State legislatures tend to make national headlines when they vote on divisive social issues like mandatory ultrasounds or stage epic battles over the status of public-sector unions. But in the past few weeks, the Florida state legislature has been in the news for quite a different reason: its unanimous approval of a resolution that pledges a bizarre form of allegiance to the State of Israel.
I'm all for love letters, but this is not the one that Israel needs:
[T]he members of the Senate commend Israel for its cordial and mutually beneficial relationship with the United States and with the State of Florida and support Israel in its legal, historical, moral, and God-given right of self-governance and self-defense upon the entirety of its own lands, recognizing that Israel is neither an attacking force nor an occupier of the lands of others, and that peace can be afforded the region only through a whole and united Israel governed under one law for all people.
What business does Florida have engaging in foreign policy? Well, none. Do Israel and Florida really have a diplomatic “relationship”? No more than Kansas has an embassy of its own in Tunisia. Does every single Florida legislator really want to throw the weight of the Sunshine State behind a particular interpretation of the Bible (according to which Israel has an eternal “God-given right” to govern the entire West Bank and Gaza and perhaps parts of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria)? Apparently.
What in the world is going on here? Writing in the Forward, Josh Nathan-Kazis explains that Florida is not the first American state to adopt a policy against a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian divide. That ironic honor belongs to South Carolina, the first state to propose a two-state solution to the North-South squabble when it announced its secession from the Union in 1860. Ben Harris, writing for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, tells us the impetus came from Rep. Alan Clemmons, a Mormon Republican in South Carolina who believes “the Abrahamic covenant to mean what it says, that the land of Israel is an inheritance to the children of Israel, the Jews, for eternity.”
With help from a lobbying campaign by the Zionist Organization of America, the resolution was passed in South Carolina last June and — stripped of a few references to Leviticus but with the same upshot — in Florida last month.
The legislation has been described, hilariously, as “non-binding” — as if Florida could conceivably enforce its will on the Middle East if it wanted to — and as “symbolic.” But what does the resolution symbolize, exactly? What does it do?
Philosopher J. L. Austin, in How to Do Things With Words (1975) gives us some purchase on this question. Austin explains that a “performative utterance” like the Florida resolution can be analyzed as three separate acts: locutionary (uttering the words), illocutionary (conveying a message) and perlocutionary (stirring people to act in a certain way). The locutionary aspect is simply the act of writing — or reading aloud — the resolution’s words. (To experience it yourself, check out the youtube video on the next page.)
The pro-peace, left-of-AIPAC pro-Israel lobby J Street has pointed out some of the troubling illocutionary implications of the resolution. When it declares that peace will only arrive “through a united Israel governed under one law for all people,” the legislation seems to run smack against the official position of the Israeli and American governments, among others.
According to the Oslo process that began in 1993, a two-state solution — Israeli and Palestinian states living side by side, with mutually agreed upon borders — is both the sole path to peace and the only way to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
By insisting on a “unified Israel” the Florida legislature commits itself to one of two untenable positions: (1) turning Israel into a true apartheid state in which the West Bank is annexed to Israel and the Jewish state rules over 2.5 million Palestinians with no citizenship rights, or (2) granting equal citizenship to West Bank Palestinians, leaving Israel without a Jewish majority and denuded of any Jewish character.
A one-state Israel could commit itself to democratic principles or it could cultivate a Jewish identity, but it could not aspire to be both Jewish and democratic.
These two diametrically opposed visions for Israel bring with them two rival sets of bedfellows Florida legislators would probably prefer to resist: radical anti-Zionists like BDS who seek to put an end to the state of Israel as we know it, and banned Jewish terror organizations like Kach, which deny that Palestinians have any rights at all.
But will Florida’s resolution make a difference? Will it motivate anyone to do anything? In Austin’s terms, in what sense is the resolution a perlocutionary act? The Knesset is unlikely to take up proposals from its friends Florida and South Carolina (or Pennsylvania and Ohio, where similar efforts are headed), and neither Rep. Clemmons nor the Zionist Organization of America could expect as much. Their real stategy seems to lie in the realm of domestic politics. As the ZOA wrote in its praise for the South Carolina vote last July, quoting Clemmons,
The resolution was also intended as an “indictment of President Obama’s Middle East Policy” and serves as a clear demonstration of the true will of the American People, who want to see Israel supported by their government rather than pressured and mistreated.
I doubt this tactic will have much of an effect on Obama’s prospects in November. Whether or not it steers the bubbe vote toward the GOP nominee, Florida’s perverse love letter to Israel is a sad reminder of how willing legislators are to pander so transparently in an election year — at the cost of logic, balance and principle.
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