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Rafael Rahav, a self-defined spiritual counselor and practitioner of kabbalah, is an ardent believer in the power of words. So when his wife Simona's son, 25-year-old philosophy student Ma'ayan Spiegel, joined a debate club at the Ruppin Academic Center in Emek Hefer, Simona and Rafael decided to come along.
Last Thursday, the family team joined over 100 orators at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya campus for Israel's 2006 Debate Championship, which was open to the general public.
"Our entire world is based on communication," Simona Rahav told The Jerusalem Post. "We practice debating even within the family."
While the competition attracted a range of amateur debaters like the Rahav family, it also hosted some of Israel's top competitive debaters, most of whom acquired their training as students.
Guy Yariv, who was ranked first in the 2004 European Debate Championship together with then-partner Anat Gelber, is currently a debate coach at Ruppin - where he also teaches the Rahav family.
Yariv first encountered debating as a student in the Excellence Program at Haifa University, which was the first academic institution in Israel to offer a debate course.
"As a student, it gave me an academic experience that is very much lacking in Israeli universities - it provided me with an intellectual challenge and exposure to unusual subjects, and allowed me to experience group learning," Yariv said. "At the same time, it also allows people to acquire skills that are essential in a modern information society."
"It should have caught on in Israel a long time ago, because we are such a talkative and opinionated people," he added.
Guy Nesher, a law and government student at IDC and the chair of the college's debate club, told the Post that over the past two years debating has been gaining popularity in Israel.
"Five years ago, you could hardly find a place at which to train," he said. "Today, in addition to the academic debate league, there are companies that teach debating, and high school leagues that are often trained by students like us - it just keeps spreading.
"What's great about it," Neser added, "is that it really contributes to the future generation of lawyers and politicians. Our graduates excel in the workplace, and some of them now train members of Knesset and business executives."
Indeed, while people unfamiliar with the burgeoning culture of debate clubs may imagine debate aficionados as bookish eccentrics, such clubs are acquiring an increasingly sexy image among the national student body.
"There was a time when the field only really attracted debate freaks," said Nesher. "But as it's become more institutionalized, and Israeli clubs have acquired international recognition, people come to participate not only because they love talking, but because they want to acquire new skills.
"It used to be that only law and philosophy students participated. Today, the clubs attract a large range of students," he added.
At IDC, Nesher said, the college debate club was forced to institute entry exams, since nearly 150 students now annually request to enter the club, which can only accommodate 40 members.
Uri Zakai, who teaches philosophy and rhetoric at the Technion and at a number of other academic institutions, is credited by many students with the new wave of interest in debating.
"I train my students in learning how to present their arguments in a structured, logical, clear manner, which is very different than the pathos-filled style that characterizes Israeli culture," Zakai said.
"In Israel, people make choices based on a vote of confidence - they don't expect their leaders to actually explain what they think or plan," he said.
Nevertheless, Zakai said, Israelis have an age-old tradition to fall back on. "Talmudic-style debating has existed for hundreds, even thousands of years," he said. "You could definitely argue that it is an ancient Jewish idea."
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