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Springtime for Sinwar

Notes on the pro-Hamas Left and its antecedents.

· 20 min read
Demonstrators gather at the gates of Columbia University in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, NY, on Saturday, 20 April 2024.
Demonstrators gather at the gates of Columbia University in Morningside Heights, Manhattan, NY, on Saturday, 20 April 2024. Alamy

I. Pre-Modern Hatred in Modern Drag

On the evening of 29 April 2024, demonstrators occupied Columbia’s Hamilton Hall, barricaded themselves inside, and refused to move until Columbia agreed to divest its endowment funds from Israel. A video published by the Free Press shows a masked person using a hammer to smash the glass in the building’s doors, before using what appears to be a bike lock to secure them. Other masked protesters build a makeshift barricade out of chairs. That evening, protesters outside the occupied building cheered its “liberation” and denounced Israeli “apartheid” and “genocide.” One young woman can be seen in a sweatshirt from Choate Rosemary Hall—one of the most expensive and exclusive private boarding schools in the United States. It is a feeder school to the Ivy League, and the alma mater of President John F. Kennedy (among other members of the American establishment). 

In unaccented American English, the supporting crowd chants that “Israel will fall! Brick by brick, wall by wall! We want all of it! Settlers, settlers go back home! Palestine is ours alone!” These young Americans at Columbia university and at other demonstrations this spring are openly—and proudly—calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. Though they have no claim to use the word “ours alone” regarding any territory in the Middle East, in the name of anti-racism and anti-imperialism, they support the “martyrs” of Hamas who aim to create an ethnically and religiously cleansed “Palestine” free of Jews.

These disgraceful scenes are one result of the emergence, over the last decade or so, of a pro-Hamas Left among the faculty and students in America’s universities. Since the 7 October massacre of over twelve hundred Israelis was orchestrated by Hamas’s military leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, this contingent has burst into full and unapologetic public view. While many in the professoriate would strenuously deny that they are supporters of Hamas, their stubborn refusal to call for the organisation’s surrender and their vehement denunciations of Israel’s military response both lend objective moral support to the terrorist group during the ongoing conflict. 

In one way, this development is not surprising—antagonism to Israel has long been a defining element of leftist ideology, and there is nothing new to be heard in the protesters’ chants and slogans. The calumny that Israel is a racist and genocidal colonial state has been a part of the assault on Israel in world politics since the late 1960s. For most of that time, American and European decolonial leftists—including professors, students, activists, and journalists—supported what they regarded as an equally leftist and decolonial project represented by the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Accordingly, they made excuses for the PLO’s terrorism and insisted that its effort to destroy the state of Israel by force of arms was not motivated by antisemitism. Yassir Arafat entered the romantic pantheon of global Third World revolutionaries and became a regular visitor to Moscow and East Berlin. These decades of secular antagonism to Israel created the foundation for the Left’s willingness to defend Hamas in spite of its reactionary religious fanaticism.

But in another way, the academic Left’s enthusiasm for Hamas is remarkable. The enthusiasm of leftist professors and students for the Islamic Resistance Movement in Gaza is unprecedented in the history of modern leftism. Scepticism and even outright rejection of what Marx called “the opiate of the people” has been a salient theme of leftist sensibilities since the French Revolution. Yet Hamas’s punishing fundamentalism has not deterred the secular American Left from embracing what I have called “fascism with a religious face.” Over the past decade, I have drawn attention to the emergence of the pro-Hamas Left, and to the bizarre fact that secular intellectuals and students are now supporting an organisation that grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood and Nazi collaborators. Today, the Islamisation of the Left has become unignorable on college campuses. 

The Ideology of Mass Murder
Hamas and the origins of the October 7th attacks.

As its foundational Covenant made clear in 1988, Hamas’s reactionary nature lies in a selective reading of Islam’s ancient texts that defines the religion as inherently antisemitic. This interpretation of Islam legitimises Hamas’s religious war to destroy the state of Israel, its rejection of liberal democracy, its use of terror as a political weapon, and its social conservatism that demands the subordination of women and lethal hostility to homosexualityAll of which ought to make Hamas anathema to social progressives on the academic Left. But the enthusiasm with which secular anti-Zionists have rallied to the cause of Hamas’s religious warriors—or at least protected them from criticism—suggests that solidarity in their shared hatred of a common enemy, Israel, supersedes all other political differences. 

