Fighting words: Meet Palestine’s first ever schools debaters

By EA Maurice Cotter

Maurice served with EAPPI in Palestine and Israel for three months at the beginning of 2015. This blog was first published here on the Mondoweiss news website on July 22, 2015.

“It lets you have a fight with someone with your words. It teaches you how to react, and it can change your life.”

George is 14 years old and a student at Collège des Fréres, a private Christian school, and he’s recently taken up competitive debating. He tells me this in response to the first question I ask when I have the chance to speak to him and his classmate Nora: why do you like debating?

It’s a good answer. It reflects the enthusiasm that debating inspires in teenagers in Ireland, my home country and my main point of comparison. But George and Nora’s circumstances are markedly different from those of most debaters I’ve met before. We’re speaking in a trophy-filled classroom in central Bethlehem, occupied Palestine, and here, the stakes in political argument can be frighteningly high.

Nora and George are two of twenty-two Collège des Fréres students, divided evenly between boys and girls, participating in the final stage of a selection process to represent Palestine at this year’s World Schools Debating Championships, set to take place in Singapore in July and August. This will be the first time that Palestine has ever competed.

The group of students trying out for Palestine’s World Schools Debating team, with coach Alfred Snider (centre). [Photo: Alfred Snider]

The group of students trying out for Palestine’s World Schools Debating team, with coach Alfred Snider (centre) [Photo: Alfred Snider]

My conversation with George and Nora came about as the result of an invitation from Alfred Snider, a veteran American debating coach whose responsibility it is to prepare the World Schools team for the competition. Alfred was approached to take on the job by George Naber, the ambitious school principal whose idea it was to start a competitive debating programme and who successfully obtained funding to fly Alfred to the Middle East from the US Consulate in Jerusalem. The money to send the children to the Championships is coming from a former World Schools competitor from Singapore, Harveen Singh, who, like many others, felt that not enough had been done to bring Palestine into the global debating community. Between them, this diverse group is helping to plant the seeds for competitive debating in Palestine.

The main protagonists, though, are the students themselves. Today they are debating the merits of making school an online facility.

The first thing that strikes me as I watch them debate is their proficiency in English, which is at best their second language (“at best” because for many Palestinian children, the logic of the occupation dictates that Hebrew is their second language). One girl transcribes the motion for the debate as it’s called out on the classroom blackboard with minimal delay and no spelling errors, an impressive feat for a 14 year-old writing in her second language, never mind her second script.

The next thing that strikes me is just how similar they are to their Irish counterparts. The flaws in their speeches are much the same as those you’d see in schools debaters at competitions across Ireland, and only slightly exacerbated by the language issue: their nerves mean that they’re overly reliant on pre-prepared material and only exceptional speakers can improvise quickly enough to engage directly with arguments made in their opponents’ speeches. Despite this, the quality is better than some schools debates I’ve witnessed. I idly wonder how good they’d be in Arabic.

The speeches address many of the same concerns that Irish students might have in relation to the motion: what kind of impact will this have on friendships formed in breaks between classes? Could this help students escape bullying?

The differences, though, are just as plain to see (or hear). In the very first speech of the debate, a boy named Zaid speaks about how making schooling available through the internet would allow for easier access to education for children from remote or rural villages. Many of the villages around Bethlehem send their children to schools in neighbouring towns and in the Bethlehem urban area itself. This would be unremarkable were it not for the barriers they can face on their way.

Just northeast of Bethlehem, for example, is the village of An Nu’man, which overlooks the Separation Barrier. Children from An Nu’man have to pass an Israeli military checkpoint every morning and afternoon on their half-hour walk to school in the neighbouring village of Al Khas. They have reported harassment from the soldiers manning the checkpoint (themselves often only a few years older).

Northwest of Bethlehem is another village, Al Walaja, where all bar one of the roads to the village have been blocked by the Israeli military. The mayor of the village told me that this has added seven kilometres to the school journey and that some families, already struggling for money, simply can’t afford the additional fuel costs. All of the students’ speeches are inflected with this contextual understanding.

Zaid speaks too about the destruction of Gaza’s schools, a reminder that Operation Protective Edge remains an open wound. This is strikingly the case even in the face of the separation of the children here from their relatives in Gaza for more than a decade.

I speak to Nora and George shortly after the debates wend their way to a close. “It’s important for us because so much of the world thinks of Palestinians as terrorists,” she tells me. It’s a common refrain here that the outside world tars all Palestinians with the brush of terrorism, especially since the rise of the Islamic State. To hear it from a 14 year old girl, who has clearly internalised the way the world views her country, is upsetting. “But debating teaches you how to make people change their point of view,” Nora continues with a bright smile.

George and Nora smile for the cameras [Photo: EAPPI/M.Cotter]

George and Nora smile for the cameras [Photo: EAPPI/M.Cotter]

Their excitement at the prospect of travelling to Singapore for the Championships is palpable, as is their nervousness at the selection process. Nora tells me that she wants to meet people from all over the world, to know how they think, and to simply “be part of such a huge thing”.

A few short days after leaving Collège des Fréres I learn that both George and Nora have been selected to travel to Singapore. It’s an incredible privilege for them and their team-mates, but it’s hard not to feel slightly sad that other children won’t have anything like the same opportunities. Conversely, though, it’s reassuring that the shared goal of the adults involved in the project is a vibrant debating scene across Palestine, in Arabic. These children are the first generation of competitive debaters in Palestine. All going to plan, they’ll grow into peer teachers and leaders themselves. Bethlehem to Singapore is just a first step.

The World Schools Debating Championships begin in Singapore on Monday, July 27.