I have followed you for so many years, I have stopped counting. This post is why I keep coming back. You have a way of distilling complicated information into a reasoned argument of both sides, and taking a stand for one without forcing or pushing away dissenters. Thank you and continue to spread the light. I’m just a family man from Ohio but in my opinion, YOUR work is having a profound impact on how we (I) think about complicated issues.

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Incisive and profound.

Let me raise two questions, which might be tangential. Note: I'm an outsider and have no expertise.

1. Might there have been room and need for a different response, outlined below?

Patiently cultivate international good will (immense on October 7), improve defense (as outlined by Russ Roberts), and sharpen the means to liberate hostages and to retaliate as narrowly as practicable against the guilty. Then retaliate.

This is not pacifism in the sense of turn the other cheek. It is a conjecture of an alternative strategy for balancing prudence, concern for the innocent, and punishment of the guilty. Is it less realistic than the current strategy, which seems to leave Israel with few friends and which kills a great many innocents to get at the guilty? Is the patient strategy too clever by half?

To be clear: Any strategic 'calculus' involves much uncertainty. And a strategy of great patience before a narrower retaliation would have been hard to sell in the moment to the deeply wounded Israeli citizenry.

2. Re: Adam Smith, crime, and punishment. Russ, Is there some inconsistency between (a) your eloquent insistence here upon retribution and (b) your compassion and for the guilty and, I think, unrealistic emphasis upon rehabilitation of offenders through liberal-arts education in the EconTalk discussion about the Bard College prisoner education program, at the link below?:


I and other commenters at the EconTalk webpage essentially made counter-arguments like Adam Smith's.

Perhaps criminal justice and justice in war are apples and oranges.

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On the first point, I think the challenge is that when you have an army of roughly 30-40,000 (Hamas) it's hard to respond tactically when they are embedded among civilians or underground. On the second point, I think how we should treat acquaintances who hurt us, how we treat strangers who hurt us, and how we treat nations who hurt us are probably all different. On the Bard College initiative, aspects of that program do make me uncomfortable. But they are in prison. It's not like we're giving them some treat we hope will reform them. Having said that, it is weird to give this great educational opportunity to the inmates but not the guards. I think we discussed that on the program.

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Thanks for the reply.

Re: "it is weird to give this great educational opportunity [the Bard College initiative] to the inmate but not the guards."

I have turned this over in my head. My intuition is that the guards would decline to participate because they would not want to be in a program with the inmates (who are there for retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and maybe reform). Adam Smith, I think, would understand the sentiment and status concern.

I could be wrong.

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“Is it less realistic than the current strategy, which seems to leave Israel with few friends”

Being an American who has never visited Israel, I may not know much. But my impression from Russ’s interview with Haviv Rettig Gur is this: Israel can’t trust any other country and can never rely on the goodwill of even classically liberal nations like America. After the Holocaust, after millennia of persecution, if the Jewish people are to survive they have to do what they have to do in order to guarantee their own survival. And just judging from how Israel has been treated in the past: Israel can do everything right, can bend over backwards to do what is right, can accept more of their own casualties (something no other nation would do) to do what is right, and still they will be treated as a pariah by the international community (which to this day is dominated by anti-semites and dictatorships). Maybe this time Israel needs to do everything it needs to do, to go all the way to ensure this never happens again, to ignore the hatred of the international community which was never going to give Israel a fair shake anyway.

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I’m a practicing, if lukewarm, Christian, so I don’t want to dismiss the words of Jesus with rhetorical hand waving. However, there’s a difference between turning my own cheek turning the cheek of my wife and daughters. I may be obligated to respond peacefully to an insult, or even to violence, but I have no such obligation (indeed, I think the opposite is true) on behalf of others.

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For context to this response: I am a long time listener of your podcast. I am Jewish and born and raised in Israel until I was 8. My family moved to NYC in 1996.

The recent war in Gaza has really profoundly changed my view of Israel and its relationship to Palestinians.

Growing up, Palestinians were demonized occasionally for their acts of terrorism. But mostly ignored, and I think this willingness to ignore them only increased with the until recently sucessful wall around Gaza.

One was rarely encouraged to look deeply into WHY a group of people might so consistently commit such horrendous acts of desperate violence as suicide bombings.

This current war has forced a more intimate look at Israel Palestine relations. And, in forcing this on many in the international community it may be a strategic as well as moral mistake. If Israel had simply bombed Gaza for a few days in response, most likely few eyebrows would have been raised. However, the current wholesale assault on what amounts to an open air prison can't go unnoticed.

