No arguments about debate’s value

For native Israelis, debating is pretty much a national pastime. Can olim who immigrate later in life ever hope to catch up? Enter Israel’s English-language high-school debating team.

(Right to left) Yonatan Schwartz, Ariella Schwartz, Ashira Abramowitz and Ariel Reiss (photo credit: DANIEL HARRIS)
(Right to left) Yonatan Schwartz, Ariella Schwartz, Ashira Abramowitz and Ariel Reiss
(photo credit: DANIEL HARRIS)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett stated recently in The Wall Street Journal that one of the secrets of how tiny Israel became a global hightech center with 93 companies on NASDAQ is its heritage of debate, harking back to talmudic times.
For native Israelis, debating is pretty much a national pastime. Can olim who immigrate later in life ever hope to catch up? Enter Israel’s English-language high-school debating team.
Each year, more than 20 English-speaking Israeli high schoolers, most of them olim or children of olim, hone their skills and travel to sometimes-exotic spots around the world as the Israeli representatives to the English-language debating playoffs.
In the week before Passover, a dozen students went to represent Israel in Bratislava, Slovakia. The Israeli teams face unique challenges in their participation in these global competitions.
There are kashrut issues: Food is provided for participants, but those keeping kosher must bring their own food in limited-space carry-on bags, or utilize the often expensive meals sometimes available from Chabad.
Shabbat is an even greater problem. Being able to take notes is crucial, yet four of the six required debates this year in Slovakia were held on Friday night and Saturday.
At least one of Israel’s teams decided that none of their team members would be writing, despite the fact that the participants were mixed religiously, with only some of them observing Shabbat.
To that end, they spent sessions practicing how to debate without taking any notes or writing anything down – a significant handicap that could have seriously hindered their debating prowess.
On the other hand, the Israeli team, usually heavily Anglo, doesn’t have to bridge the cultural gaps that some of the teams encounter. Questions about American TV shows or European cultural norms are not unheard of and can befuddle an Asian team that has no familiarity with the topic.
“Elazar’s thinking has been sharpened through the rigorous preparations,” said Ayala Levin-Krus, whose 16-year-old son, a student at Himmelfarb high school in Jerusalem, participated in the competition.
“Don’t mess with him. It’s like living with a young lawyer, and I say that as the daughter of two lawyers.”
In addition to practice in debating itself, the team learns Israel advocacy. This year, the several-session hasbara unit culminated in a program with University of Montreal professor Gil Troy, whose expertise includes Israel advocacy. This is one skill that the debaters would prefer not to have to utilize, but sometimes they find it necessary.
Most of the debaters are open-minded and interested in engaging politically. This year, the Israeli team reached out to Team Palestine based in Bethlehem to see if they wanted to meet up for some debating practice and camaraderie before they all headed to Bratislava, but the hoped-for meeting didn’t materialize. Team Israel intends to try again next year.
English-language debating at the high-school level in Israel started years ago. One of the early coaches recalls, “In the mid-’90s I had the honor of volunteering for this organization under Evan Fallenberg, the debating director at that time [Fallenberg is now director of the fiction track at the Bar-Ilan Creative Writing program]. The students benefited immensely from the experience: from practicing English, learning the art of debate and representing Israel in countries like Cyprus.”
The groups are privately organized, and subsidized by the participants’ families. The government isn’t involved in any way, nor does it contribute financially.
In US high schools, the oldest and most popular type of debate is “team policy debate” (very similar to National Debate Tournament at the college level); or the “Lincoln-Douglas” format. Students are given one topic at the beginning of the year and spend the full school year researching it until the playoff competitions in the spring. These styles are high-speed affairs, and success is based largely on research skills rather than logic skills.
Debate in most of the rest of the world is more extemporaneous.
Parliamentary debate (and its many look-alike debates) is so named because of its vague resemblance to British parliamentary debate, with its emphasis on logic and wit, and requiring no research (as the topic is announced only minutes to an hour before the debate). There are variations on the parliamentary debate format; college debates in the UK follow a form of parliamentary debate but with four teams (rather than the customary two) per debate. Israeli colleges, such as the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, practice with this style as well, albeit in Hebrew.
At the university level, the annual European University Debating championship, which hosts more than 200 European teams each year, attracts a sizable Israeli contingent: 11% of all teams – behind only the UK’s 35% and Ireland’s 14%.
Israeli debating teams have scored significant successes.
In 2012, Tel Aviv University students won the English as a Second Language division of the World Universities’ Debating Championship, the world’s largest debating tournament, held that year in the Philippines.
In the same competition in 2016 in Greece, Tel Aviv reached the finals against native English speakers from England and Ireland. In Bratislava, aside from two “prepared” motions that students were given several weeks before the competition, the motions were given to participants less than an hour before they were be debated. Motions can range from complicated political discussions (should it be illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of whether employees possess university degrees?) to the somewhat silly (Disney princess films are bad for society). Aside from students’ oratory skills, the range of knowledge of various odd topics required for successful debate is vast.
Most of the Israeli high-school teams practice two or three times each week in the months before the competition, in contrast to some of the Asian teams, which practice around the clock before the competition and spend many hours during the competition (while the Israeli team is usually meeting other teams and hanging out) continuing to practice, and analyzing their ongoing performance while watching their mistakes on video. The Israeli teams are usually slightly less intense about the process, though they work intensively before they go.
“It’s been five weeks of frenzied preparations and hard work,” said Ariella Schwartz, a ninth grader at Pelech high school in Jerusalem, whose first debating experience was just weeks before the competition.
“Now we finally know what debating is!” exclaimed Ashira Abramowitz, an eighth grader at the Charles E. Smith Jerusalem High School for the Arts.
“Debating was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience: from the intense five-week training, to traveling through Vienna and Bratislava, to debating and meeting kids from all around the world,” Schwartz said after the debate. “I’m so grateful I got to experience this outstanding tournament with such a fun group!” The final ranking in the competition has still not been calculated (sometimes it takes months), but all the Israeli teams competing placed squarely in the middle of the pack, winning two, three, or four of the six debates. Singapore, as usual, was the ultimate winner.
The debating competitions are not all work.
Drawing students from more than 50 countries, they’re an opportunity to interact with people from other locations and other cultures. This year’s Israel team will hand out group “business cards” to everyone they meet and debate with, in the hope that new friends will stay in touch. Past participants have visited each other in their respective countries years later. From the intensity of the debating competition experience, lasting friendships can develop, allowing young Israelis to forge connections with future world leaders around the globe.
The Israeli team spent a few days touring in both Bratislava and Vienna – seeing a training session of the famous Lipizzaner horses, taking a ferry ride down the Danube and attending a free Vienna outdoor opera on the lawn, among other things.
Daniel Harris, 20, a senior at Harvard University who participated as a member of the Israeli team five years ago, chaperoned the team of Israeli students at this year’s competition.
“That debating competition [five years ago] was one of the best experiences of my life,” Harris says. “I’m so glad to be able to return as a chaperone.”
In Bratislava, Israel was represented by three teams, with more than a dozen students in total, mostly from the Jerusalem area.
For these high schoolers, arguing with Israelis later in life will not be a problem.
For more information on Israel’s debating world: