Last week, Israeli media were filled with pride and praise for Omer and Sela Nevo, two brothers and students from Tel Aviv University who won the World Universities Debating Championships in the English as Second Language category, held in Manila.
The English edition of Israel’s Ynet reported on it briefly, noting:
Six months ago, the two won first place at the European championship held in Ireland. Also, this is the second time in the past three years that an Israeli team has won the world championship.
Student debaters as undeclared agents of the state
“So what” you might ask? Isn’t this just Israeli youth being like youth from all over the world and excelling in an international contest? Not according to the debate team’s coach, Yoni Cohen-Idov, himself a former debate champion, who explained that one of the main purposes of Israeli debate is hasbara – propaganda – for state. Indeed, Cohen-Idov stresses that the effectiveness of student hasbara agents stems from the very fact that “they are not understood to be ‘agents’ of the state.”
Israeli debate has an important goal: hasbara. There is one place in this world where students from the National Muslim University in Malaysia embrace Israelis after they clobber them, where Catholic students from Ireland (a particularly hostile country) stick a blue Star of David on their national flag, and Turks wave blue and white banners - and that is the debating stage.
Israel’s debaters are the best ambassadors that the state can offer: they can convey a message, be persuasive, talk to an audience, function under pressure - and they are not understood to be “agents” of the state. You should have seen the compassion shown by Iraqi students to explanations by the Israeli delegation during the world competition, during Cast Lead, in order to understand what I’m talking about.
Despite this, most Israelis - including government offices and authorities - have not yet understood the meaning of that foreign word, and they are somewhat amused at the fact that we’re learning and teaching how to argue. Initiatives of many debaters to help with Israeli hasbara, even on a volunteer basis, met with no response; even in educational institutions, the penny hasn’t entirely dropped. The whole world is already in on the secret of debating, and sees Israel as an empire. It’s time for us to wise up, too, and start using our excellent debaters for goals that are even more important than bringing in wholesale quantities of trophies.
While debate ought to be about quick and critical thinking, the Cohen-Idov is eager for his charges to become – voluntarily – mouthpieces of state propaganda, even explaining away Israel’s Gaza massacre (“Operation Cast Lead”) to Iraqis.
This eagerness to recruit students into state propaganda efforts fits into a broader context where the National Union of Israeli Students is involved in several state propaganda efforts including paying students for spreading Israel’s message online, and subjecting students to compulsory Ministry of Hasbara training before sending them on foreign delegations.
Apparently, conquering the flag of “hostile” Ireland is the next great victory.