27 August 2014
Photos of South Africa’s national schools debate team wearing keffiyehs and pins with the Palestinian flag fuelled a hurricane of social media hate earlier in August 2014. Mandy de Waal interviewed members of the team and considers what can be learned from that perfect storm.
At the beginning of August, five South African youths jetted off to Thailand to compete against the world’s best debaters from schools across the globe. Armed with critical thinking skills and years of experience in forming winning arguments, Joshua Broomberg, Sam Musker, Rachel Gardiner, Kate Dewey and Saadiyah Mayet flew to Bangkok and the World Schools Debating Championships.
In August the world’s media was saturated by images of suffering because of the carnage in Gaza. The Israeli Defence Force’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ was close to marking its first month, and figures from the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) showed 1,890 Palestinians had been killed. The vast majority of the dead were civilians, including over 400 children. The Israeli death toll for the same period stood at two civilians and 64 soldiers.
The debating team had spent an intense ten days in Johannesburg training for the world championship before heading off for Thailand. “We spent a lot of time as a team talking about the issues that were dominating the news at that time,” Saul Musker, the team’s assistant coach tells GroundUp during a telephonic interview. The biggest issue dominating the news was of course the conflict in Gaza. “We felt it was important to add our voices to the discourse,” says Saul, whose brother Sam is a part of the national team.
“We’d been seeing news of the kind of atrocities and disproportional killings that had been perpetrated by the Israeli Defence Force in Gaza, and I felt that we had an obligation to speak about these issues, not just in a debating room, but also in real life, using the skills that we had been taught in debating,” says Sam, who got turned onto debating by watching his older brother Saul work his way up the local school’s ladder to become a participant in the world champs.
It is a common tradition at the global event for the school-going polemicists to wear pins bearing their country flag. “We decided to wear the Palestinian badge alongside the South African badge because South Africans sympathise very keenly with people facing injustices and oppression,” Saul says, explaining the genesis of a decision that unleashed a social media storm.
“It wasn’t a carefully planned, co-ordinated thing,” he says, adding: “It wasn’t as if we were sitting around a table planning and plotting how we were going to launch a campaign. We never expected in a thousand years that it would catch fire and snowball the way it did.”
The older Musker brother is 19 going on 20, and has been involved in the art of dialectic since he was 14. “Debating has developed me, the way that I think, and the way that I see the world, more than anything else in my life. It is a very involved sport and once you start you spend hours and hours training. It really comes to shape your approach to things, your interactions with people, your understanding of political and social issues. I would be a completely different person without it,” Saul says.
Forty-three countries represented by teams of three to five polemicists each took part in the world showdown in Thailand, which debated some of the more contentious moral and political issues a society can face. Motions included subjects like whether prisoners should be able to volunteer for drug trials in exchange for lighter sentences; whether slum tourism does more harm than good; and whether tax exemptions should be lifted from religious institutions that refuse to recognise marriage equality.
“This is a group of people who understand the value of listening and understanding one another, and who engage in these really meaningful conversations about issues that in the vast majority of cases are discussed in very emotional and often nationalistic terms,” says Saul who now spends his time teaching young people how to argue using logic and structured thinking.
Aside from being the assistant coach to South Africa’s national team, Saul serves on the South African School’s Debating Board (SASDB) and helps organise the processes which realise this country’s annual national championships. Outside of this Saul champions debate by expanding the practice into new schools, new areas, and new provinces. “I spend a lot of my life trying to make debating bigger,” he says.
Debating is older than Plato or Socrates, and pre-dates the codification of the Torah - the period when rabbinical scholarship was alive with argument about the foundational narrative that instructs Jewish civilization. In the United States debate has been a compelling part of the presidential elections since September 1960 when John F Kennedy, then a Democratic Party senator, took on then Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy would go on to defeat Nixon and become the youngest president in the history of that country.
A firm feature of public life in democracies are parliaments, which are home to debates where government members engage each other to discuss policy, law and more. The aim? To arrive at informed decisions, to pass laws and to scrutinise government’s performance.
Outside of parliament, a lively public discourse with an open exchange of ideas and free flow of opinion is a sure indicator of a healthy democracy. In contrast, the limiting of argument, and the imposition of absolute ‘truths’ on a society is indicative of dictatorships. Totalitarian states use force or intimidation to prescribe the boundaries of public discourse.
“South Africa has a unique set of problems in its own discourse,” says Saul. “On one hand we have a vibrant democracy that on the surface suggests freedom of expression, constitutional liberties, a strong civil society and those strong ingredients of a democracy. But below the surface there is an unwillingness to engage with other people. There is a lot of populist rhetoric, and there is an intellectual discourse that is very separated from the real world, and very separated from the majority of people.”
“South Africa will be fine as long as we have a healthy public discourse, and a space where people can challenge one another and challenge the government. We will know that we are in trouble when that discourse starts to falter, and there are signs that this is starting to happen,” the debating coach says.
As the SA team was due to step up for their first debate at the debating championships, Israel had stepped up its attack on Gaza. The carnage of civilians was placed in front of a global audience by news companies and eye-witnesses, and the tide of public opinion that was turning against Israel appeared to reach a tipping point.
