Union Debate Uproar

An official complaint submitted by a group of university societies has criticised last week's Cambridge Union debate for being unbalanced, unfair and disrespectful.

The motion of the debate was: ‘This house believes Israel is a rogue state.' Signatories of the letter of complaint claim that university student Gabriel Latner, who spoke on behalf of the proposition, actually "effectively and unashamedly argued as a member of the opposition".

Signatories include representatives of the Cambridge University Palestine Society, the CUSU Black Students Campaign, CU Arab Society, CU Islamic Society, and the Unite Against Fascism society, among others.

The letter challenges Gabriel Latner's credentials in arguing for the thesis that Israel is a rogue state. It claims that he had previously interned with a strongly pro-Israel think tank, had recently written an article "rubbishing Palestinian negotiators as credible peacemakers", and had volunteered to serve in the Israeli army.

In response, Gabriel Latner, a second-year law student at Peterhouse, said: "I disagree with the main thrust of the letter. The accusation that I ‘effectively and unashamedly argued as a member of the opposition' is incorrect. I did not present a single argument that suggests that Israel is not a rogue state.

"Anyone who heard the totality of what I said, and knows anything about debating, will understand what I did. I do not deny that it was unorthodox, or that the letter-writers would have preferred another speech vilifying Israel."

"My arguments were legitimate and thought out, and I resent the accusation that I ‘undermined the fairness of the debate'".

He also disputed factual points in the letter, saying that the opinion article which he wrote was "factually correct", and "does not ‘rubbish' anyone." He also clarified that he never volunteered to serve in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), though he did once spend several weeks volunteering on an IDF base in a non-combat role.

He insisted: "I would be shocked if James Counsell, the Cambridge Union President, felt that I undermined the debate."

One prominent speaker on the proposition side was Lauren Booth, a broadcast journalist and human rights activist, who is also Tony Blair's sister-in-law. Speakers opposing the motion included Ran Gidor, the Counsellor for Political Affairs at the Embassy of Israel in London.

Speaking exclusively to The Cambridge Student (TCS), Lauren Booth said: "I definitely agree with the sentiments expressed in the letter."

"Gabriel Latner told me before the debate that he'd applied to join the Israeli army, which immediately indicated to me that either he'd been planted there by the opposition, or that he was simply there to usurp the process of a good debate.

"I spoke with the Cambridge Union President before the event, expressing my concern, but he did not intervene to ensure that an even-handed debate would take place.

"Latner also swore at me in private before taking up his speech. He said: ‘I'm going to nail you to the fucking wall.'"

The Cambridge Union has said that unless Mr Latner sends a handwritten apology for his remarks to Mrs Booth before Sunday, he will be expelled from the Society.

Even if he apologizes in time, however, he will face a £30 fine for contravening Union rules, which state that there is to be no physical or verbal abuse in the Union building.

Mr Latner was ejected from the Union building soon after the event, and is also being punished for ‘disrupting a Union event'. Mr Latner in turn is appealing the decision about verbal abuse and is having Mr Counsell investigated for abuse of power.

Mrs Booth further commented: "Was this a good debate for paying Union members? No. Was I insulted by the behaviour of Gabriel Latner? Yes. Should James Counsell have taken action and intervened? Yes."

She noted that during the debate one student stood up and raised a question about whether this debate effectively involved four people speaking against two.

Mrs Booth added: "Imagine the outrage if someone who'd applied to be a member of Hezbollah spoke ironically against the view that Israel is a rogue state, gave a virulent anti-Zionist speech, and swore at a fellow debater.

"There would be anarchy, with the whole debate quickly stopped. Why am I not afforded the same respect?

"All these typical tactics merely go to show that pro-Israelis don't respect freedom of speech nor the right to debate openly and fairly."

Lauren Booth currently works for the London branch of Press TV, an Iranian English-language news channel. Media regulator Ofcom once upheld a complaint against a current affairs TV show she presented, saying that the show was not fully impartial.

Yedioth Ahronoth, one of Israel's most popular newspapers, reported the outcome of the debate, in which the motion claiming that Israel is a "rogue state" was defeated. According to online Israeli news service Ynetnews, "thousands attended the debate", and the victory for the opposition represented "an important PR achievement".

Concerning Latner's performance in the debate, Cambridge Union President James Counsell said: "The Union is not a forum for propaganda. The prospect of a student speaker clearly violating the spirit of the topic under discussion, to further an agenda, was not a risk we had considered.

"We of course regret that this occurred, but must also reiterate that we do not check the speeches of our guests before they are made, as doing so would violate the basic principles upon which we were founded."

He added: "For the first time in years the Union membership has been asked to participate in our weekly debates. I never imagined that this responsibility could be so badly abused.

"His decision to verbally abuse one of our female guests using sexual language has done enormous levels of harm to the reputation of the Union.

"Any member who behaves in this way will be punished, let alone one who does while representing the Union as the President's personal guest."

Nat Rudarakanchana - Deputy News Editor

Photo Credit: Jase Taylor

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