Over the last half-century, Israel’s secular antagonists have indignantly rejected the possibility that waging war to destroy the world’s only Jewish state and the Middle East’s only liberal democracy has anything to do with antisemitism. They insist that it is “only Zionism” they oppose, as if that position has nothing to do with antisemitism and its double standards. The attack on the right of Israel to exist may have been the first moment in the long history of antisemitism when those attacking the Jews protested that they were not antisemites at all. By adopting the language of modern progressive politics—human rights, revolutionary anti-colonialism, and anti-racism—the PLO and its supporters sought to deny that their campaign of terror against Israel was simply the latest iteration of a paranoid hatred with ancient, pre-modern roots. They insisted they had no quarrel with Judaism or the Jewish people, and that the accusation of antisemitism was simply an effort to malign the legitimate criticism of Israeli policies.

Since the 1960s—first in world politics at the United Nations and then in American universities—secular anti-Zionists have placed the blame for the absence of peace in the Middle East exclusively on Israel. During the 1970s and ’80s, Soviet propagandists compared Israel to Nazi Germany and members of radical West German terrorist organisations like the Red Army Faction redescribed Zionism as fascism. When Palestinian leaders rejected Israeli offers of a two-state solution in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the West’s anti-Zionist intellectuals all agreed that the offers were beneath consideration. When the PLO and its various affiliates responded to these offers by murdering and maiming Israeli civilians in terrorist campaigns, supporters in Europe and the United States simply redefined terrorism as justifiable resistance to Israeli injustice. And when Israel retaliated against those terrorist attacks, Western anti-Zionists denounced that retaliation as unjustified aggression.

The Language of Soviet Propaganda
Progressive anti-Zionism and the poisonous legacy of Cold War hatred.

The anti-Zionist Left in British and American universities contended that the Zionist project and the state of Israel were ethno-religious anachronisms in a modern multicultural world—relics of a racial nationalism that prevailed in a less enlightened era. For the leftist academy, the Arab leaders of the PLO were Leninist comrades comparable to Che and Castro and Mao, not Muslim Brotherhood fanatics or followers of Islamic Jew-haters like Haj Amin el-Husseini and Sayyid Qutb. The embrace of Yassir Arafat by East Berlin and Moscow—not to mention the flood of PLO-sympathetic UN resolutions denouncing Israel—conveyed that the PLO and its global supporters were part of a secular modern revolutionary movement. 

Four decades of undeclared war against Israel by communists and their Western apologists helped to sustain antisemitism after it appeared to have been decisively discredited by the Nazis and their Holocaust. The communists placed the prestige of anti-fascism in the service of an antisemitic project—the destruction of the Jewish state—and thereby gave new life and respectability to the world’s oldest hatred. Israel, the communists decided, was the “spearhead” of American imperialism in the Middle East, a development that could only be explained by the sinister and disproportionate influence on US foreign policy exerted by American Jews.

Masked pro-Palestine protestors bearing Communist slogans and a Communist magazine
Photo by Tristan Sosteric on Unsplash

The Hamas Charter of 1988 represented a sharp turn away from these efforts to distinguish antisemitism from anti-Zionism. The revised Statement of 2017 adopts the language of secular, leftist anti-Zionism but reaffirms Hamas’s determination to eliminate the Jewish state “from the river to the sea.” As justification for its genocidal campaign against world Jewry, Hamas’s foundational Charter invoked the fabricated Protocols of the Elders of Zion along with Nazi propaganda that blamed the Jews for the French Revolution, World War I, World War II, and global unrest in general. The Charter is not just an expression of raw Jew-hatred; by defining its war against Israel as a war of religion, it has become one of the most important texts of reactionary ideology in world politics since the defeat of Nazism. It remains the defining statement of Hamas ideology and policy. 

