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March 13, 2009

Israeli issues debated

Annual high school debates show intelligence.

In one room, five boys and two girls, all barely teenagers, sat rigidly at the front, staring absently ahead, fiddling fitfully with pens. There was an occasional eruption of nervous giggling.

In another room the behavior of five young men, four years their senior, was markedly different. Two of the young men typed feverishly on laptops, while another stood off by himself, silently mouthing his prepared words.

The activity was different in the two rooms, but the atmosphere was identical. There was palpable tension within both groups. The students were participants in the 16th Annual High School Debates, presented by Jewish Federation in partnership with the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver, held March 5 at the centre.

In all, 57 students took part in 10 debates. They represented King David High School, Shalheret and Pacific Torah Institute, as well as TAG, the community supplementary Jewish high school.

Sandy Wohl, principal of Pacific Torah and Shalheret, two rapidly growing Orthodox schools in Vancouver, and moderator of the Grade 8 debates, glowed with enthusiasm at the numbers. "In the past we had a large contingent of Jewish students come up from Seattle to take part. That doesn't happen now, yet the level of participation tonight is the equal of or even better than what there was in those days," said Wohl.

The debates aren't for lightweights. Students argue topics carefully selected by the organizing committee to reflect current issues in Israel. The Grade 8 teams wrestled with the issue of Israel potentially annexing Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights. Teams of Grade 9 and 10 students debated whether it is in Israel's best interests to pursue pidyon shvuyim (redeeming captives/prisoner exchange). And the senior debaters took on the issue of Israel's fractious parliamentary system and its potential reform.

The topics require a serious level of research, writing and presentation practice. "Topics are given at the beginning of the new year. I teach a lesson to give the students historical background necessary for the issue they are covering. After that, the students work on their own, researching their topic, organizing arguments, writing and editing. The week before the event they practice twice in front of the students. It's a big commitment for them," said Eleanor Braude, a teacher at King David High School and coach of the school's debating teams.

Of course there is help. Braude coaches the students on debating tactics. Senior students, she says, are very generous in helping younger ones who are attempting a debate for the first time.

The debate on annexation begins. This one features two teams from King David High School. Defending the resolution are Benjamin Ames, Joshua Jackson and Aaron Csaplaros. Their opponents, arguing against it, are Vivian Grinfeld, Ben Katz and Aliza Hirsch. Ben Zlotnik, a researcher, is present for them, but silent.

It begins with alternating prepared speeches. The affirmative side notes Israel's historic claim to the land in question, quoting from the Torah to support it. They also argue that the land must be kept for "compelling security reasons." Israel will have its security threatened if Hamas gains control of the West Bank. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv will be threatened by rocket fire, the students argue.

The opposition is unmoved. It maintains that it is a strategic mistake for Israel to incorporate land where 40 per cent of the citizens are hostile to Israel and Jewish people. They point out that since all parties agree that a two-state solution is the only possible way out of the impasse, it would be unethical for Israel to settle new land now, only to give it away later.

The next part is formal cross-examination of the other side, followed by rebuttals. Braude pointed out that cross-examination in particular is difficult for debating neophytes as they must quickly develop questions and come up with the words to present their argument.

In this unscripted part, the affirmative side challenges the idea of a two state solution as being unrealistic. "Our neighbors rejected United Nations Resolution 242 and the proposal for peace in Gaza. Why will they accept now?"

The negative side presents its own challenge to Israel's historic biblical claim to the land in question, drawing a parallel to Canada and First Nations land claims.

Flushed with excitement of being on a winning team, Shira Druker, a Grade 9 student at York House, noted the commitment it took to participate in this event. "It was difficult", she explained. "We all came from different schools, so it was hard to arrange time to get together. We met four or five times at the JCC. Our speeches had at least nine edits. So it was a lot of work, but I had a great team.... It was great to win."

This was a meaningful intellectual and social activity for all of the students.

"Our point of view ... was [it is] in Israel's best interest to redeem captors It was very interesting arguing about the topic," said King David High School student Jonathan Schweber. "This is my third year in the debates and I've always loved to argue."

The level of support from Federation and the community centre, as well as numerous individuals was very high. "This is an opportunity for students to work outside the traditional curriculum. It's a chance to represent yourself and your school. It's a very important event for students," said Wolf.

And Braude pointed out, "Those who start in Grade 8 go on – 100 per cent of them."

Eric O'Donnell is a retired secondary school teacher. Recently relocated to Vancouver from Toronto, he now focuses his time on photography and writing.