CHEYENNE — Wyoming native Larry McIlvain spent his days last week protesting outside the State Capitol in support of Palestine.
His goal wasn’t to convince anyone or change their minds about the ongoing war in Israel. Rather, he did it to soothe his conscience by letting people know about his beliefs.
And unlike a group of Lander protesters who say Hamas terrorists were justified in their terrorist attacks that started the war, McIlvain said he supports Palestine, but not Hamas.
“I’m pushing the conversation,” he said. “All I really want is people to start the conversation.”
Where he lives now, public demonstrations like this aren’t always an accepted act.
McIlvain grew up in Cheyenne and graduated from the University of Wyoming, but now lives in Amman, Jordan. He comes back to visit his family in Wyoming each year.
McIlvain believes that despite what has led to the new war in Israel being simple, one can still have a nuanced perspective on the matter.
A Regional Perspective
Having lived in the Middle East for 25 years, McIlvain has a seasoned perspective on the region.
He was there for 9/11, and both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. He’s seen the effects of terrorism firsthand and even more importantly, how war and instability in other neighboring countries can affect the region as a whole.
Although he supports the people of Palestine, he condemns the terrorist group Hamas and believes both Israel and Palestine have the right to exist as sovereign nations. He wants both Hamas removed and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voted out of office.
McIlvain said what Hamas did in its massive surprise terrorist attack Oct. 7 that left hundreds of Israeli civilians dead was atrocious, but also not surprising.
He believes the Israeli response has been heavy-handed and used opportunistically to exterminate Palestinian civilians, many of whom killed were women and children.
He pointed to the fact that even members of Israel’s far-right Orthodox Jewish community have protested the war as defying the Torah.
But many Israelis, including women and children, are still be held hostage by Hamas with reports they are being kept in inhumane circumstances.
Laramie Rabbi Yaakov Raskin said he sympathizes with the suffering Palestinians are experiencing but disagrees with McIlvain's overall perspective.
He said Israel is responding with more force than Hamas because it is trying to eliminate future killing and warfare, rather than engaging in tit-for-tat actions he believes will only lead to more bloodshed in the long run.
“I wish there were better options,” Raskin said.
McIlvain believes people should separate the authoritarian Hamas regime from the people of Gaza, one of the most densely populated cities in the world that is about half the size of Cheyenne in total area.
“In a city like that, there’s no such thing as precision bombing,” he said.
But most Middle Eastern cities are extremely dense, and McIlvain admits that the likelihood of keeping a war in this region to a traditional battlefield setting is extremely unlikely.
Making His Presence Known
Each morning, McIlvain stood in front of the Capitol with a sign that read “End The Occupation Now! Free Palestine.”
He said the most common response he received from the public was indifference, and he questioned whether what he was doing was worth his time.
Most of the state employees who walked by him on the Capitol grounds were more focused on not tumbling to the ground on the icy sidewalks.
“In Cheyenne and Wyoming, most people don’t care (about the war),” he said. “I didn’t do it for anybody else than me. It was for my own moral conscience.”
But he did receive a number of appreciative honks, along with some middle fingers.
One gentleman with an Israeli flag flying from the back of his pickup pulled over to call him a “f***ing Nazi.”
“That’s cheap and easy,” McIlvain said of this comment. “How about a critical response?”
Being a part of a state that has long touted an identity of independence, McIlvain said Wyomingites should stand behind Palestinian people as oppressed.
“If we believe in the dignity of all people, Palestinians have not been afforded dignity,” he said.
Opposing Israel in the war should not automatically equate to antisemitism, McIlvain said.
“I’m anti-occupation,” he said. “Occupation isn’t good for anybody.”
What McIlvain stands against is what he sees as an oppression of the Palestinian people at the hands of Israel. He believes by addressing the issue of occupation, one addresses the fundamental root causes of the war.
“It’s really about an occupation,” he said. “It’s about the occupation of a group of people, the people of Gaza and the West Bank. It’s Russia invading Ukraine. It’s that simple.”
McIlvain noted that under international law, oppressed people have the right to fight back.
Raskin agrees that Palestinians are oppressed, but he believes it is under the rule of Hamas. He said Hamas is taking humanitarian aid intended for its people and is instead using it in its war effort against Israel.
“All that money, so much is going to terrorize Israel and not help its own citizens,” he said.
Raskin believes Israelis have also long been oppressed throughout their country’s history, with the recent war just another chapter in that saga.
Independence Or Dependence?
As part of the Oslo Accords, Israel committed to supply Gaza with all its electricity, gas and water. It also controls all travel in and out of the Gaza Strip. As a result of the war, access to all of these resources has been severely curtailed.
Although fighting between Israel and Palestine is hardly new, McIlvain sees the war as a new inflection point in the relationship.
President Joe Biden has said a “two-state solution” must be the end result of the war, a point which McIlvain said he agrees with.
He wants “a free and independent Palestine that Palestinians could come home to in their own right of self-determination.”
Although Palestine has been given the opportunity to become a sovereign state many times in the past, it has balked at these deals each time.
Hamas was elected democratically in 2006 with the support of Israel at the time. It hasn’t held a free election since 2008.
McIlvain said it’s much easier said than done to overthrow a governmental regime, and what most Palestinains want is simply to be able to put on the table and relative stability in their lives, something he said Hamas has provided through the building of hospitals and schools and other basic necessities.
“They provided the necessary means by which Gazans could live,” he said. “If there was an alternative to Hamas, my guess is that most people would choose that, but there’s not.”
McIlvain said people on both sides of the war aren’t taking enough time to learn about what has led to the conflict and the perspectives of the opposing view. Instead, he believes many are jumping to conclusions presented by their favorite news sources or political party. He wants people to think more independently and do their due diligence to learn about what has led to the conflict.
“It’s such an emotional issue,” he said. “Everyone has an opinion, everyone is right and wrong. People have so much learning to do and so much unlearning to do.”
A lifelong educator, McIlvain until recently taught at an American school in Amman for 14 years. Many of his students were Jordanian with Palestinian roots and he has Palestinians in his family who he said do not support Hamas.
But he also admits that if he wanted to protest in support of Israel, he could not publicly demonstrate as he did in Cheyenne safely on the streets of Amman.
“That conversation couldn’t occur,” he said. “That’s unfortunate.”
Leo Wolfson can be reached at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.