The 2016 U.S. Universities Debating Championship, which took place at Morehouse College in Atlanta over the weekend, was marred by controversy after one of the propositions to be debated was revealed to be “This House Believes That Palestinian Violence Against Israeli Civilians Is Justified,” a decision that led to some participants to walk out.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a frequent topic at college debate tournaments — past prompts have included whether a Jewish state should have been created somewhere other than the Middle East, and whether Israel should have unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Other past championship questions have also had the potential to cause offense, such as arguing over whether the feminist movement has a right to exclude trans women.
But the wording of the question for the sixth of eight opening rounds was criticized for forcing half of all participants, who are assigned their viewpoints, to argue in favor of committing terror attacks on specific civilians. People who spoke to The Tower said they believed the wording of the question to be unprecedented. The debate prompt was especially distressing for participants who were Jewish or otherwise had ties to Israel, as they may have been forced to choose between losing crucial points in the national championship and advocating for murdering people they knew.
The debate format gives participants 15 minutes between announcing the subject and beginning the debate. “Once the topic is released, debaters are probably not going to react immediately, because they are on a timed clock,” Jessica Weiss, a second-year student at Willamette University who attended the tournament, explained to The Tower. “Once my partner and I got the topic, we immediately started walking to [our assigned] room in a rush. I was shocked, a lot of people were shocked. We were opposing the topic, so it wasn’t as bad for me, but I was still emotionally affected by it. I was tearing up and my partner was trying to calm me down.”
“I cried during most of the preparation time,” Weiss said. “It was sourced from my personal experiences being [in Israel]. But I’ve debated many controversial topics before, and I just kept telling myself this is just another one.” Weiss said that she that by the time the debate was scheduled to begin, she was emotionally as well as intellectually prepared — the fact that competitors only had 15 minutes to prepare to discuss a controversial subject pertaining to a complicated region meant that “a lot of people didn’t know what they were talking about. … There was a general lack of knowledge in that round.”
“[When the topic was announced] I was in the highest-ranked room of the tournament, with one of the chief adjudicators judging me,” Stanford debater Harry Elliott, who was assigned to argue in favor of the motion, told The Tower. “My first instinct was to drop out and walk out.” But as part of a high-ranking team that had traveled all the way from California, “we felt a pretty strong obligation to get on with the round…so [we] ran the case in the way we deemed most acceptable.”
Multiple sources told The Tower that they had heard reports of people crying in the middle of their presentations because they were so uncomfortable giving speeches in favor of the motion.
Some debaters who were assigned the “pro” position tried to turn the debate into a discussion of the morality of terrorism in general, or the acceptability of Palestinian lethal self-defense from Jewish terrorist attacks. But many participants were penalized by judges for not specifically discussing the issue of targeting Israeli civilians, a judge who refused to participate in the debate told The Tower. That judge, who is a college student, asked not to be named because he was concerned that being seen as sympathetic towards Israel would affect his future job prospects.
Ironically, a forum on “safe spaces” was cut short in order to announce the controversial debate prompt. The announcement led to an outcry among some participants, who asked that the debate be postponed and a new prompt given. But at that point, most participants had already headed to their assigned rooms to begin prepping for the debate. The “equity officer,” who was in charge of fair and equitable treatment for all debate participants, agreed that the subject was unacceptable and said that participation in that round should be optional, according to a recounting of events on the tournament’s Facebook page. But the officer added that she did not have the capability to inform participants of that decision so close to the scheduled commencement of the debate.
Nearly every debater completed the round, but around 30 people submitted “equity violation” notices to the equity officer after the round’s conclusion, Weiss told The Tower – including a Palestinian-American on the Willamette team. Some teams even decided to leave the tournament early. A meeting was scheduled to discuss the appropriateness of the question, the judge said, but it was postponed twice and then moved to an online forum.
“Generally I’m not a supporter of ‘safe spaces,'” Weiss said. “I’m a student in the Northwest, and I feel like a lot of people have expanded safe spaces to include a lot of different things.” But while having a debate on the merits of the BDS movement or the Israeli occupation is acceptable, she said, the specific prompt chosen for the national championships was not, because of the way it singled out Israelis for targeting.
“I think if they pick controversial topics like defending a human rights violation, it should be in general, not against a certain group,” she said. “It’s okay to have a discussion on when it’s okay to kill civilians in general, but it’s extremely ostracizing when it’s a specific group that might be there.”
Elliott, who has been debating for four years, argued that “some of the most important debates over the most contentious issues are always going to cause offense in people. … I don’t think you can subjectively draw the line on the kinds of experiences that matter and those that don’t. ….When we start using people’s emotions as a proxy for what we should and shouldn’t talk about, we ultimately lose all objectivity. And the whole point of debate, of argumentation, is meant to be objective.”
But the judge who refused to rule on the terrorism question, also a debate veteran, saw the issue and the questions it raised as an example of moral relativism. “Debate numbs you to oppression, to violence, to a lot of stuff that really should be bad, because kids are only in it for competition,” he told The Tower. “I’ve had kids say ‘Yes, I’d debate [in favor of] homophobic and sexist and all kinds of oppressive things,’ and then go on to defend it. That’s an amorality that is immoral. There’s a loss of empathy.”
On the other hand, the judge added, there are also people “who would say, ‘You could never have a topic about Ferguson, you could never have a topic about homophobia,'” he added. “These same people who are saying, ‘Yes, this is a terrible argument,’ they say that about everything but the Jews. That’s what really frustrates me, this liberal hypocrisy—a safe space for everybody but the Jews here.”
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