I am sympathetic to how Israel got into this position. I grew up doing school projects on the heros of the Yom Kippur war etc. In that narrative Israel was always the feisty underdog holding its own against all odds against the big bad Arab states. I'm not sure exactly when this changed, possibly within the last 30 Years, but Israel is not the underdog in relation to the Palestinians. It has one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world and it is oppressing a poor and desperate people.

A simple thought experiment can showcase the mental and moral gymnastics it takes to see Israel as the "good guys" in this conflict. Take any major Israeli confict of the last 100 years- let's choose 1948 for simplicity, but any would work. Now imagine that it was the Palestians instead of the jews who had won the conflict, and that through this loss, their current roles were reversed. Would any self respecting Jew take the side of the Palestinians (in this scenario playing the role of the Israeli state in oppressing Gaza and the West Bank?) I think not. It is only tribalism that allows us to do so.

This is long for a comment so I will conclude here. I have listened to the last few episodes explaining the Jewish side of the conflict. While I have learned a few things about the history, it would be wonderful if you had a true proponent of the Palestinian cause on. Frequent past guest Nassim Taleb comes to mind. Or to go even further; the host of the "Palestine Talks" podcast would be very interesting to hear a conversation with.

Thanks for reading,


I love Israel, it was a beautiful place to grow up, I have childhood friends currently serving in the IDF. But it needs to look forward, not backwards to resolve its Issues with the Palestinians. It can't continue being an oppressive state.

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In your thought experiment, if the Jews had lost the war of 1948, there would be no role reversal because there would be no Jews left in the middle east. The Palestinian and broader Arab cause, as well as their campus supporters, is to achieve what they failed to do in 1948, eliminate Israel. From the river to the sea. In contrast, Israel isn't trying to - and couldn't - eliminate the Palestinians. That is the basic asymmetry of the conflict. You can like or, as I do, intensely dislike the present Israeli government. But nothing in the Middle East makes sense without acknowledging this basic asymmetry.

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Hi Danny, I appreciate your comment.

I thinks it is possible to image a scenario where Israel lost the overall war, but was able to defend a Gaza sized portion of the country, or maybe the US stepped in at some point to stop total annihilation. Or even if it is too hard to imagine on the Israel-Palestine context, imagine a diaspora population of Druids had returned to Ireland in 1948 and were treating the current Irish population the way the Jews are now treating the Palestinians.

The point is not the specifics, but to view the situation from the other side.

I understand the asymmetry you mention, but also see it as a bit of a convenient "catch22." Something like "we have robbed and mistreated these people for so long, so now they hate us, so now we can't possibly stop robbing and mistreating them because they want to destroy us."

While of course there is some logic to this, it turns out then when people are treated respectfully, given a decent quality of life and listened to, they become much less radicalized and murderous. Somehow South Africa still has a large white population despite what many of them feared at the end of Aprheid

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Yona, I'm writing as a consistent left-voting Israeli proponent of the 2-state solution, who was slowly and then precipitously drawn to the conclusion that the goal of the Palestinian nationalism is not to obtain a state for themselves but rather, its only goal is the eradication of Israel. I reached this conclusion by trying to view the situation from the other side, as you suggested, and think what I would do in their place if I wanted a state of my own alongside Israel. I finally understood that nothing makes sense except if you conclude that their goal is in fact different from what I wished it was. In other words, the Palestinians don't hate us because of what we do, but because we are. Any disengagement, any humanitarian help and good will gesture, any proposal for a 2-state solution was consistently met by Palestinian violence: the 2d Intifada after Camp David, the immediate and constant launching of rockets after the total disengagement from Gaza (which should have been "liberation of Gaza" and the launch of their independent state if that is what the Palestinians were seeking). Nonetheless, since the disengagement, Israel made every effort consistent with its security to treat the Gazans well: thousands were actually treated in Israeli hospitals, billions of dollars were allowed into Gaza, thens of thousands of Gazan laborers were allowed into Israel and their number were set to increase. This was exactly predicated on your assumption: that it you try to treat people better they will stop hating you. Or at least, if they have enough to lose, they won’t risk it by attacking you. This is the “conceptsia” that stands at the basis of the lack of preparedness of Israel for what unfolded on October 7... and now good people abroad suggest that we go back to that mindset as if October 7 didn’t happen …

I say this with sadness. I agree with Yossi Klein Halevi that at this stage, a Palestinian state is an existential threat to Israel, and having to continue occupying (or re-occupying in the case of Gaza) 5 million Palestinians is an existential threat to Israel as well. This is deeply depressing. But that’s where we are. You need two to make peace. Unlike what we are being told by Western progressive racists who think that everything depends only on what us Westerners do, and that non-Western people have no agency, in fact it turns out they do.