The symbolic gesture of solidarity that this country’s brightest young thinkers and orators made at the World Schools Debating Championships coincided with this shift. The squad wore pins bearing the flag of Palestine, together with black and white keffiyehs – the iconic scarf worn by late PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Once a nationalist symbol woven on home ground, the hipster trend made these black and white scarves the cultural equivalent of a Che Guevara T-shirt. Popularity not only diluted the political potency of these fashion statements, but as China picked up the mass production of keffiyehs, Palestinian scarf crafters became near extinct.
It is an irony that photographs posted on social media of Joshua Broomberg, Sam Musker, Saul Musker, Rachel Gardiner, Kate Dewey and Saadiyah Mayet wearing keffiyehs released a tsunami of trollish outpourings. But a rare confluence of global events had precipitated to create this perfect storm where a symbolic gesture for humanity became fodder for the social media outrage machine.
“It was a really simple gesture that we felt was an important for ourselves – to stand up for what we saw as injustice being perpetrated in Gaza. A lot of people tried to misconstrue our position and our statement. We in no way condoned Hamas or any other terrorist organisation. We were quite clear that we sympathised with all loss of life, including the loss of Israeli civilian life. Our stand was a purely humanitarian stand,” says Saul.
“I felt that we had an obligation to speak about these issues, not just in a debating room, but also in real life, using the skills that we had been taught in debating,” says Sam. “The reaction we got was very severe. Social media platforms erupted, the news erupted and the Jewish community in South Africa took a very serious stance by and large against our actions.”
Photographs of the team’s gesture went viral and incited a flood of vitriol, that ranged from personal insults to intimidation and threats of violence. These included:
To this fucking retards that support the Palestinians…Me Brian Thomas Poczynski born in Argentina and Soldier at The IDF i hope that these people doesn’t ever come to my country (Israel) because i will shoot them with my M16 and empty all my bullet on them!
You are idiots, an embarrassment to your faith. Get a life morons, stand up for your people or go join Hamas and see what they do to you. Idiots!!!
Seventeen-year-old Saadiyah Mayet says it was disturbing to witness the outpouring of verbal abuse. “It was a shock and surprising to see the amount of blind hatred and the assumptions that people threw at us. But after the outburst of extreme hatred there were tons more people who were supportive or who were actively moderating the situation, which was useful.”
“But it was a stark contrast to what we are used to in the realm of debating. It showed how discourse can descend into this frustrating, emotional sparring outside of the world of debate, which is disappointing,” she says.
Most of the anger was focused at Joshua Broomberg, the deputy head boy at King David High School Victory Park, where he is now preparing to write prelims. “Both Joshua and the team as a whole received a lot of death threats and threats of violence. These missives weren’t overtly explicit but were very intimidating in their nature,” says Saul Musker who adds: “I don’t think any of us worried for our safety because I think that it is quite clear a lot of those messages are from angry, vitriolic people, but also from people who are cowards. It is one thing to vent on social media – it is another thing to take action. But on the other hand all you need is one crazy person to harm someone out of political fervour.”
Some 2,500 signatories petitioned online to remove Broomberg as deputy head of his school, and to strip him of his honours and leadership positions. The petition was created using an anonymous account with the handle ‘concerned Zionist’. Soon afterward an opposing petition on the same network garnered over 4,800 online signatures.
Broomberg was lauded by the ANC and defended by the Gauteng Education Department. In an open letter explaining his position from the eye of the storm, Broomberg wrote: “criticism is not a betrayal, but actually the only honest and true way to show my patriotism and commitment to Israel, as well as my belief in human rights and the entitlement of all citizens of all countries to those rights. To improve, we must criticise.”
The letter continues: “The issues are complex but we can never let go of the ability to talk and engage with the other side. If we lose this ability we lose our claim to be an enlightened community, we lose what it means to be human.”
GroundUp spoke to Broomberg now that calm has been restored to discover what could be learned from this perfect storm. “What do we do when we debate?” Broomberg said on the phone from his home in Johannesburg. “The cynical answer is that you’re trying to win debates, but it is more than that. It is not just about two teams going head to head to win an argument. It is essentially finding the best route or the best way of solving really complex challenges or problems. It is discovering what is morally acceptable, what must be changed, or what should be kept the same.”
“What debating is, is the understanding of what is best for people or situations in a very nuanced sense.” After the understanding, Broomberg explains, comes time for talk about which solutions and policies are rationally justified. “If we were able to do this – to debate in this way, there would definitely be real benefit for our country.”
In recent years in South African political speech has often been characterised by personal attacks, hatefulness and irrationality. There’s much we can learn from Broomberg and his peers about what it means to contest ideas rationally in a democracy.
On Sunday 24 August, the University of Free State rector, Professor Jonathan Jansen, was awarded the Chivas Humanitarian Award at the 2014 Jewish Achiever Awards held in Johannesburg. He dedicated the accolade to Broomberg. In a room full of Jews at what is surely one of the most prestigious social events on the Jewish calendar, Jansen said, “And so I receive with gratitude and dedicate this undeserved gift, the Chivas Humanitarian Award, to Joshua Broomberg whose words moved me to the core of my being when he so eloquently argued that ‘criticism is not betrayal’ and that, in his words, ‘I can love and support the state of Israel but still reject and criticise some of its actions.’ Joshua Broomberg surely is the best version of our South African youth.”