in the mode of two sides, and then slipping back into the religious consciousness that insists there is no such thing as another side. I don't know how to reconcile that dilemma myself, let alone in reality at large.

My only hope is to emulate something that I learned from a great Sufi Sheikh who visited Jerusalem in the late 1990s and with whom I was privileged to spend a few days with. This Sufi Sheikh divides his time between Cairo and Mecca, but he came to Israel on a personal pilgrimage of reconciliation. He was sitting with an interfaith group much like this in Jerusalem and someone asked him "What do you think Muslims and Jews need to do?" He said, simply, "Appear together in public. Get our two peoples used to seeing us together." When he said this in 1998, there was palpable sense of disappointment in the audience. People were hoping for something more profound, something spiritual, and all he seemed to be offering is what we were already doing in that room.

Since the beginning of this war, I have thought a lot about those words, and I realize how profound his challenge really was. First, it acknowledges that the divide between Muslims and Jews has become so pathological that it is hard to aspire to more than just appearing together. But beyond that, simply by standing together, there is a sense of God's transcendence beyond our own agenda and needs. There is this wonderful verse in the Koran which, unfortunately, I can only paraphrase, when God is addressing the Prophet, and God says, "I created you in nations and tribes to know each other." And in that extraordinary verse, which my Muslim friends tend to quote as the basis for a Koranic celebration of pluralism, is the understanding that God's greatness can only be experienced once we step out of who we are and what we know. So when we experience God in the familiarity of our religious tradition, we are in a sense imposing on God who we are and what we know. When we try to experience God in the interfaith setting, through the strange experience of others, we are beginning to taste something of the grandness of God.

I would like to add a side note on the subject of how religions evolve. When I quote this Koranic verse to Jewish audiences, which I have been doing on this trip, invariably someone will stand up in the audience and say, "Sure, that is a great quote, but what about quote X and quote Y in the Koran which says the opposite." What all religions do, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes consciously, is to emphasize certain parts of scripture and to de-emphasize others. For example, as liberal Judaism developed, the book of Joshua became less quoted and Isaiah became more quoted. Among Christian theologians today, the problematic verses in the gospels about the Jewish people tend to be either contextualized historically or simply allowed to lapse into silence. The very subtle process of emphasizing certain verses over others is precisely how religious people allow themselves to remain within their traditions while expanding the religion, and in some cases, taking the religion to places where it initially might not have wanted to go.

QUESTION: I wanted to raise the question of how religion touches politics and how politics touches religion. Can you discuss the danger of how political forces can co-opt religion?

YOSSIE KLEIN HALEVI: Here I think Judaism and Islam share a similar problem, and that is that we think that there is nothing extraneous to religion. In the Israel context, the source of the disastrous religious interference in politics emerges from the very logic of Judaism. If the Jews are both a nation and a religion, if the religious experience comes through the experience of the nation, then there is no way in which our return to the land and the reemergence of political sovereignty can’t be interpreted in religions terms. From there, the next step is religion influencing the nature of that sovereignty.

The fact that both Islam and Judaism are systems of religious law and believe that religion must govern human life and is part of society is both the strength and weakness of our two faiths. That is something we need to grapple with, most immediately in Israel, and I mean most immediately precisely because the fall of the unity government and the imminent replacement of that government with a narrow, right religious government, which will be a disaster not just for the Middle East and Israel but for Judaism itself.

But let me end on a positive note. We haven’t seen many Muslims stepping forward publicly, but given the risk that Muslims face today to speak out for pluralism – and I don’t necessarily mean violence but also ostracism, which is a very powerful constraint - I have to say that the journey I took into Islam and Christianity was easy by comparison So when I do see Muslim friends willing to take that stand for pluralism and for a new vision of religions, then that courage, that extraordinary capacity for greatness only reinforces the love and admiration I have for Islam, as well as the faith I have that Islam is on the verge of major positive changes.

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