Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Future of Israeli Debate

When I watched political debates in the US, I couldn't help being impressed. The participants (mostly) played by the rules: when one party spoke, the other listened; arguments made by one side, were carefully countered by the other. Not so in a typical “Israeli debate”: participants tend to speak over each other, there is very little listening, and the whole thing often turns into a “shouting match”. But before you shake your head in frustration, know that I have seen the future - and there is hope!

I am a registered student at the Open University, taking Philosophy, History and Art classes. A few weeks ago I received an email inviting me to an “evening with the debate club”. I didn't know there was a debate club in Israel, let alone at the Open University. The whole thing sounded intriguing, so I decided to give it a shot…

I haven’t just discovered the OpenU debate club. I've actually discovered there is a whole league of such clubs in Israel. Pretty much every decent academic institute in Israel has one. And to my surprise, the Open U debate club actually won the league championship last year.

Logo of Open University Debate Club
The “evening with the debate club” was actually a recruiting event. At the end of the session, those who were interested were asked to sign up for ‘auditions’ that took place the week after. Inspired by what I saw, I signed up for the auditions. I showed up at the designated day, and discovered I wasn't alone. Over 150 students showed up, vying for about 50 slots that were available for newcomers.

The auditions were quiet challenging. Each of us had to stand up and present arguments for or against two topics; all within 5min and with literally no prep. When it was my turn, the previous speaker just finished arguing for ‘legalizing prostitution’, so I had to argue against it. After a couple of minutes I was asked to switch topics and argue for ‘legalizing organ trade.  Then we all had to go through a personal interview and explain why we’re interested in joining the debate club.

I came home with rather low expectations. The odds of 3:1 didn't seem promising. It was hard for me to tell how well (or not) I presented my case, and it’s been ages since I went through a job interview.

Through some ‘divine intervention’, I received an email that night from the alumni club of my business school. Guess what was in it: an invitation to join their debate club – for a fee, with no auditions... I signed up on the spot. If there ever was a‘personalized advertisement’ – this was it…

A week went by and I received an email from the OpenU debate club. I was ready for the “it’s not you, it’s us” spiel. But to my surprise I found out I was one of the lucky ones who were accepted into the club. Now what do I do? Instead of one debate club, I was signed for two. Fortunately, time wasn't really a constraint and money – well it’s just money. So I decided to give both a shot.

It has been a couple of weeks since I joined the debate clubs, and I am excited! The two are quite different: The OpenU club is full of young students, bright and energetic. We've gone through several practice debates, and I must admit these 'kids' keep me on my toes. The business school alumni club is more “mature”, with focus on how to use debate tools in a business environment. These are two different environments, each interesting in its own way. I think I will stick with both, at least through the end of this semester.

I learned quite a few things about ‘debate’. First, there are strict rules about who speaks when; you can’t just barge into another person’s speech. Second, there is a structure for presenting your arguments. Third, you have to use rational, logically-sound arguments; yelling, waving your hands and ‘name calling’ simply don’t work.

I am highly impressed with the OpenU debate club members – both veterans and newcomers. Watching young students eloquently state their arguments, based on reason rather than brute force, and actively listening to each other is a real treat.

With dozens of debate club members in each academic institute, they are creating a cadre of young men and women who are mastering the art of debate. Give it a few more years, and these people will get to positions of power within the Israeli society. From there, the path to the Israeli House of Representatives – the Knesset - is wide open.

I have a dream that one day members of Knesset will actually debate with each other; and concerned citizens will actually understand what they stand for and why. I have a dream that the dialogue between political factions will be based on reason rather than emotions; and that winning a political argument won’t require de-legitimizing your opponent and calling them names.

Till then, I plan to keep studying the art of debate, and enjoy arguing whether prostitution should be legalized, or not…

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