The 2013 Final of the Red Sea Open – Israel’s only international debating tournament – hosted by the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Eilat. (Photo: Yair Sagi)

That Israel is an international hi-tech superpower is a source of endless pride and naches for Israelis. What is less well known is that in the last decade, Israel has become an international superpower in another arena: competitive debating.

Debating is an unusual sport. Teams (pairs of speakers) are given a motion (a proposition in the form “This House Would/Believes…”) and told to speak either in favour of it or against – and no, they can’t pick. They then have fifteen minutes to prepare; each debater gives a seven-minute speech. Motions can touch on virtually any subject, from international relations to popular culture, so debaters have to keep abreast of current affairs and then think fast on their feet. This is a talent that Israel has in bucket-loads, and it’s a natural resource that the Jewish state has only just begun to tap into. 

Meir Yarom and Michael Shapira, Haifa University: World Champions in Botswana 2011.

Israel recently conquered the world with a hat-trick of consecutive victories at the World Universities Debating Championships in the English as a Second Language (ESL) category, as Tel Aviv’s Yoni Cohen-Idov and Uri Merhav (2010), Haifa’s Michael Shapira and Meir Yarom (2011) and Tel Aviv’s Omer and Sella Nevo (2012) were named World Champions. In 2013 in Berlin, Alon van Dam and Ben Gladnikoff from the IDC Herzliya’s Raphael Recanati International School reached the ESL World Final, and Tel Aviv’s Kobi Matsri won the Public Speaking Competition.

In Europe, the Israeli Debating League is a veritable juggernaut. The annual European Universities Debating Championship hosts over 200 teams from across Europe. Israel consistently sends the tournament’s third-largest delegation, with 11% of all teams – behind only the UK (35%) and Ireland (14%). 

This makes Israel the most active of all non-Anglophone countries on the European circuit and by far the most active per capita. Only the Netherlands and Germany come close to the behemoth-sized Israeli debating machine, with 7% apiece; the rest of Europe trails behind.

Yael Bell and Tomer Shani speak for Tel Aviv at the ESL Final of the European Universities Debating Championship in Manchester 2013

Yael Bezalel and Tomer Shani speak for Tel Aviv at the ESL Final of the European Universities Debating Championship in Manchester 2013

With this preponderance of power, Israel dominates the ESL league tables. Israel has won the ESL European Final three times, with Hebrew University (2002), IDC Herzliya (2004) and Tel Aviv (2011) crowned European Champions. It is rare for Israel not to have a team in the Final: Tel Aviv made it in 2013, when Israeli teams made up six of the sixteen teams in the Quarter Finals.

To clarify: to reach this stage, Israeli teams have to first trounce dozens of native-English-speaking teams. Only after the gruelling preliminary rounds is there a special ESL Quarter Final, and Israeli teams have in the past reached the main break too.

Debating talent: a priceless natural resource

What explains Israel’s debating prowess? Something must certainly be said for the centrality of arguing within Jewish culture, although the league is not exclusively Jewish. Living in a deeply politicised society, where everyone has an opinion about everything, certainly helps: Israel is, as Golda Meir called it, a country of “three [now eight] million prime ministers”.

The truth, however, is that success has come off the back of years of hard work: debating is not a hobby but a serious investment. Debaters train twice a week, in English and Hebrew. World champions continue to judge competitions, giving novices access to world-class feedback. University debate clubs frequently host weekend tournaments, with themes ranging from Zionism to science fiction. Israel even hosts an annual international debating tournament in Eilat: the Red Sea Open (see here for video report), a week full of sun, sea and – er – sophisticated argumentation, for students from all over the world.

Whatever it is, it works – and Israel should do more to encourage it, for not only is Israel good at debating, but debating is exceptionally good for Israel.

Debating tournaments: networking events in exotic locations.

Debating tournaments double-up as international networking events, and the opinion-leaders of tomorrow are forging friendships that transcend national borders. At a competition in Istanbul last year, roughly a third of the teams were Turkish, a third Greek and a third Israeli. From the way everyone got on, you would never have guessed that their governments were at each other’s throats like stray cats in a sack!

As a useful side-effect, therefore, debating does wonders for Israel’s lamentable image, because it introduces the leaders of tomorrow to real Israelis: you know, without the horns. When students from around the world make friends with Israelis, they gain a subtle and nuanced understanding of what the country and learn to respect its people. When the world’s young intellectual elite now want to know what’s going on in Israel, all they have to do is log into Facebook. I am confident there is no better way to convey to a Westerner what the Second Intifada was like than a conversation at 2AM by a hotel poolside after a couple of beers.

Israeli debaters are indeed the country’s finest ambassadors. As world champion Yoni Cohen-Idov writes: “they know how to get a message across, how to persuade, how to speak in front of a crowd and how to cope under pressure – and they are not suspected of being agents of the state.”

Most importantly, debating provides a huge boon to Israel’s human capital. Debating teaches one how to defend one’s beliefs with confidence and conviction, but also to subject those beliefs to serious scrutiny and to develop a nuanced understanding of the other side; and one has to know the strongest arguments for the positions one rejects to be able to defeat them conclusively. In debating, nobody can get away with saying, “That’s just my opinion”: your opinion is worth zilch if you can’t defend it and show why it beats the other side. 

The ability to argue logically is vital for any democracy. Above: Yisrael Beiteinu MK Anastassia Michaeli throws a glass of water at Labour MK Raleb Majadele in a Knesset committee.

Healthy liberal democracies need citizens who can listen carefully, speak confidently, think critically and, at the end of it all, know how to call out bullshit and identify which arguments really do hold water. Given the extreme polarisation within Israel’s political discourse, the ability to follow the subtleties of an argument and express oneself cogently and logically is an invaluable asset for every citizen and for society at large. 

If Israel wants to develop an educated and sophisticated public, equipped to think for themselves, deliberate in earnest about public policy and engage with one another seriously and respectfully, it can do no better than encouraging competitive debating. Indeed, Israel has begun to take note: three years ago, Gideon Saar, as Education Minister, proposed to introduce debating to Israeli high schools. The country must do more – starting with Israeli parents encouraging their children to argue more! It will pay dividends for years.