Debating contest teaches Israeli highschoolers rules of dignified argument

Debating Matters to Us, modeled on UK program, brought 36 school teams to regional qualifiers and 12 to national finals, with focus on pressing environmental concerns

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Illustrative: High school students debate environmental issues online, June 15, 2020. (screenshot)
Illustrative: High school students debate environmental issues online, June 15, 2020. (screenshot)

The culture of debating has an august pedigree, stretching back to ancient Greece and India and perhaps reaching its height during the Age of Enlightenment in both England and what was to become the US.

The Cambridge Union Society, established in 1815, lays claim to the title of the oldest continuous debating society in the world.

Watching a session of Israel’s Knesset, though, one may feel that debating culture, with its dignity, wit, acknowledged rules and mutual respect has bypassed the Jewish state: Though physical violence is thankfully rare, lawmakers routinely try to interrupt and out-scream each other, trading insults as a matter of course.

On Monday, though, an altogether more respectful contest of words was underway on Zoom, held according to the rules of proposition and opposition, questions from each side and from the floor, and all of it timed to the second.

Violence breaks out during a Knesset meeting of the Committee of Labor, Welfare and Health, on December 5, 2017. (Screen capture: Ynet)

Participating in English — sometimes their mother tongue, sometimes thickly accented — were pupils from 12 schools who had made it to the finals of the first countrywide, online Debating Matters to Us tournament.

Debating Matters to Us (DM2US) is a grassroots, teacher-led, interactive
debate format aimed at encouraging high school students to debate contemporary issues on the basis of content, not gimmicks.

In 2015, the Anglo-Israel Association sponsored Debating Matters from England to run its program in Israel for two years.

When that ended, local teachers resolved to continue and develop the initiative, running a single tournament in 2017 and working up to the 2020 competition, which included six regional qualifying contests in February that involved 500 students from 36 school teams.

Debate Tonight: Whether a man’s wig should be dressed with honey or mustard! A 1795 cartoon satirizing the content of debates, by Isaac Cruikshank. (Yale University Lewis Walpole Library exhibition, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

This year, DM2US partnered with EcoPeace Middle East, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Swedish International Development Agency to build and
implement a three-day tournament final focusing on some of the most pressing
environmental issues affecting Israel and the region. EcoPeace, celebrating
its 25th anniversary, takes an innovative approach to environmental issues, recognizing that trans-boundary problems require regional cooperation.

On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, the 12 finalist teams, from schools as far apart as Haifa in the north and Eilat in the far south, met on Zoom, in line with coronavirus restrictions. They went head-to-head on three environmental motions: “Water Scarcity in Israel Cannot Be Solved with Technology,” “Climate Change is the Greatest Security Threat to Israel,” and “This Generation Owes a Duty to Future Generations to Preserve Natural Heritage.”

There were hosts, chairpeople, judges, timekeepers and audience members — although far from the hundreds there would have been if the debates had been held live in a hall.

On Monday, in virtual “Room 2,” the Nesher School from Haifa and Hayovel from coastal Herzliya valiantly and quite eloquently argued for and against the motion that Climate Change is the Greatest Security Threat to Israel. (The teams were told in advance whether to argue in favor or to oppose).

Nesher’s contestants, speaking for the motion, insisted that climate change threatened people’s very lives but that our brains were not wired to grasp the threat because it did not come from a specific agent, was not intended deliberately, and would most likely affect us in some distant future.

Demonstrators in Madrid demand that world leaders at the COP25 meeting take real action against climate change, on December 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

From Hayovel, the students argued that technological innovations such as desalinated water and climate controlled greenhouses would protect Israel from climate change. They posited that Iran was a far bigger security threat given the number of rockets fired at Israel by proxies Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamic State’s attempts to cyber destroy essential infrastructure in Israel and its reported progress towards creating a nuclear bomb with which to wipe out the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, in “Room 1,” pupils from the Ostrovsky school in Ra’anana were battling it out over the same motion with peers from the Rabin-Branco Weiss School in central Israel’s Mazkeret Batya.

Opposing the motion, a pupil from Rabin-Branco-Weiss observed that, “The problem is inappropriate use of resources rather than a lack of resources. Why are we still using [fossil] fuels? We still consume too much, we allow companies and corporations to produce more so that we keep buying from them. The solutions are here and they need to come from us, because governments usually have their own interests on such issues.”

Summing up for the motion, a fluent English speaker with an American accent said, “Conflict is a part of humankind and always has been. Regarding the threat of coronavirus, let’s think about bubonic plague, Spanish flu, AIDS — we’ve overcome them with even less medicine and resources than what we have now. Coronavirus shouldn’t be a problem if we all follow the rules. But once we do, what will be left of the planet? If we take care of it now, before the effects are irreversible, we won’t get to the point where we have no planet to live on, which is a much scarier thing to think about. I’d prefer to take care of climate change.”

An Iranian protester holds an anti-Israeli placard during an annual anti-Israeli Al-Quds Day rally in Tehran, Iran, on June 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

“I’m not arguing that climate change isn’t a problem,” said the Ostrovsky school student summing up against the motion, “But if we look at urgency and catastrophic consequences, it’s disingenuous to suggest that there are threats that aren’t more pressing. It was said [during the debate] that solving climate change can be done relatively easily. The only reason that Iran hasn’t progressed further and created more damage is that it has been prioritized and lots of resources have been devoted to it. Iran has yet to be solved and the dangers from it are growing.” He added, “If we don’t prioritize the existential dangers facing us, we won’t be around to solve climate change.”

EcoPeace Israel Director Gidon Bromberg on Zoom during the 2020 finals of Debating Matters to Us, June 2020. (Courtesy)

The overall winners, announced Tuesday, were Ostrovsky High School, Nesher High School, De Shalit High School from Rehovot and Haifa’s Hebrew Reali School.

Ohad Davidow, debate educator and director of the DM2US online tournament, said, “Debating is an amazing way to encourage students to engage with each other on important matters such as current environmental issues. Debating Matters to Us motivates students to critically research these issues from all sides and form reasoned arguments in order to participate in challenging, interesting and informed discussion.”

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