Israeli debater makes her case

University of Haifa student Anat Gelber: We’re teaching people to listen to one another, to argue, and not just shout at one another.As a child, Anat Gelber wasn’t a big talker. “I had stage fright,” Gelber, 25, recalls. “I didn’t …

University of Haifa student Anat Gelber: We’re teaching people to listen to one another, to argue, and not just shout at one another.As a child, Anat Gelber wasn’t a big talker.

“I had stage fright,” Gelber, 25, recalls. “I didn’t like the feeling of being the center of attention, with everyone focusing on me. I was always afraid I’d do or say something wrong, and everyone would notice?”

Everyone’s noticing now, after Gelber, a master’s student at the University of Haifa, was recently crowned the “world’s best speaker” during the world rhetorical championships held in Dublin, among those competitors for whom English is a second language.

Indeed, since debating helped her shed her shyness, she’s busy encouraging others to use words not only to get over their biggest fears, as she did, but to argue the case for Israel the world over.

Gelber’s not the only one putting Israel on the map as a debating power. With debate becoming increasingly popular among Israeli youth, particularly in high schools and universities, Israeli debating teams are regular visitors to and outstanding performers in international debating meets on a regular basis.

For Gelber, it was her major in philosophy that brought her to debating, specifically the teacher of her class in Rhetoric: The Art of Speech, Uri Zakai, who just happened to run the debating team.

“He was telling us about how everybody can become a very good public speaker, and that it was only a matter of training and effort,” Gelber told ISRAEL21c. “I said, OK, I’m really bad at this. I’m going to come and try you out, to see if you can make a speaker out of me, and well, he did.”

The future star speaker got off to less than a glowing start as an orator when she joined the club in 2001, she remembers. “At first, I was really, really bad. I would stand there for 20 seconds and get off the stage,” says the woman voted “best ESL speaker in Europe” in 2003 and 2005.

But she kept honing her craft at the debating club, founded at the university eight years ago, eventually scoring her first success at the Israeli national championships. She still remembers the proposition she debated that day: whether or not a murderer should be able to get time off their sentence for good behavior. She argued against the proposition, and won.

By now, admittedly, her friends thought she was “a bit of a geek,” but “I told them I believe that debating has a lot of value, and that it could benefit me greatly.” It certainly sent her places, first to Slovenia for her first international competition in 2001, featuring 64 teams and about 180 competitors.

“What really got me interested in debating was going there and seeing the best speakers in Europe. I remember watching the final, and there was a girl from Serbia speaking, and she was so impressive I remember telling my friends: ‘That is how I want to speak.’”

The determined Gelber moved on to world championship competition the next year in Toronto, meeting competitors from places like Bangladesh and Malaysia. In most international competitions, debaters compete in six rounds, each with its own topic, and only about 15 minutes to prepare. Partners “brainstorm” for ideas, relying on hours spent doing extensive reading – Gelber relies heavily on The Economist, for example – about all kinds of topics in preparation.

“In Toronto, we had to debate – which at the time I thought funny, but is now quite serious – banning Iran from the World Cup until they improve their attitude towards women,” recalls Gelber. “My partner, who had a good basis of general knowledge, knew that most soccer fans in Iran are actually from the reformist camp, not the conservative camp. We argued that this would only cause a backlash effect, strengthening the conservatives at the expense of the reformists.”

While international competition sticks to serious topics, to improve their skills, the debating club members have been known to tackle slightly wacky questions just to keep sharp. “So we did: ‘Why should we wash the floors in the desert,’ and ‘Why is Diet Coke so much better than regular Coke?’”

Diet Coke, they argued, has no calories and doesn’t taste as sweet. As for the desert, “you know it’s pretty dusty there, so washing the floor can be useful. Also, when you wash the floor, it reduces the temperature around your house, and if you’re living in the desert, it’s likely you don’t have many neighbors, and if people do pass by, they’re likely to come over, so it’s better off that your house be clean,” recalls Gelber of the arguments.