II. Sounds of Silence; Acts of Aggression

The activists on the pro-Hamas Left on Western campuses speak as clearly with their silences as they do with their statements. They refer reluctantly, if at all, to Hamas’s foundational Charter and refuse to acknowledge its connection to the genocidal events of 7 October. They say nothing about Hamas’s expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid on an elaborate network of underground tunnels, the only purposes of which are to wage war against Israel and protect Hamas militants as Gaza’s civilian population suffers the military consequences of the group’s terrorism.

Protest encampment on the campus of Columbia University in New York as seen on 22 April 2024
Protest encampment on the campus of Columbia University in New York as seen on 22 April 2024

On 13 October 2023, the National Women’s Studies Association issued a statement that avoided specific references to the Hamas massacre or its by-then widely reported sexualised violence and sadism. Instead, it described the “root causes” of the violence as “decades of illegal Israeli military occupation and systemic violent campaigns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” The American pro-Hamas Left began to demand ceasefires as soon as Israel began its military reprisals in the hope that Hamas could be protected from the consequences of its own aggression.

A History of Feminist Antisemitism
The story of how activists and academics exchanged the struggle for universal female improvement for a politics of division and hatred.

Western anti-Zionists refused to call on Hamas to surrender or even to release the civilian hostages it had seized—acts that, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out, would have ended the war and spared the lives of thousands of people in Gaza. Through both its statements and its omissions, the pro-Hamas Left has effectively endorsed Hamas’s ruthless strategy of maximising Palestinian civilian casualties so that Israel is condemned in the court of world opinion

Nor has the pro-Hamas Left been shy about expressing its views beyond the relatively protected spaces of academia. Their menacing chants may be heard in the confines of a subway car in New York City. Shortly after 11 pm on 19 April 2024, a group of people—many of whom were masked and wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh—stood at the entrance to a subway next to Columbia university and chanted the following:

Al-Qassam, make us proud! Kill another soldier now!
We say Justice, you say How? Burn Tel Aviv to the ground!
Hamas Hamas, we love you! We support your rockets too!
Red, black, green, and white! We support Hamas’s fight! 
It is right to rebel! Al-Qassam give them hell!
It is right to rebel! Hamas Hamas give them hell!

The unidentified male and female protesters chant these lines proclaiming their ardent support for Hamas and their bloodcurdling fantasies of Tel Aviv set ablaze by Palestinian rocket-fire in full knowledge of the terrible events of 7 October. This unequivocal celebration of terrorism and mass murder may be among the most wicked forms of political speech uttered in recent American history. Nevertheless, I have not seen it reported in the pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post, or broadcast on National Public Radio or the Public Broadcast Service (PBS)By contrast, when right-wing extremists in Charlottesville chanted “The Jews will not replace us!” in 2017, that chant rightly received wall-to-wall coverage on all the main television and cable-news networks.

Editors at America’s largest media organisations have decided to euphemise the Spring 2024 demonstrations as either “pro-Palestinian” or “anti-war” when they are objectively neither. They are, in fact, demonstrations in support of Hamas and its ongoing war against Israel, neither of which is in the interests of either Palestinian civilians or their quest for self-determination. This reporting also implies that Hamas represents the Palestinians, despite the fact that the organisation has misgoverned Gaza as a dictatorship since 2007. The press seldom criticises protesters’ ubiquitous references to “Palestine”—a state that does not exist—nor their corresponding refusal to mention Israel, which has been a full UN member state for 75 years. This linguistic erasure implicitly seeks to bring the reality of Israel to an end. The chants of “From the river to the sea! Palestine will be free!” explicitly draw upon the language of the 2017 Hamas statement that reasserted Hamas’s intention to destroy Israel by force of arms. 

The rhetoric and conduct of the pro-Hamas Left in April 2024 are plainly as historically significant and newsworthy as those of the white nationalists rallying in Charlottesville. Anti-Zionists do not refer—as paranoid right-wing extremists do—to a nonexistent strategy by which powerful Jews are conspiring to replace native whites with immigrants. The genocidal chants of anti-Zionists, on the other hand, celebrate a real, ongoing war against the Jews in Israel. These are not “anti-war” protests. In the short term, they are defiant expressions of support for the terrorist combatants that launched the war in Gaza and refuse to bring it to an end. But in a longer view, these chants are displays of solidarity with the eliminationist campaign that Hamas has been waging against Israel since 1988. Such words and images belong in the pages of major newspapers, and in television broadcasts. 

