Tel Aviv represents Israel at the ESL Final of the European Universities Debating Championship in Manchester

Tomer Shani speaks for Tel Aviv at the ESL Final of the European debating championship. Photo (c) Jennifer Ho / Manchester EUDC.

The Israeli Debating League is heading home from this year’s European Universities Debating Championship in Manchester. The annual “Euros” tournament brings together hundreds of students from across Europe to argue about thorny issues for which they have only fifteen minutes to prepare. This year, over two hundred teams battled over the motion: “This House Believes that Israel Should Allow Members of the Jewish Diaspora to Vote in its Elections“.

It has become a tradition to hold a debate about Israel at Euros: this is the third in as many years. As such, the championship has become a fascinating place to see what the students of today – and the leaders of tomorrow – think and know about the Jewish state. 

Before you read on, you should know that the vast majority of debaters at Euros were conscientious, friendly and highly intelligent young people, who tackled the debate with knowledge and sensitivity. Others, however, were not, and did no such thing. 

Many of the debaters’ mistakes were, relatively speaking, benign.

Did you know that all Diaspora Jews are Orthodox, and that American Jews live in closed communities and feel no connection to Israel? Or that Iran is home to the world’s largest Jewish community outside of Israel? If you didn’t, you’d be surprised to know that there are three types of Jew in the world: those who live in Israel; those who want to live in Israel, but can’t; and those who want their children to live in Israel.

Other misconceptions were bizarre.

Israel is, as one team noted, the most tribal society in the world. It has seven tribes, another team added helpfully.

Yet others were far more sinister.

It was asserted that “the Israeli people are irrational” and want to kill people. Israelis cannot be trusted with their own democracy: their extremist government won’t apologise for the Mavi Marmara. Israel has no right to sovereignty, since it can’t survive without foreign aid – that’s why the Jewish Diaspora should be able to vote in Israel, to keep the place in check. This should work because – as we heard in another room – Jews are more loyal to Israel than their own countries anyway.

Anti-Israeli bigotry is one thing. Anti-Semitism is another.

In one particularly shocking case, a Russian team blamed “the Jews” for the Holocaust: apparently the Jews funded Hitler’s campaign and then ran off to the US, so they share responsibility for the Holocaust. The debaters in question later apologised: they didn’t mean that all Jews caused the Holocaust – only American Jews. If that doesn’t make sense to you, you’re not alone.

When members of the Israeli delegation told their Kosovar counterparts that they had stayed in Manchester for a few days before the tournament, their competitors responded with a comment about “rich Jews”. When the Israelis clarified that they had in fact stayed in a hostel, the response became: “stingy Jews”.

There is in much of the world an unhealthy obsession with Israel, and the debating world is no different: Israel found its way into virtually every debate – no matter what the motion was.

Video games make people violent: they’re the reason that Israeli soldiers are so aggressive in Gaza! The Muslim Brotherhood‘s biggest anxiety is not Al Qaeda in the Sinai or Hamas in Gaza, but Israel, which wants to conquer the whole of Egypt. Foreign aid budgets should be approved by referendum because governments cannot be trusted to allocate money responsibly: just look at how the US gives Israel foreign aid in order to oppress the Palestinians. China does not need fear international criticism of its support for North Korea: after all, Israel slaughters Palestinians on a daily basis, and nobody blames America. This was all heard by just one judge, by the way, in a competition of more than 200 teams. None of these debates had anything to do with Israel – until the debaters decided that everything boils down to Israel in the end. 

At last year’s championship in Belgrade, we learnt that Ehud Barak was the president of Syria, and that Israel is guilty of genocide in the West Bank, where it might consider dropping a nuclear bomb. Debating a demilitarised Palestinian state, one Israeli debater mentioned post-war Germany as an example of demilitarisation; she was met with the sardonic response that it was “curious” that the Israeli debaters should try to draw an analogy to Nazi Germany. Whatever that was supposed to mean.

The Israeli delegation react to these modern-day blood libels with a laugh, a shrug, a sigh – and then business as usual. The Israelis are used to it. They are used to being the subjects of baseless aspersions and comments that would be deeply hurtful, had they not developed a thick enough skin already to deal with it. Israelis have learnt to just roll their eyes and laugh. It is just so normal to hear people accusing Israel of anything and everything, or just getting their facts horribly wrong, that it ceased to shock long ago.

The organisers of the competition appointed a formidable team to deal with allegations of sexism, racism and other forms of abuse. The number of formal complaints from the Israeli delegation was zero. “Nobody wants to be the annoying child who is always complaining,” explains Noa Golan, a debater from Ben Gurion University. Moreover, Israelis are not sure that Europeans understand why certain remarks are so offensive. So it is better just to drop it and move on.

Blood libels aren’t news. Israel and the Jews are responsible for all the world’s ills? Ho-hum, ma nishtana? Life goes on.

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