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Among the most delightful and terrifying aspects of being creative and articulate is the ability to craft persuasive arguments to fool others and yourself that what you desire is also the right thing to do.

Kant implores us to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” I cannot believe that Russ Roberts wills a universal law that cuts off food, water, and medicine to 2,000,000 or that results in broad bombing of civilian areas or that results in 20,000+ deaths.

Somewhere, there is a Palestinian Russ Roberts with similar creativity and articulateness who is asking Palestinians and others, "'what kind of people and society are we, if we stand idly by when we come face to face with [the] human cruelty' that has been imposed on us"?

While we cannot rely on world opinion alone to determine our actions, the uniform response should give us pause to rethink our natural response.

I wish you peace and safety, and the ability to consider Israel's long-term peace and safety in the face of such unspeakable and abominable provocation.

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Came here to say exactly this.

Russ' post is a humane exposition of why revenge feels compelling. But as a piece or moral reasoning, it fails; it ends up justifying the same cycle of tit-for-tat violence that inspires it.

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This seems very unfair to Russ. Why are you saying “Russ Roberts wills a universal law that cuts off food, water, and medicine to 2,000,000 or that results in broad bombing of civilian areas or that results in 20,000+ deaths?” Please back-up your claim with evidence. What did Russ say that causes you to claim this?

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I am saying just the opposite; the words before the ones you quite are "I cannot believe..." It is relevant because his post concludes that revenge is the Biblically mandated course, a course I hardly think Russ would support as a universal law. And this revenge has -- to date -- had the noted consequences.

The title of the post, Turning the Other Cheek, is not one of a binary set. The Russ Roberts I love would conclude that a limited, more targeted response is a better option than either turning the other cheek or raining hellfire.

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I invite you to describe your vision of Israel’s best-case response to Oct 7.

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I don't have nearly enough information or background to describe a best-case response in any detail. But it would differ from the existing response in several ways. It would begin with a clear image of what the post-response environment should look like; it should ask various friends and independent voices for input; it should calm -- rather than stoke -- calls for immediate revenge; it should establish and declare a clear priority to protect innocent life; it should reduce condemnation by the world community; and it should be visibly attentive to morality, human rights, and the long-term safety of Israelis.

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You haven’t said a single word about punishing the guilty. I find that odd.

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In my earlier answer to you, I called for Israel to "identify and assassinate much of the leadership of Hamas and many of the invaders -- over time." I see little point in expanding our correspondence, so I offer you the last word.

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It has been a trope in a lot of fantasy fiction for some time that evil-doers will wipe out a whole family or village to avoid the cycle of revenge or retribution that the morality of Eye for an Eye justice demands. If there's no one left to seek vengeance then the cycle stops. Part of why we have justice systems is to take the problems of vengeance out of the hands of people and stop cycles of violence on a person to person level.

However when groups of people come into conflict with no check on them, as is the case here, I fear that the problem is that there is a killed or be killed reaction. And once aggression starts the end only comes when one side no longer has the capacity to fight. I think of the US civil war when belligerents fought on well longer than need be to preserve dignity and honor.

I also think of the Japanese reaction to their homeland being invaded during World War 2. Although the end of hostilities came after the dropping of Atomic weapons, there had been plans for civilians to keep fighting a much longer time. When it comes to fighting for survival humans will persist for long periods of time, even if the odds are against them.

This conflict I think is born of two peoples sincere belief that existence for their people is in danger. I've heard people call Israel's actions a genocide, and I've heard it argued that Israel is fighting to survive and not only that but that Jews have nowhere else to go. In such a situation where people believe that life and death for not only themselves but their people, I don't see de-escalation as easy.

Although a big part of this is punishment, I don't see this conflict as action based mainly on that.

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Great article. It seems ultimately punishment/retribution needs to be tempered by mercy. Otherwise honor culture is a likely logical outcome. There’s already too much honor culture in the ME/Africa. It also seems to be ascendant in the USA.