By the end of April, there were indications that parts of the press had accepted that there is now a need to speak frankly about antisemitism. Yet on the whole, editors have enshrined a grotesque double standard in American journalism—resolute opposition to racism from right-wing extremists combined with far too much indulgence of racism from Islamists, their supporters, and anyone else who seeks the destruction of Israel. As far as I can tell, neither the New York Times and  the Washington Post published the text of the 1988 Hamas Charter nor have they subjected it to extensive scrutiny since 7 October. As a result, readers, listeners, and viewers of mainstream American media remained under-informed about the genocidal ideology of the organisation responsible for the loss of so many lives during the current conflict.

III. Academic Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism

In 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Zionism is a form of racism. Although it was eventually rescinded in 1991, the damage had been done. For centuries, false accusations against the Jews have fed antisemitism and the effect of this lie was no different. The UNGA resolution reincarnated the spectre of the murderous and powerful Jew of the antisemitic imagination as the aggressive and racist Zionist. Though the PLO failed to destroy Israel by war and terror, its distorted depiction of Israel as a “settler-colonial” state established by the racist dispossession of the indigenous people found favour in human-rights organisations, and then in the Humanities and Social Science faculties in European and American universities. 

In fact, this accusation was a very successful instance of political projection. Jamal Husseini, the representative of the Arab Higher Committee at the United Nations in 1947, described the Arab world as a “racial homogeneity” in need of preservation against Zionist intrusion. Palestinian nationalists successfully projected their own history of racism onto the Zionists, and the impact on teaching in American universities was significant. In relevant courses, historical studies of Haj Amin al-Husseini’s collaboration with the Nazi regime were either passed over in silence or countered with ahistorical apologetics. The support provided to the Zionist project by the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc, the French Gaullists, socialists and communists, and American liberals and leftists in the crucial years of 1947 to 1949 faded from memory or was never taught in the first place.

Similarly, the intense opposition to the Zionist project in the British Foreign Office and the US State Department—that is, the centres of what the Left call the forces of imperialism—received little or no attention in the anti-Zionist Left’s revisionist narrative of imperialist perfidy. Knowledge of repeated Palestinian rejections of Israeli offers of a compromise two-state solution also did not fit into the anti-Zionist consensus in the academy. Although Israel’s Declaration of Independence affirmed that the new state would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and despite the fact that Arab political parties are represented in the Israeli parliament, the falsehood that the state of Israel is a form of apartheid also found respectability in parts of the American academy. 

In other words, while the PLO’s armed struggle was an abysmal military failure, its version of the history of Israel met with great success in a long intellectual march through America’s institutions of higher education. Once Zionism was libelled as a form of racism and Israeli democracy was misconstrued as a form of apartheid, the salience of race and racism in American history and society facilitated the spread of a particularly vitriolic academic anti-Zionism. The anti-Zionist impulse also found surprisingly strong support among scholars in departments of American Studies, English, various ethnic and postcolonial sub-disciplines, and women’s studies programmes. This transformation soon became evident in repeated and occasionally successful efforts to pass resolutions to boycott Israeli universities, divest from Israel’s economy, or end American support for Israel.  

The ascendancy of the anti-Zionist Left was most pronounced in the professional disciplines of history and political science gathered in the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). On 22 March 2022, its members voted by an overwhelming margin of 768 to 167 in favour of a resolution to boycott, divest from, and sanction (BDS) the state of Israel. Scholars—especially younger academics—who did not agree would plausibly conclude that support for Israel’s existence and legitimacy, or examination of Jew-hatred in its Islamist form, were now unwelcome in the academic discipline most closely involved in the study of these issues. 

