Civil debate

Two Israeli debating teams were crowned champions of the European Universities Debating Championship, a contest that included 187 teams from 30 countries.

August 11, 2018 22:15
3 minute read.
Right to Left: Amichay Even Chen, Ido Kotler, Noam Dahan, Tom Manor, European Debate Champions

Right to Left: Amichay Even Chen, Ido Kotler, Noam Dahan, Tom Manor, European Debate Champions. (photo credit: ANNIE SCHWARTZ)


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There was good news for Israel last week, though it didn’t make many headlines.

Two Israeli debating teams were crowned champions of the European Universities Debating Championship, a contest that included 187 teams from 30 countries. The Israeli Debate League sent 20 teams and 25 adjudicators to the tournament, representing nine Israel universities and academic institutions. Five of those nine reached the final stages of the competition, and two teams from Tel Aviv University – its fourth year in a row winning a title – went to the finals.

Particularly impressive was who won it: Noam Dahan and Tom Manor. Last year they won in the “English as a Second Language” category. This year they moved up in competition and debated alongside native English-speakers.

Overcoming the obvious obstacle of making a second language into a first language, Dahan and Manor beat out an opposition that included competitors from Cambridge and Oxford. In the English as a Second Language category, Amichay Even-Chen and Ido Kotler were the winners.

Why is this not surprising? We Jews love to debate – Judaism encourages arguments and questioning as a pillar of Torah. We’re a people that likes to needle, to provoke, to push. And that’s a good thing.

The last month has seen a particularly harsh debate over one particular bill in the Knesset, legislation that has generated more heated talk than any one of 25 bills have caused over the last year.

The Nation-State Law has pushed a lot of buttons since it passed July 19, and we understand why. One of the heated topics in the law is the issue of language, specifically the status of Arabic as a first or second language. The issue concerning us here is not just the debate over interpreting that law, but about the debate itself.

As we have seen over the last month, inflamed emotions have led to vociferous attacks on both sides of the discussion, with name-calling, delegitimizing and an extreme lack of civil discourse. Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t we debate without rancor and make our ideas and feelings known without disrespecting others? Where is the leader who will stand up against incivility and address such discourteous behavior by calling it out and telling others it is not acceptable?

Speeches at the massive gathering at Rabin Square earlier this month in support of Druze Israelis who are against the bill were indeed tempered and reasoned, despite catcalls against the government on the fringes of the crowd The Oxford Dictionary defines debate as “A formal discussion on a particular matter in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward and which usually ends with a vote.”

Where is the leader who will lead the charge toward a formal discussion and a more respectful dialogue, who will practice listening when an opponent is speaking in order to understand them instead of immediately trying to shout them down?

Such behavior was evidenced again last week during the special session of the Knesset called on Wednesday to discuss the Nation-State Law – or more accurately, a special session called to attack the government and the majority of legislators who voted for the bill.

It wasn’t just the MKs on the floor. Zionist Union activists in the Knesset’s guest gallery caused a tumult when they waved copies of the Declaration of Independence.

They were quickly rushed out of the hall by ushers and security personnel, since waving of objects in the plenum is expressly forbidden in the parliament’s bylaws.

Like the rest of the world, Israeli dissent has descended into sound bites and photo ops that don’t provide real arguments, debate or thoughtful discourse about the critical issues at hand. Against the background of this harsh level of discourse permeating Israeli society, the victories by Dahan, Manor, Even-Chen and Kotler were even more impressive. Theirs was a triumph won in formal debate, using a civil tongue. Shouldn’t that be an example to all of us?

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