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August 15, 2018 5:12 pm

European Debating Tournament Bans National-Origin Discrimination After Qatari Team Boycotts Israeli Champions

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Team Tel Aviv speaking at the EUDC 2018 Open Finals. Photo: Jovan Petronijevic.

A European debating tournament changed its constitution on Monday to prohibit discrimination based on nationality, after Israeli participants were boycotted by peers from Qatar in an episode condemned by organizers.

The amendment was proposed by Israeli debaters after two students from Qatar University refused to face challengers from Israeli universities at the European Universities Debating Championship (EUDC) 2018 in Serbia, which took place from July 31 through August 5, i24NEWS first reported.

The Israeli delegation — made up of several teams each from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Haifa University, Technion, IDC Herzliya, and Open University of Israel — was repeatedly rebuffed by the Qatari team, which called Israel an “apartheid state” and expressed support for the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

When first facing an Israeli team during round three of the nine-part competition, the Qatari representatives — Mazen Nashat Mohamed Abdelfattah and Abdelrahman Elsayed — tried to step down from the debate, but were warned by officials that doing so would make them ineligible to participate in the rest of the competition. They decided instead to use “their 7 minutes to make a statement condemning Israel instead of engaging with the debate,” EUDC’s Equity Team explained in a subsequent report.

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As this behavior was considered to be “too disruptive to the rest of the teams in the round,” it was determined that swing speakers would replace the Qatari team in future rounds where they objected to the identities of their opponents. Yet this decision was deemed insufficient by some participants, who noted that the swing team changed the balance of strengths in the room, and that the Qatari team’s behavior was causing unnecessary delays.

Ultimately, Noam Dahan and Tom Manor of Tel Aviv University — who last year won the “English as a Second Language” category — rose to the top of the category meant for native English speakers, beating out competitors from Oxford University and the London School of Economics.

Amichay Even-Chen and Ido Kotler, another team from Tel Aviv University, also won in the “English as a Second Language” category.

In its report on the competition, the Equity Team said it faced several obstacles in appropriately addressing the “unacceptable and discriminatory” boycott, namely its unprecedented nature and the lack of direction in the constitution.

“We considered the behavior of the Qatar team to be the same as if debaters were refusing to speak in rooms with someone because of any other immutable characteristic, such as: race, gender, or sexual orientation,” they explained.

The team called for the EUDC constitution to be amended to address this deficiency — a proposal the Israeli team advanced during an August 4 council meeting, right before the Grand Finals.

While the Qatari team took the opportunity to defend its behavior, the Israeli team said that a debater should not be subject to discrimination based on their nationality. Dismissing arguments that the move was an objection against Israeli universities, as opposed to Israelis in general, it noted that participants from Israel cannot freely choose where they live or study, and can not be expected to attend foreign institution.

An informal vote on the matter resulted in a draw, but delegates convened again on Monday and voted to adopt an amendment that would have future EUDC applications include a pledge to “engage and debate with all other teams in the tournament regardless of any unelected identity characteristics (including but not limited to: gender, ethnicity, nationality).”

Violation of the agreement would result in “immediate barring and removal from the tournament,” according to the amendment, which received unanimous support — including from Qatar.

The Palestinian delegation — which participated in EUDC for the first time this year — chose to abstain from the vote, explaining that while they are not against the amendment, debating Israelis could put them at personal risk back home.

“[Our] community at home just will not tolerate us debating Israelis, because of the complex nature of conflict,” they said, according to meeting minutes. “This might affect our academic progress or our social standing.”

“Debating does change our lives and our minds — forming friendships with Israelis is invaluable,” they explained. “But we can’t risk our home lives like this. Much of the Palestinian community only meets Israelis at checkpoints, and will not accept us engaging with them. We’re kind of stuck in the middle here. We’d love to debate Israelis and get to meet them. But this could be a threat to us at home.”

When asked by a representative of the French delegation whether they faced specific threats over their participation in EUDC with Israelis, they explained that “the community really isn’t aware of international debating yet, only our debating society knows about it thus far. So this didn’t come up.”

“But we [are] concerned about the future,” they added.

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