In view of the prominence at Columbia University of scholars who promoted this animus against Israel, it was not surprising that, on 20 October 2023, 170 of the university’s faculty members signed an open letter that called the Hamas massacre of 7 October “a military response by a people who had endured crushing and unrelenting state violence from an occupying power over many years.” It added that “one could regard the events of October 7th as just one salvo in an ongoing war between an occupying state and the people it occupies, or as an occupied people exercising a right to resist violent and illegal occupation…” By the time that letter was written, the faculty signatories at Columbia were able to read multiple press accounts of the massacre on 7 October that clearly showed it had been a massive and carefully premeditated war crime. Since Israel had completely withdrawn from Gaza in 2005, the faculty open letter implied that Israel itself was an “illegal occupation.” 

The vituperation hurled at Israel by the academic anti-Zionist Left has had another effect: scholarship stigmatised as “Zionist” has begun to disappear from the syllabi of courses in many American universities. The result is that American students, graduates, and undergraduates know far too little about the vibrant and excellent work by scholars in Israel and elsewhere who accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state. They include many who are sharp critics of the Netanyahu government but who remain part of a broad liberal Zionist consensus. Fortunately, the world of scholarship extends well beyond these institutions, and there exists an abundant and excellent scholarship on the history of Israel, and the origins of Hamas and Islamist antisemitism, in other American universities and institutions in Europe and Israel.

This spring, in association with the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, the Institute’s executive director, Jonathan Brent, and I had the pleasure of coordinating a series of webinars on Hamas, the history of Israel, and responses to 7 October. Our purpose was to bring some of this scholarship to a broader audience. The recordings of these videos and their transcripts are now available on the YIVO website. The German historian and political scientist Matthias Kuentzel and I discussed our respective research into Nazi-Islamist collaboration, the Islamist interpretation of Islam, and the after-effects on the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Benny Morris of Ben Gurion university in the Negev and I drew on our published works to to address debates about colonialism and racism, the history of the war of 1948, and international support for and opposition to the establishment of the state of Israel. Meir Litvak of Tel Aviv University examined Hamas’s view of its war with Israel as a war of religion, and therefore a battle between good and evil in which compromise is unacceptable.

Norman Goda of the University of Florida drew on historical and legal precedents and on the facts of the ongoing war to elaborate on his previous refutation of South Africa’s accusation at the International Court of Justice that Israel is engaging in genocide as it prosecutes its defensive war against Hamas. Karin Stögner, a social theorist at the University of Passau in Germany, also elaborated on her previous writing about the term “intersectionality” and its shortcomings concerning the interpretation of antisemitism and sexism. David Hirsh, professor of sociology at Goldsmiths University in London, examined the eruption of antisemitism in the aftermath of 7 October in light of the campaign against Israel that gained momentum at a UN-sponsored “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” in Durban, South Africa, in August and early September 2001.

South African Lawfare at The Hague
Motions before any court—criminal or civil, national or international—contain references to hard evidence and a careful reading of legal precedent. The South African ICJ application has neither.

About 12,000 viewers watched the live programmes of the YIVO recordings. We hope that the series will draw attention to the work of other scholars whose work on Israel and Islamism departs from what has become an anti-Zionist orthodoxy across much of the academy. Those scholars include, among others, Fouad Ajami, Uri Bialer, Pascal Bruckner, Tuvia Friling, Martin Kramer, Bernard Lewis, Dinah Porat, Boualam Sansal, Anita Shapira, Shlomo Slonim, Norman Stillman, Robert Wistrich, and Elhana Yakira. What unites these men and women is an acceptance of Israel’s fundamental legitimacy. Some focus on the history of Israel, others more on the nature of Islamism. But all reject the campaign to delegitimise the Jewish state as a matter of historical accuracy.

In Germany, a young and mid-career group of scholars—including Stögner, Ulrike Becker, Ingo Elbe, Stephan Grigat, and Lars Rensmann—has established an academic foothold. From there, they are challenging the anti-Zionist consensus and examining antisemitism and antagonism to Israel in its leftist, Islamist, and right-wing variations. Americans, faculty, students, and citizens in general, could learn a lot from these fine scholars. Their work is an important corrective to the errors and misinterpretations that have been allowed to gain respectability and power in American universities in recent decades.

A History of Feminist Antisemitism
The story of how activists and academics exchanged the struggle for universal female improvement for a politics of division and hatred.

