Saturday, 31 August 2013

Why Israel outperforms the Netherlands

This post has been created after a very enjoyable and thought-provoking conversation with WUDC/EUDC-finalist Alon van Dam. All opinions and misrepresentations are my own.

Israel and The Netherlands are two of the giants of ESL debate. From 2002 to 2013, a team from each of these countries has spoken in the ESL final of EUDC (except for 2010, where only The Netherlands was represented by a team from Groningen). But even though the Netherlands has won the competition more recently (2012 was for the Netherlands, while Israel took the title in 2011), we now see a gradual shift towards more Israeli success. There are consistently more Israeli teams in the break: So consistently, that betting on more Israeli teams in the break would net you almost no return in the EUDC betting pool. Moreover, while some old and proud Dutch institutions such as UCU and Bonaparte were not present at Manchester EUDC, Israel was represented by 9 institutions. To top it off, 5 Israeli teams reached the quarters versus 2 Dutch teams.

The Dutch have amazing advantages for fostering debate; travel in the Netherlands is extremely cheap (or even free) for students, a lot of debating societies practice 45 minutes away from each other and for less than 100 euros we can travel to the UK and regularly compete and learn from the strongest speakers in Europe. In contrast, Israel has to almost completely rely on people and knowledge within its own circuit. Given that difference, you might imagine that The Netherlands would dominate the ESL circuit even more than they do know!

With those burning questions, it was luck that Alon van Dam from RRIS was in The Netherlands to visit family and friends. He was able to give some invaluable insights into debating in Israel; insights that we may use here to make debating even better...

A compelling duty to judge

I don't think that I have ever visited a Dutch competition were people didn't complain about the judges. Sometimes, this was unfounded - there have been some competitions were 2 experienced Dutch judges adjudicated nearly every room. Regrettably, in a lot of other competitions the good judges flocked around the top rooms and the other rooms were judged by novice judges. The majority of societies have problems fulfilling N-1, and usually fulfill them by sending freshers or late sign-ups. Rotation around the tab is often limited, and the CA-team perches in the best rooms, leading the strongest independent judges to continuously have to judge middle and lower rooms. Judging breaks can be conservative, and the symbolic promotion to chair in the outround is rarely given to judges who weren't in the CA-team. While I admire the effort that Dutch CA-teams and judges put in making a competition great, there are still many things we could do better.
(Full disclosure: Last year, I judged at Roosevelt Open, Leiden Open and Nationals. I spoke at Cicero and UCU, and wasn't present at other competitions as I was judging or speaking abroad, or visiting family or my girlfriend. As registration officer for Leiden I also failed to provide an adequate number of judges to DTU and BP Rotterdam. In Leiden a rule exists on how we will break up teams if competitions press us for N-1, and I think we'd happily oblige if competitions would pressure us)

In Israel, the norm to judge is really important. Many older debaters and world-class judges such as Anat and Michael Shapira, Yoni Cohen-Idov, Omer and Sella Nevo, etc. still judge at a very large amount of competitions, even though many of them are less active in debating or have to balance debate and demanding jobs. Furthermore, there is a very high norm against competing in a tournament you have already won. So while in The Netherlands some speakers regularly compete in tournaments they may have won once or twice already, in Israel most active speakers will come back next year at the same competition to judge.

More interestingly, Israeli debate competitions have build in numerous incentives to encourage younger debaters to judge regularly. Many competitions have a team cap for institutions that can only be increased when institutions send judges. And not just any judge; Israeli judges are ranked as 'novice', 'experienced', or 'break-level'. As an institution you should send not only novice judges, but also experienced judges if you want to send more teams. The consequence is that Israeli institutions encourage their freshers to not only speak, but also judge.

Moreover, strong Israeli judges are promoted to CA-teams at a more rapid speed than the Netherlands. Dutch Nationals last year received a lot of bad rep, even within its own CA-team, about a number of the people selected to be part of that team. This would be far less common on the Israeli debate scene.
Also, Israeli CA-teams put far more emphasis on rotating judges, even the CA-team, around the tab, and take care to promote strong judges to out-rounds and chairing the finals.

One of the strongest gestures of the Manchester EUDC CA-team was that they judged little to no outrounds, as they felt they could trust the judging pool they had at their disposal. Similarly, I loved the way that the Roosevelt Open handled their judging break last year, placing people who had judged strongly on the semi-final panels, even if this was their first time judging. This could be a fantastic boost to the morale of people who come and judge at competitions; they feel like judging well will be recognized, and it incentivizes people to care about judging.

Creating such a strong culture of respect for judging and desire to continue judging during and after ones speaking career is superbly important for developing a debate scene. Younger people can get fantastic feedback (I loved the Novice competition I attended, where every round multiple WUDC/EUDC-breaking judges gave me feedback) and people who reach their platform as a speaker usually develop themselves further after they judged a few competitions.

A very active debating league with many tournaments

This part mirrors recommendations I have made earlier here and here.

The amount of Israeli competitions are incredible. There are about 15 active Israeli debating societies, and the majority of them organise 2 or more competitions in one year. Compare this to The Netherlands, where 8 open competitions, 1 novice competition and 2 veteran competitions were organised last year, with only Leiden organising more than 1 tournament (I am not counting Eloquentia, as this is a format totally unlike competitive debate). Competitions cost about 8-10 euros to attend and are fully catered.
Added to the amount of competitions that they organise, the Israeli debate scene also takes pride in their yearly pro-am and novice competitions. Novices is one of the best-judged competitions per year, and world champions actively train their freshers into amazing speakers so they can shine at their pro-am tournament.

The benefits are obvious: Israeli speakers rank up far more debate rounds in a year than Dutch speakers, will thus familiarise themselves with more motions and have more opportunities to practice their strategy. There is also more opportunity to judge, so judging doesn't feel as such a sacrifice to your speaking career.

Of course, having more active societies means that its easier to organise competitions, and I have heard that many societies have difficulty booking rooms at their uni. I maintain, however, that following the Leiden Novices model of booking rooms during the opening times of a uni building, asking people to bring their own food and having a final in a bar means that you can run a competition with almost no preparation necessary, at which people can still have loads of fun. We could perhaps make the running of these competitions more attractive by labelling them as "Mini's" (to differentiate them from their "Debattoernooi" or "Open" counterparts) and ranking the tabs of different Mini's so that we have our own Dutch Debating Competition with a winner at the end of the year.


Of course, the Israeli debating scene is not perfect. They too have to actively work to prevent problems of inclusion, for instance. But there are two tricks to the Israeli debating scene that we could easily master: more attention to superb judging in all rooms of a competition, and more opportunities to debate as a whole.
If we learn those two lessons and link them to our unique benefits, our proximity to each other and the UK and our burgeoning Schools league, we should be able to reverse the trend in no time and continue Dutch hegemony at the top of ESL debate.

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