I grew up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. The southern border of Riverdale, on the Harlem River, which connects the East and Hudson Rivers, is known as Spuyten Duyvil, (pronounced spite-ten dye-vel), meaning “spite of the Devil” in Dutch.
According to local folklore, someone had to cross the Harlem River from Manhattan to the Bronx on a stormy night when no ferryman was available. Due to the urgency of the mission, the person jumped into the raging waters — in spuyt den duyvil — was caught by the Devil, escaped, but tired from his ordeal, drowned nevertheless. His body washed up on the shore of what would be called Spuyten Duyvil.
There is a recent news story of a person taking on adverse conditions, in spuyt den duyvil, but in this case the hero reached the shore, receiving accolades for his feat.
The hero is Gabriel Latner, a 19-year-old, second-year law student from Toronto. The river he was crossing was the Cambridge Union and the Devil was personified by a debate resolution saying “Israel is a rogue state.”
The resolution’s proponent, 43-year-old Lauren Booth, is an arch anti-Israel activist and sister-in-law of the Quartet’s Middle East envoy, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A news presenter for the Iranian news channel, she was given Palestinian diplomatic status by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in 2008, and converted to Islam after “a holy experience” while on a visit to Iran.
What makes this story interesting is that Latner was also a proponent of the resolution, on the same side of the debate as Booth. To an audience, which would be expected to be hostile to Israel, Latner argued, by example, that Israel was indeed a “rogue” state. He was so convincing that, to the dismay of his teammates, the proposition was overwhelming defeated, with 74 percent of the vote opposing it.
A bit of youthful exuberance got Latner banned for life from the Cambridge Union for remarking to Booth as he got up to speak, “I am going to nail you to the f***ing wall up there.” The ban was later rescinded when Latner apologized.
What did Latner say that made him emerge victorious, like Daniel in the lion’s den? First, he called out his opponents.
I’m tempted to do what my fellow speakers are going to do — simply rehash every bad thing the Israeli government has ever done in an attempt to satisfy those of you who agree with them. And perhaps they’ll even guilt one of you rare undecided into voting for the proposition, or more accurately, against Israel.
It would be so easy to twist the meaning and significance of international “laws” to make Israel look like a criminal state. But that’s been done to death.
Latner then went after the double standard which is used against Israel.
[T]he truth is that treating people badly, whether they’re your citizens or an occupied nation, does not make a state “rogue.” If it did, Canada, the U.S., and Australia would all be rogue states based on how they treat their indigenous populations. Britain’s treatment of the Irish would easily qualify them to wear this sobriquet. These arguments, while emotionally satisfying, lack intellectual rigor.
And in a brilliant maneuver, Latner accepted Booth’s proposition.
By the end of my speech, I will have presented five pro-Israel arguments that show Israel is if not a “rogue state” then at least “rogue-ish.” Let me be clear. I will not be arguing that Israel is “bad.” I will not be arguing that it doesn’t deserve to exist. I won’t be arguing that it behaves worse than every other country. I will only be arguing that Israel is “rogue.”
Certainly, the success of such an argument hinges on the definition of “rogue.”
The word “rogue” has come to have exceptionally damning connotations. But the word itself is value-neutral. The OED defines rogue as “Aberrant, anomalous; misplaced, occurring (esp. in isolation) at an unexpected place or time,” while a dictionary from a far greater institution gives this definition: “behaving in ways that are not expected or not normal, often in a destructive way.”
Here are the examples Latner presented of the anomaly that is Israel.
• The chance of any randomly chosen state being Jewish is 0.0051 percent.
• Israel’s treatment of Darfurian refugees is “anomalous” because in Israel they are treated with compassion, as the refugees that they are.
• Israel’s readiness to negotiate with terrorists complies emphatically with the dictionary definition of ‘rogue’ – “behaving in a way that is unexpected, or not normal.”
• Israel has a better human rights record than any of its neighbors. At no point in history has there ever been a liberal democratic state in the Middle East, except for Israel.
• Lastly, unlike other countries, Israel sent a senior diplomat to oppose the proposition.
I urge you to read Latner’s speech in full. It shows that defenders of Israel need not explicitly accept the terms as laid down by Israel’s detractors, and that by creatively accepting, and refining terms, in spuyt den duyvil, the defenders can emerge victorious.