Learning to talk the talk

The Siah Vasig debating society celebrates its 30th anniversary at a Jerusalem competition

Ann Kirson Swersky (right), the founder and chairperson of Siah Vasig, presents a special award to director and coordinator Bronislawa Kabakovitch (photo credit: ISAAC HARARI)
Ann Kirson Swersky (right), the founder and chairperson of Siah Vasig, presents a special award to director and coordinator Bronislawa Kabakovitch
(photo credit: ISAAC HARARI)
Google a speakers’ bureau list almost anywhere in the world, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, male speakers on almost any number of subjects far outnumber females. Is this because female speakers are less inspiring, less convincing, intellectually inferior or that fewer women simply don’t apply to speakers’ bureaus to represent them?
These questions derive from the fact that there were as many, if not more, female speakers as males at the annual Harry Hurwitz Public Speaking Competition that was held at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem in early January, and females were well represented among the winners.
The competition, run by Siah Vasig – the Israel Debating Society – and the Cohen- Idov Center for Debate and Rhetoric is a form of tribute to the late Harry Hurwitz, an impressive public speaker himself, who worked closely with prime minister Menachem Begin and who, after Begin’s death, conceived the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and insisted that there was no other place for it than Jerusalem, Israel’s capital.
Hurwitz, who made aliya from South Africa, was in the United States with Begin soon after the latter’s election in 1977, which spelled a political turnaround for Israel, and was present when Begin later addressed a mammoth audience in Washington, DC. Begin had said at the time that everyone knows that the DC in Washington stands for District of Columbia, but he had come from Jerusalem DC, where the DC stood for David’s City. Hurwitz, for the rest of his life, said that he could hear the roaring ovation in his head.
Begin was also known as a master orator, so this was yet another reason for the competition to be held at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.
The Israel Debating Society, now in its 30th year, was conceived by South African- born historian and political scientist Ann Kirson Swersky, in an attempt to change the culture of conversation in Israel and to enable junior and senior high school students to develop self-esteem, confidence and the power of persuasion, and to enhance their research skills and their abilities for logical analysis, and critical and creative thinking in the course of preparing their presentations to be delivered in front of an audience. Swersky, the chairperson of Siah Vasig, moderated the event and introduced a film on Hurwitz’s life and contribution to Israel. Hurwitz’s son, Hillel, was in the audience. Students were asked to choose a topic under the headline, “Israel at 70 – Groundbreaking events and people.”
Schools from across Israel participated, and the competition was conducted in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Director and coordinator Bronislawa Kabakovitch, who received loud cheers from the students when she was given a certificate of appreciation by Swersky, was happy to report an increased participation by Arab students this year.
Many of the competing students were accompanied by parents, teachers and coaches, as well as classmates, and it was encouraging to see the number of hijabs scattered throughout the auditorium at the opening and closing ceremonies.
Due to constrictions of time, each individual language competition was conducted in a different part of the building, so it was impossible to get a sense of the overall standard of presentation, but the adjudicators JERUSALEM REPORT FEBRUARY 5, 2018 45 said afterwards that everyone had been so good that it was extremely difficult to determine in each category who were the three best speakers.
Although contestants were asked to observe formal dress code, few heeded this instruction. It was more common among Arab girls and in the English-language senior high school competition, in which there were 10 finalists, the first and the last competitors were boys – and each wore a suit and tie.
This was a particularly interesting competition because English was not the mother tongue of any of the contestants, though one or two of them may have had an English- speaking parent – or both parents may have come to Israel from English-speaking countries.
All contestants in this sector of the contest spoke without the benefit of a microphone, and although voice projection was listed among the tips that they were given in advance, only the final contestant Tomer Dovzhenko, who spoke of the influence of the Israeli metal band, Orphaned Land, enunciated very clearly and properly projected his voice.
Dressed in a suit and wearing large hornrimmed eyeglasses, he looked and sounded more like a young businessman giving a Ted talk than like a schoolboy. He was self-confident and articulate, and had carefully mapped the details of his three-minute talk, which included background information about the band, its innovation musically, politically and culturally, and its influence in these spheres in Israel and in the international community.
He mentioned that Yossi Sassi, a founding member and former guitarist with the band, had invented a new two-bodied instrument called the Bazoukitara, because it enables a quick switch from an electric guitar to an acoustic Greek bazouki. Dovzhenko also spoke of the meaningful lyrics in the band’s songs, which send a message of unity and peace, mainly between the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He noted that “the members of Orphaned Land are by far the most popular Israelis in the Arab countries as of right now,” and its fans had even nominated it for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
“There is a beautiful analogy between Orphaned Land’s music and the message they spread,” he said. “They bring together and unify contrasting communities, religions, ethnicities, and beliefs.”
The 10 finalists included a student of mixed Israeli-Japanese parentage, Dovzhenko, with a slight Russian lilt in his English, three Arab contestants along with Jewish contestants of varied backgrounds, of which two had traces of American accents, probably because one or both parents were from the US.
Before Dovzhenko made his presentation towards the end, it seemed as if one of the Arab students would be named the winner.
One thing that was common to two of the three Arab contestants was that they did not place themselves behind the lectern and read their speeches. They had learned their texts by heart, stood in front of the lectern, moved around as they talked, had convincing body language, and made good arguments. All they really lacked was voice projection.
LEMAR ZIAN was the first of the Arab contestants. She spoke passionately about Shimon Peres and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. It was not particularly surprising to hear an Arab student speak in such positive terms about Israel’s ninth president because Peres had championed coexistence, and through the Peres Center had organized many events to bring Jewish and Arab youth together, including Palestinian Arabs.
The real surprise of the evening was Selina Abid, who gave a brilliant presentation on Israel’s national poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik. She did this so dramatically that it seemed she might want a future career as an actress, but when asked about this, she said that she wanted to be a psychiatrist. Pressed further as to how come an Arab girl was so well acquainted with Bialik, her reply was, “I just love literature.” She placed second.
Third place in this section of the competition went to Noam Lev, an eloquent young woman who presented some hard facts about the low salaries being paid to teachers, especially new teachers, which – she argued – is why so few potentially great teachers don’t enter the profession, and why too many of the people who do become teachers are insufficiently qualified.
The auditorium at the Begin Center was crowded for the closing ceremony at which all the adjudicators sat on stage. Each of the winners in the various sections was announced and came up to receive their prizes. Several of the youngsters were so popular with their classmates that loud roars were heard when their names were announced. Girls won every competition (from junior high to high school, in Arabic, Hebrew and English) except for the English high school seniors.
One group of adjudicators took longer to reach a decision than the rest, and during the lull, one of the adjudicators already on stage commented that too many people speak in clichés and slogans without putting sufficient thought into what they say. But the most telling thing that she said, about Israelis and possibly about people in most countries today, was: “We live in a society that loves to talk, but not to listen.”