When Cambridge University’s prestigious student debating society hosted a debate last month on the motion “Israel is a rogue state,” Israel’s supporters bleakly anticipated another hostile, demonizing and divisive event, and braced, too, for acceptance of the motion in the final vote.This was one of the first blogs to mention the story, and the first one to format his speech in proper paragraphs. Even though that was two weeks ago, my post on the speech is still the most popular post every day, and the most popular post I have ever written since Google started keeping stats in July - over 7000 direct hits and counting.
But the motion was surprisingly and firmly defeated, with 74 percent of the votes opposing it.
At the root of that thoroughly unexpected result was the extraordinary content of the speech delivered by one of the proposers of the motion – content that subsequently prompted students unsympathetic to Israel to protest the result and demand an apology from the Cambridge Union Society.
For Gabriel Latner, a 19-year-old, second-year law student from Toronto, advanced an argument in support of the motion that “Israel is a rogue state” that would have made any Israeli diplomat proud.
Since that remarkable October 21 night at the Cambridge Union Society, Latner has been celebrated by the pro- Israel camp, and vilified by the not so pro-Israel camp. His performance has been discussed heatedly on Facebook and on a range of blogs; he’s become a figure of interest on campuses; and he has been the focus on ongoing interest at the Union, which initially banned him for life for allegedly swearing at Booth at the event, then reinstated him after he apologized.
The young man himself says he has been somewhat shocked at the attention.
“The fact that a rough draft of my speech went viral surprised me, I really didn’t think anyone would care,” he told The Jerusalem Post this week. “I’ve been getting on average 15+ emails and Facebook messages a day since the debate – some positive, some not.
So how did Latner, arguing that evening for the motion that “Israel is rogue state,” become a new hero for supporters of Israel, and a villain for the detractors? He had applied to the Cambridge Union Society, which had circulated a request for student volunteers to participate in the debate, with the offer to speak for either side, and was – rather to his surprise – invited to appear for the proposers of the motion.
He was not required to submit any of his content ahead of the event.
Latner, who said he comes from a Reconstructionist Jewish background and has been to Israel several times, including reportedly as an IDF volunteer, said he was galvanized by a strong desire to win – even though, as it turned out, “winning” on behalf of Israel meant his side losing the debate.
Describing himself as a “classical civil libertarian,” Latner set out his argument to show that Israel is indeed a “rogue state” – but in the very best sense of the term. And he did so, in a 10-minute address before the approximately 800-strong audience, by highlighting the anomalous nature of Israel.
Speaking to the Post this week, Latner stressed that “My speech wasn’t motivated by ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘anti-Palestinian’ sentiment.
I’m not an Islamophobe, even though some Islamophobes who read my speech think I am. I’m not a neo-conservative, even though critics of my speech think I am, as do some of my supporters. I’m all about freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom in general. I’m a civil libertarian, and a fan of democracy,” he said.
“The philosophical underpinning of my support for Israel, and for the Palestinians for that matter, isn’t based on my Jewishness or any historical arguments: I believe that each person has an innate right to self-determination, and national, cultural, regional or political groups have the right to exercise that personal autonomy as a collective.
"Zionism, as well as Palestinian national aspirations, is simply an expression of the underlying philosophical maxim that people are born free and that each of us has the right to plot our individual course through life,” he added.
In the aftermath of the debate, a group of student union societies – which included the Palestinian, Socialist Workers, Arab, Islam, Pakistan and Turkish societies – sent a letter of protest to Cambridge Union Society President James Counsell.
“How can the Union justify inviting a speaker who clearly lacks any credibility to speak on behalf of the proposition?” they asked in the letter. “Who was responsible for selecting Latner to be on the program? Undermining the fairness of debate in such a fashion can only have negative consequences for the reputation and credibility of the Union itself.”
Calling for an investigation, the signatories said: “Our issue is not with the outcome of the debate, but with the unprofessional manner in which the debate itself took place. The events which transpired undermined its credibility, and also that of the Union. As such a prestigious and renowned society, we are perturbed by the fact that the basic values that the Union stands for were not upheld. It shows a great deal of disrespect to Union members and the other speakers involved in this debacle.”
The signatories also called for “a full and unreserved public apology for the offence caused by sanctioning a debate that lacked the basic and necessary prerequisites of balance and fairness, and for the lack of respect that entails to the members of the Cambridge Union... In addition, we would like assurances that for future events an equal opportunity is given to the relevant societies in suggesting speakers that best represent their cause.”
But the Cambridge Union itself said it had received “no letters from any groups regarding the phrasing of the motion prior to the debate.”
It noted: “The Cambridge Union tries to spark interest amongst its membership by producing pithy motions, as is evident from other debates this term such as ‘Is Islam a Threat to the West,’ and ‘This House Hates Human Rights.’ However, the caliber of our guest speakers should dispel any notion that we seek to simplify extremely complex contemporary issues.”
Because of that, Latner will be one of many examples to be analyzed in my Hasbara talk at YU next month.