IV. Tenured Hatred

Most student protesters are probably unaware of the impact of their actions, but their leaders and faculty allies are not so naïve. The net effect of the current campus protests is to support Hamas in its war against Israel that it began many years ago and waged most viciously on 7 October. I repeat that these protests constitute a historically significant event. They are the first time in the history of American politics that avowedly leftist professors and students have embraced the cause of an organisation that places hatred of the Jews at the core of its beliefs, whose historical origins intersect with Nazism, and whose war to destroy the state of Israel is their logical outcome of those beliefs and that history. By supporting Hamas, these protesters are supporting an organisation—and for 17 years a small dictatorship—that sees no distinction at all between Jew-hatred and its desire to destroy the state of Israel by force of arms. 

For these avowed leftists, the questions of the hour are stark. Do you or do you not support the ideology of Hamas? Do you or do you not oppose Jew-hatred in its Islamist form? Do you or do you not support a war conducted by Hamas—or anyone else—to destroy the state of Israel? To our dismay and anger, many of us have now learned that we have in our midst many deeply miseducated students and influential faculty convinced that destroying the Jewish state is not antisemitic but rather something approaching a moral imperative. This is despite the fact that Hamas has been entirely frank in word and deed about its beliefs and actions since it was established in 1988.

The habits of secular leftist anti-Zionism over the past 60 years—both its distortion of the history of Israel and its apologetics for terrorism—created the basis for support for the religious fanaticism that has fuelled Hamas’s wars with Israel. It turns out that, for many academics and students, the decision to rally behind Hamas was not a difficult one. Hamas’s actions on 7 October may have caused some of them temporary embarrassment, but this was rapidly forgotten once the IDF’s retaliation permitted a return to the usual business of confecting accusations of Israeli genocide and criminality. 

The Return of the Progressive Atrocity
It is the responsibility of Western activists to know who and what they support, and to separate themselves—openly and decisively—from programs and regimes that are predicated on violence and repression.

In the United States today, some of our fellow citizens chant “The Jews will not replace us!” while others profess their desire to see Tel Aviv burn. However, the antisemitic haters on the Right do not enjoy the respectability conferred by tenure at leading universities, while some of those of the Left do. It is time for a heretofore much-too-silent majority of Americans appalled by the recent outpouring of Jew-hatred to come together. We need a broad spectrum of support in the true spirit of American liberalism—one that extends from centre-Left to centre-Right and plainly recognises the ugly and reactionary essence of Hamas’s stated ideology and goals. 

Having spent the springtime of 2024 observing the racism and support for Yahya Sinwar’s genocidal massacre last October, university administrations are finally having to decide whether to lose control of their campuses or call in the police to restore order. The splits in the Democratic Party during an already fraught election year may deepen. The contribution of the pro-Hamas Left to American history may yet be to improve Donald Trump’s chances of winning re-election as the backlash against the chaos on campuses gathers steam, just as it did in the United States—and France—after the student revolts of 1968.

In the midst of this darkening scene, I offer this glimmer of hope. On 28 April 2024, the student body of Columbia’s School of General Studies elected Maya Platek, a student from Israel, to be their president for 2024–5. She campaigned against the antisemitism and anti-Zionism that has been so conspicuously evident at Columbia since 7 October, and she criticised her classmates and professors in unambiguous terms: 

Our classmates and professors choose to manipulate history in order to demonise us as people have done all throughout history. They choose to rewrite our identity in order to justify terrorist regimes. They choose to cheer in our pain and in our suffering, and they choose to delegitimise the only Jewish state in the world when there are dozens of Christian and Muslim ones. They choose to advocate for our removal from this campus over our nationality. That is discrimination. 

This is the face of another, better Columbia University—one loyal to the liberal tradition long associated with that university and unafraid to call its enemies by their correct name. We scholars must also find our collective voice and denounce those, especially among the professoriate, who lend Hamas support and who spread vicious falsehoods about Israel. As scholars, writers, and teachers, it is our duty to restore historical rigour to the study and understanding of Israel, Gaza, the PLO, and Hamas. Truth and decency demand nothing less.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the student body of which Maya Platek was elected president. Apologies for the error.

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