Last week, in an email to her supporters and in opinion pieces published in newspapers here in Homer and elsewhere in Alaska, Rep. Sarah Vance took advantage of the horrific and despicable massacre of Jews in southern Israel to rally support for her ongoing effort to punish Alaskan companies that support nonviolent efforts to encourage greater justice in the Middle East.
In arguing for her legislation, Vance offers a simplistic, one-dimensional understanding of the conflict: that Israel is as she puts it, “a beacon of light” in an otherwise benighted region, and that the Palestinians are antisemitic bigots, who feel enmity toward Israelis “only because they are Jews.”
I lived in Israel for 10 years, and still have many Israeli and Palestinian friends. Growing up in Soldotna, I arrived in Israel with a similarly simplistic understanding of the region, but many long years spent helping the U.S. government manage the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio made me come to understand that the issue is more complex and multifaceted than that.
It is true that Israelis have, almost miraculously, built a wonderful, thriving, modern country with western values in the historic homeland of their people — and it is also true that in the course of this inspiring achievement, the previous inhabitants of that land were deprived of the homes, villages, and towns their families had been living in for centuries. This has led to a situation where millions of Palestinian are living today in poverty and misery, without freedom and basic human rights, on territories controlled by Israel.
It’s not an “either-or” situation, as Vance seems to believe; rather, both of these seemingly contradictory narratives are true.
Moshe Dayan, the famous one-eyed Israeli general who became Israel’s Minister of Defense, did not blame Palestinian violence on antisemitism. This is what he said in his eulogy of Roi Rotberg, a kibbutznik brutally murdered and mutilated by Palestinian terrorists who broke into Israel from Gaza:
“Let us not hurl blame at the murderers. Why should we complain of their hatred for us? Eight years have they sat in the refugee camps of Gaza, and seen, with their own eyes, how we have made a homeland of the soil and the villages where they and their forebears once dwelt. Not from the Arabs of Gaza must we demand the blood of Roi, but from ourselves….For we know that if the hope of our destruction is to perish, we must be, morning and evening, armed and ready.”
In Dayan’s day, this assessment was probably true: virtually all Palestinians were fiercely committed to the idea of getting their homeland back through violence against Israel.
It was Palestinians of that ilk who carried out the savage, horrific massacre of hundreds of Israeli civilians, including women and children, on Oct. 7.
But today there are many Palestinians who are committed to seeking freedom and self-determination for their people in the West Bank and Gaza, alongside Israel, and who see an alternative to murder and massacres.
That alternative is nonviolent, and it involves using words to persuade individuals and companies not to do business with the country they see as oppressing them, in hopes of persuading it to move forward on making peace with them. This is the same method that was used by black South Africans to gain freedom and self-determination by bringing an end to apartheid.
The legislation Rep. Vance is pushing aims to punish Alaskan business owners who might choose to follow their conscience by not doing business with Israel until it allows the Palestinians under its control to have some measure of freedom.
It’s hard to imagine there would be many Alaskan companies who would choose do this, especially at this painful time for Israel — but that doesn’t change the fact that if Vance is successful, Alaskans will be signaling that we do not support a humane, nonviolent effort to secure better treatment for Palestinians. If we end up going down that road, we should ask ourselves what alternatives we DO support.
Vance’s legislation also seems to me to be contrary to the libertarian nature of our lives and politics here in Alaska. There may be states where it seems natural to business owners to have the government tell them who they are allowed to do business with, or choose not to do business with, if they want to avoid being penalized by the state — but I don’t see Alaska as being that kind of place. I suspect that if Vance’s effort to impose such a measure on Alaskans is successful, it will be because people did not fully realize just how intrusive it is on people’s freedom of thought and conscience.
I believe that Rep. Vance’s intentions are honorable: to shield an important American ally from criticism and economic pain, especially at a time when it is already reeling from a national tragedy. But her statement that she wants to penalize Alaskan business people who choose to support nonviolent change in order “to ensure Alaskan tax dollars do not support acts of terrorism” is both illogical, and insulting to the individuals running such companies.
Jason Davis is a retired foreign service officer who served as political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and as political chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem.