Any Israeli high school student can try out for the international debate team and travel the world
Omer Zilberberg’s trip to Bali this summer required a stopover in Singapore so his group of Israeli teenagers could collect special visas to enter Indonesia, a Muslim country where simply displaying the Israeli flag in public can land you in jail. But the 15-year-old student at the top-rated Tichon Atid Le-Mada’im in Lod wasn’t fazed.
“When we got there we felt like everyone else. There wasn’t any antipathy. When they didn’t let us publicly display our flag, other teams didn’t display theirs in solidarity,” said Zilberberg.
Omer was a member of Israel’s five-strong team to the annual World Schools Debating Championships, which this year attracted nearly 500 high school students from around the world to a 10-day extravangaza on the sun-kissed beaches of Bali. It wasn’t the first time that Israeli teenagers have carried the national flag into enemy territory. In 2010, a team of Israeli teenagers competed in Qatar, where they were given kosher food, special non-Shabbat trips and 24-hour armed security.
Teams are selected from participants in weekly after-school workshops in Jerusalem and Lod that begin in September and run through the year. Anyone can join from 7th Grade and up, no experience necessary – just an inquiring mind, a desire to travel the world, and the will to meet interesting people from different countries and engage with them.
“Debate opens doors for Israelis in places where even diplomacy doesn’t work,” says Yoni Cohen-Idov, manager of Team Israel. Despite the clear benefits to Israel’s image abroad, and the deep connections established with articulate youth around the world who are destined to become the leaders and thought leaders in their countries, the Israeli government refuses to provide a single cent for its young self-taught advocates, who must pay their own way. This year, the team was lucky to receive a grant from Stand With Us to help fund their trip.
The Indonesians didn’t provide bullet-proof jeeps and guards, but they did attach a government minder to the team to make sure the kids didn’t offend local sensitivities.
Even with the pressure, the team, all aged 16-18, scored its best results for many years, ranking 13th out of the 50 countries represented, including England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, the U.S. and other nations where English — the language of international debate — is the mother tongue.
It’s been a good year for Israeli debate. At the Bratislava schools debate competition in March, Israel came 9th out of 38 teams from all over the world. At the EurOpen school championship in November 2016, Israel reached the semi-final.
The high school debaters of today are the student debaters of tomorrow. At university level, Team Israel is having a blue riband run.
At the European University Debate Championships held in Estonia in August, Noam Dahan and Tom Manor from Tel Aviv were crowned European Champions for non-native English speakers and were finalists in the open category alongside teams from Oxford and the winners from Glasgow. Students from Tel Aviv and the Hebrew University reached the quarter-finals.
A Hebrew University student teamed with a student from Ireland won the Riga open championships in August, and several Israeli students reached the finals. In January 2016, the Tel Aviv team reached the semi-final of the World University Debating Championships, where Ayal Hayut Man was ranked as best non-native English speaker, closely followed by Dan Lahav in second place.
On their return from Indonesia, the high-schoolers shared their experiences with Israel Hayom. In a full-page interview, the teenagers told the Hebrew daily that one of the groups they met at the EurOpen in Germany this year was the Palestinian high school team.
“It was a fascinating experience to meet Palestinians,” said Naomi Green, 17, from Kfar Hayarok. “We quickly made connections. It was interesting to hear about their lives. At the end of the day, they’re just like us. They want to live in peace.”
Debaters are given topics – sometimes with just an hour or two to prepare – and told which side they represent. They often find themselves arguing the opposite of their private beliefs.
“That’s the idea,” said Maya Levi, 18, of Ohel Shem in Ramat Gan. “In debate, beyond learning rhetoric, you learn how to think and see an issue from both sides. The challenge is stepping into someone else’s shoes when it’s not your point of view.”
Weekly after-school debating workshops in Jerusalem and Lod open in September. For details, check the Facebook page or email: email@example.com