I just came back from the Vienna Inter-Varsity Debate competition for 2014 (aka VIV14). It is the second largest debate competition in Europe, with over 300 participants from Europe, US and Israel. I was pleasantly surprised to see the extent of Israeli participation in VIV14. There were delegations from Tel Aviv University, Ben Gurion University, the Technion, Herzliya Inter-Disciplinary Center (IDC), and the Open University – which I was part of.  In addition, there was significant Israeli representation within the senior judges and event organizers.

The VIV14 competition followed the format of British Parliamentary Style Debate:

–          Each room has 4 teams, which are randomly assigned the roles of: Opening Government, Opening Opposition, Closing Government and Closing Opposition.

–          The teams are presented with a ‘motion’, usually in the form of a proposed “law”. They have 15min to prepare before the debate actually starts.

–          Government teams argue in favor of the proposed motion, while opposition teams argue against it.

–          Each team has two debaters. Government and Opposition teams alternate, and each team member speaks for 7 minutes. During their turn, debaters must present their arguments for or against the motion; offer a rebuttal to arguments made by the previous speaker, and respond to a couple of questions from the opposing side.

–          There are 3 adjudicators (judges) in the room. They assign the teams scores (3,2,1 and 0 points) at the end of the debate.

–          Teams that scored the most points during initial rounds proceed to the quarter/semi/final rounds.

ViennaIV finals

VIV14 finals – presentation by the winning team

I had the privilege of serving as an adjudicator during the initial rounds. The final rounds were judged by a panel of 5 seasoned adjudicators.

Being an adjudicator is quite a challenge. You must listen very carefully to each speaker, and write down the main arguments they are making, along with their justifications. At the end of the round, the adjudicators hold a consultation to determine the scores. The objective is to determine the scores primarily based on pure logical arguments made, rather than speakers’ language or rhetorical skills.

There were over hundred teams from all over the world. The Tel Aviv University team made it to the semi-finals, which meant they were voted as one of the top 8 teams. They were close to making it to the finals – the judges debated for a while before giving a slight edge to a team from the University of Vermont, USA.

I watched the finals with great interest. The Opening Government team was from Poland, the Opening Opposition from USA; Closing Government was from Serbia, and Closing Opposition from the USA. The finals’ motion (as I recall it) was:

“This house will deny governments the right to force citizens to enlist in the army, or sacrifice their lives for their country”.

Watching the best teams “duke it out” was fascinating. It was a battle of wits, logic and oratory skills. The opening government chose a utopian line – forget about national armies and let communities take care of themselves. The first opposition “destroyed” that argument, painting it as naïve and incomplete. The second government brilliantly pointed that this debate isn’t about NOT having a national army, but rather about having an army of volunteers. They argued that citizens should determine the causes for which they are willing to risk their lives. The second opposition claimed that a top-down structure is more efficient, and that a voluntary army may fail to muster the forces needed to oppose an invading army. The second government managed to counter that argument – and won the debate. It was an exhilarating end to a 3-day competition.

I was proud to be part of the ‘Israeli delegation’. I know that we tend to disregard the debate skills of Israelis, based on what we see and hear on talk shows and in our Knesset parliamentary debates. But let me tell you this: we have a cadre of young, highly capable debaters that are a force to be reckoned with. Among the university debate circles, Israel is known as a ‘power house’. The future of Israeli debate is already here!