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This is eloquent economic and moral philosophy. Not only would Hayek, Smith, Friedman, and Becker be proud, but so too would Herzl, Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion, Meir, Dayan, Begin, Bialik and other leaders of Zionist thought. Thank you Russ.

For those not familiar with the history of Israel, I recommend the book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn by Daniel Gordis. And especially for Jewish Americans, I would recommend his book, We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.

We Americans can learn a lot from Israel and Israeli history.

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Interesting and thoughtful. Reminds me of the CS Lewis essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”, (https://www.law.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Bessette-C.S.-Lewis-readings_Berkeley_031219.pdf) although he’s addressing different effects of an inadequate view of justice. Seems like “desert” plays a role in your view of a just response as well.

I wondered, though, about the use of the Deena story. Simeon and Levi didn’t solely punish the rapist. From an emotional perspective, retribution on the whole town likely sated grievance (although I’m not sure what taking all the family members and property accomplished); from a religious perspective using the sign of their covenant with God as a tool in revenge prioritized a lesser good? over a greater one; As a practical matter, killing only the offender would make Joseph’s family unlikely to survive the punishment, so they most likely had a choice between inevitably unjust retribution or bearing with the injustice in leaving the crime unpunished. Trying to separate whatever may have been right in Simeon and Levi’s response from the evil elements risks building an imbalanced view of what justice entails.

I’m also concerned (although it’s not a criticism of your essay - it’s reasonable to respond to one issue at a time) that among those whose pre-10/7 sympathies lie predominately with Israel, there’s a strong desire to substitute your question for the question to which most observers want an answer: “Will the attempt to punish those who deserve it and deter others be prosecuted with high respect for those who haven’t deserved it?” The responses I’ve seen range from, “We’ve always done this right in the past, so you need to trust us” to “That’s a really hard question, so what am I supposed to do since this punishment has to proceed” to “What, are you telling me that only Israel isn’t allowed to punish wrongdoers and protect itself?”

The extent of damage (https://www.jpost.com/israel-hamas-war/article-780086) makes it very difficult to believe that war planners have received and processed accurate intelligence and calibrated the response to the importance of the military objective before damaging 50-70% of Gaza structures. When I’ve asked, “How will you know if you’re in the process of doing something that isn’t just and/or that you’ll greatly regret”, I haven’t found anyone willing to attempt an answer. You’ve attempted to answer an important question, but the question, “Do I support an injustice for which my opponent has warrant to pursue retributive justice” seems even more important.

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Very thoughtful and articulate response. My concern lies within a similar line of thinking. It’s unfortunate but understandable that the conversation has been so rabid from both hardline defenders of Israel and hardline defenders of Palestine or Hamas. This thread has been heartening, mostly individuals who generally speaking “defend” the Israeli response, but seem to do so with sober reflection and even some theological backing. Ultimately, reluctantly, I still stand athwart the consensus here and fear a more regretful retrospection in the fullness of time. I find hope to god for safety and peace and can’t imagine what life must be like for a victim of 10/7, a Palestinian citizen, or an IDF soldier.

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In your analysis of the Genesis story, I think you are avoiding fully reckoning with the collective-punishment aspect. Was the violence against "Shechem’s people who seem to be innocent civilians" required, to avoid tolerating injustice?

I think you would be more inclined to agree with Jacob's deathbed sentiments, so why invoke his son's actions as somehow righteous?

If we believe that Israel's intentions are to eliminate Hamas with minimal collateral damage, then their actions are not very much like Jacob's sons' at all.

By using this story as a parallel, are you suggesting that Israel's actions are, in some sense, an act of collective-punishment that we should just be honest about?

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Wonderful post. Compelling. You put into words what many of us feel instinctively.

I was reminded of a quote by the Marquis of Halifax:

"Men are not hanged for stealing horses, but that horses may not be stolen.”

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I disagree with that quote completely. Although the reasoning might be that hanging deters horse theft, I think it's fundamentally human to punish those who do wrong. We know that people that do wrong don't often consider what will happen to them when they're caught.

It's part of the reason revenge films have an audience. We want to see the bad guy punished. Punishment is a big part of why prisons operate the way they do. We want bad things to happen to bad people. Deterrence is just a side benefit.

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This of course is why, in the main, prisons are an utter failure. They provide no useful “priors”, that might allow “wrongdoers” to alter their behaviour when released. They are all about punishment.

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That's a great quote.

