The Great Debate

Campers learn about some of the key challenges facing Israel today, begin to develop or sharpen their opinions, and engage in discussion and debate as they grapple with the realities of multiple perspectives on burning issues.

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Stage 1: Introduction

  • You can introduce The Great Debate by peppering campers with a series of questions about Israel, or asking them to shout out what they think are the key issues facing Israel. After a brief discussion, the GE can shift gears and provide an overview of how the activity is run.
  • Alternately, you might want to work with a few Israeli and American staff members to prepare a short dramatic presentation designed to demonstrate the role these questions play in daily life in Israel. This skit might entail a few friends meeting in someone's living room on a Friday night to argue about politics, or some similar scenario, to encourage campers to engage in dialogue and debate, and to ask questions.
  • Questions that can help launch this activity:
    • What should the borders of Israel look like in a final-status agreement with the Palestinians?
    • Should Arab citizens of Israel enjoy full rights equal to those of Israeli Jews?
    • Since Israel is a Jewish state, should the Orthodox Rabbinate keep its role in setting religious policy for all Israeli Jews?

Stage 2: Understanding the Debate

  • After the introduction of the program, the GE stands alongside a large placard with a variety of symbols and images representing the issues described below. (This can include bumper stickers, reprinted slogans, etc. Bumper sticker images can be selected from here: but choose them with care to ensure a mix that reflects the issues that are being discussed). S/He will refer to the images as s/he provides an overview of dilemmas and challenges faced by the State of Israel.
  • GE: You all have learned about the history of the State of Israel. I don’t want you to think you’ve learned all there is to learn, but I also don’t want you to think that the past is the only thing that matters. There are burning issues on the Israeli agenda, and you have enough knowledge and understanding to begin to wrestle with them.
  • You could think of daily life in Israel as one Great Debate. Today we’re going to talk about some of those debates that preoccupy Israelis. I’ve got my own opinions on them, but my opinions won’t be the focus right now. I don’t want to tell you what to think; I want you each to think for yourselves. I’ll give the overview, and then each of you will have to decide what’s right, or what you would do if it was up to you to set Israeli policy.
  • You may choose to introduce the approach by doing a “dry run” of a couple of issues that are hot topics in the U.S. – perhaps the voting age or the drinking age and a question about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Next, introduce the issues on the agenda for today (feel free to add, swap, or delete from the following list):
    • The threat posed by Iran
    • Territorial compromise
    • Religion and state
    • Who is a Jew
    • Citizenship and rights
    • Security/civil liberties
    • Army and society
    • Israel-Diaspora relations

This introduction will not delve into positions on each issue, but will simply set up the dilemmas or questions.

Stage 3: Staking Out the Positions

  • Staff members, led by the GE and one or more shlichim (with careful preparation, campers can also make some of these presentations), will then make a brief (2-3 minute) presentation presenting each issue in greater depth. At the conclusion of each presentation, the presenter will posit three statements, and ask campers to choose the one that they agree with most. Cards with the statements will be distributed.
  • Statements for each dilemma will have a different color and/or shape. By the end of the presentations, each camper will have eight cards representing the positions they chose for each of the dilemmas.
  • If it seems appropriate, you might ask the campers to share any reflections on the activity to this point. Questions could include:
    • Were you surprised by your views on any of these issues?
    • Which issue seems most important to you?
    • How might you view these issues differently if you lived in Israel?

Stage 4: Finding Points of Agreement

  • The facilitator notes that everyone has staked out positions on a wide variety of issues, and each camper is unlikely to find many people who agree with them on every issue. This is a lot like Israeli politics, where different parties come together to form a coalition even if they do not agree on every issue.
  • Instruct the group to take 10 minutes to sort themselves into groups where there is the greatest common ground. Campers can achieve this by looking for similar arrays of cards and by querying each other. Once there are 6-8 groups, a staff person joins each group and leads a discussion about the issues. Since each group will include people with varying views on some of the issues, the staff person will moderate discussion and debate on the points of disagreement.
  • After 15 minutes, the entire group will reconvene, and the facilitator will solicit varying views on some or all of the dilemmas.
  • Additionally, if time permits, the culminating discussion can focus on the process of seeking common ground, compromising on multiple issues, etc.

Stage 5: Wrap-up

  • Questions the facilitator might pose to the entire group during the wrap-up discussion include:
    • What surprised you most about the discussions you've just had?
    • Did you find many people who agreed with you on every issue? How do you explain this?
    • Which issues seem to be the most important?
    • Do you see any comparison to the relative importance of issues in American society? Why do some issues matter more to us than others?
    • Were you aware of all of these dilemmas? Which ones were new to you?
    • Who wants to share a particularly interesting idea about how to tackle one of these issues?
    • Ideally, campers will discuss the complexity of the issues, the insights they gained by thinking and discussing tough topics, and their own sense of connection to some of the "front-burner issues" that concern Israelis. You might probe a bit why Israeli issues matter to them in the first place, and a few campers might talk about their own connections to Israel.
  • Finally, consider asking an Israeli staff member to share his or her perspective on the issues. Caution: Prepare the Israeli staff to approach this from the perspective of an observer of Israeli society, rather than sharing their own views on the issues. (If an Israeli espouses a clear perspective on these issues, campers whose views differ may feel marginalized, and campers without strong views might be inclined to fall into step with "the expert").
  • Campers will leave this activity with deeper awareness, and nuanced views, of key dilemmas facing Israel. Hopefully they will have greater confidence in their own grasp of the issues and how they approach them, but at the same time it is important for them to understand there are many differing views on each of these issues. Dialogue and openness to different ideas - as well as a willingness to advocate for what you believe in - should be enhanced.

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