To be a top debater, she says, requires “a very critical and logical way of thinking – you need to be able to analyze things quite thoroughly, then come up with coherent and consistent, logical arguments to support your stand.”
But beyond those skills, it also promotes what Gelber – who devotes around 15 hours a week to her craft – calls “the value of public discourse. We’re teaching people to listen to one another, to argue, and not just shout at one another…”

To that end, Gelber says, she hopes the debating clubs like hers taking off throughout the country will do something about the type of debates seen on the Knesset floor or on various television shows that “portray us in a very bad light. I think people believe Israelis are very violent and aggressive people, because in these arguments, people don’t listen to one another to try to understand what the other person is saying.”

“To be a really good debater, you don’t only have to know how to speak, you have to know how to listen to what others are saying, because otherwise you won’t be able to respond… that’s something that a lot of Israeli speakers are lacking.”

Asked to give marks to some Israeli orators, Gelber singled out Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu. “We keep using him as an example to our freshman of someone who has definitely mastered the skill of debating,” she says.

Generally, however, when an Israeli politician opens his or her mouth on TV, Gelber flees the room. She was particularly upset over Labor Party leader Amir Peretz’s attempt to speak in English, calling it “a shameful performance.” She notes that Arab leaders like Bashar Assad, whom she said knows English well, insist on speaking in Arabic. Gelber believes Israeli leaders who can’t speak proper English shouldn’t try to do so.

But it’s not just the words, it’s the message that is sometimes problematic for Israelis representing their country abroad, says Gelber, who’s interested in perhaps pursuing a post with the Foreign Ministry’s cadet corps. To that end, the orating whiz also thinks Israeli representatives should heed one vital point in any oral presentation: know your audience.

“One of the problems with the Foreign Ministry is that it speaks to everyone in the same manner,” says Gelber. “One of the key things that you learn in debating is that your audience needs to affect your content. If I’m talking about opening malls on Shabbat in Israel, I would speak quite differently to a religious audience that to a secular one. The same way, Americans think differently than Europeans, Jewish Americans differently than Christians?You have to adapt yourself and your content to whoever is listening.”

“Israeli speakers tend to be narrators, mostly based on logic. This means that many times, when an Israeli speaker comes to speak in front of an audience, they just don’t get what he wants from them – they don’t get his point.”

Asked how Jews on college campuses, particularly in the US, should handle anti-Israel demonstrations or speakers, Gelber said: “First of all, I would say choose your battles. If you’re standing in front of crowd of 300 screaming Palestinians, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to persuade anyone. You need to know when to fight and when to leave the stage.

“I would say to try to explain yourself in logical arguments, without disrespecting the other side’s claims. And remember to bring some of your own horror stories, because Palestinians like to shock the audience with horror stories about the behavior of Israeli soldiers?The Israelis tend to avoid actually talking about terror attacks… you need to use that as well.”

“The other thing is that a lot of Israeli speakers, not only public speakers, believe that argument in general, and political argument in particular, is a zero-sum game, meaning that if we are right, then the Palestinians are completely wrong. They don’t understand the notion that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. So I would stay that if Israeli representatives would stop arguing for absolute justice, they would have a much greater shot at convincing people.”

Gelber praises the University of Haifa as a “model of coexistence,” where Arab and Jewish students mingle easily, sharing the common challenges of campus life, like cramming for finals. She’s also been able to make friends from Muslim countries during her debating career, including a girl from Indonesia she’s in e-mail contact with who knew very little about Israel until they met.

“I think that many times prejudice comes from the fact that people don’t know anything, so they believe the common view in their society,” notes Gelber, who adds that spending time together with such people breaks down barriers.

“For example, when you go to debating tournaments, you are all students. You all pretty much lead the same lives… The words and the meeting itself, and the fact that we all have a certain common ground” helps.

For now, Gelber is finishing her studies, but hopes to do what she can to improve her country’s image around the world, and is at no loss for words when presenting a strong argument for Israel’s bright future.

“I’m proud of my country,” she says, “I think that Israel is an amazing place, that we are facing some of the biggest challenges that a country can face, and we’re even doing quite a good job of it. I don’t always agree with certain policies. I don’t always agree with certain actions, but all in all, I think Israelis tend to see the glass as half empty, whereas what we should focus more on is what we’re doing here, and what we’ve achieved, and realize that the glass is more than half full.”