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"If we let cruel people indulge their cruelty, there will be more of it." Then what do suggest the response should be to the thousand cruelties and indignities Israelis impose on Palestinians every day? Would they be right in using the same sort of reasoning to justify responding with disproportionate violence?

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“Their response feels like something a tough guy would say without giving it much thought:”

Maybe the response of reflexive pacifists is colored by their own refusal to admit the “tough guy,” might be right about something. They want to believe they’re better than him, and that he isn’t very smart. And maybe he isn’t smart. But maybe he understands something they don’t, and that is human violence. Maybe he understands it at a gut level because he understands it in himself. I can’t fathom people who say they don’t know where violence comes from, because it seems to me that they are being willfully naive. But maybe some of us are more naturally violent and some of us are more naturally pacifist.

What the tough guy understands, and the pacifist does not, is that force is the only thing that stops violence. That is why it is cruelty to the innocent to not punish the guilty. The “war to end all wars” didn’t. But WWII, the American dominance of the postwar order, and mutually assured destruction through the atomic bomb DID. In the Second World War, America did what it failed to do in the First: it went all the way, accepting only one condition - unconditional surrender. It went all the way to ensure Germany and, yes, Japan would never again stage a repeat. Time and again, wars that stop before they have been won result in the perpetuation of a cycle of violence. The way to end violence is through overwhelming force, followed by rebuilding. The reason the South is the way it is today is that Reconstruction in America was ended too early.

The pacifist response to October 7th guarantees it will happen again. It guarantees that this terrible conflict will endure for another thirty years. It guarantees that more people will die in the long run.

Finally, it’s funny how the “pacifists” only ever want the good guys to roll over and never ask the same of dictators and terrorists.

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For this comment, I will stick to the effectiveness of violence without regard to its morality. It may be that the lesson that "tough guys" overlearn is that violence is a good deterrence to violence. In many cases it is, but in some it is counter-productive. A quick look at suicide bombers demonstrates to me that many people are willing to die for an idea. Violence serves to incite rather than pacify people with little hope. Killing civilians is a very good technique for making terrorists.

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I agree with that. Violence was effective against Nazi Germany, but bombing Dresden was unnecessary and immoral.

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“Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent” is one of those profound concepts and proverbs that will stick with one for a lifetime. The wise balance in this article and understanding where Israeli society is on this helps put this in perspective: It’s one thing to have the horrors of the Second Intifada and it’s disparate and desperate attacks to deal with; altogether to have a society grapple and respond to the deliberate attempts at shame and dehumanization that Hamas perpetrated on October 7th.

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This is so well written and very compelling, thank you. Our society even here in the US is dealing with this when we don’t want to prosecute violent crimes.

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Your conclusion in this marvelous piece is a question: who are we, what kind of nation and society are we, if we stand idly by when we come face to face with human cruelty?

I believe you are creating a false equivalence between waging war and punishing evil-doers. You say you “do not believe in collective guilt or responsibility,” yet war nearly always treats innocents as though they are guilty. This war certainly punishes an entire community.

I think a better question is, who are we, what kind of nation and society are we, if we impose human cruelty on innocent civilians who stand by idly? The values I learned in Hebrew school suggest that a moral nation punishes evil-doers without killing children.

A small further point. You write:

There is a chance that Sinwar and the Hamas leadership will be killed. Maybe something better for both Israel and the Palestinians people will emerge from this war.

Of course, that is possible. But it is also possible that Sinwar and the Hamas leadership will be replaced by more evil, more motivated, and more deadly people.

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“The values I learned in Hebrew school suggest that a moral nation punishes evil-doers without killing children.” Easier said than done. Please expand upon the idea of punishing Hamas, without killing Palestinian children. How exactly would you do this?

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I am neither a military expert nor a moral sage. I don't have access to the intelligence capabilities of Israel, but surely they can identify and assassinate much of the leadership of Hamas and many of the invaders -- over time. It must be done, but it should be done with cooler heads than is possible in the wake of such an awful and evil collection of attacks. Israel's future well-being is tied up in both reducing (there is no preventing) attacks and punishing (killing only if absolutely necessary) invaders. Self-defense is essential; it must be carried out in ways that are both moral and don't expand future threats.

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I get the feeling you’re saying this while residing in America. Is this true?

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Yes, I live in the U.S. I feel a special responsibility because our tax dollars are subsidizing the Israeli military. But the truth, however we get to it, is not limited by our geography.

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And do you want your tax dollars subsidizing the Israeli military?

Truth isn’t the right word.

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