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High-school debate clubs will face off against each other in early January as part of a new joint venture between the Education Ministry and the nonprofit Citizens' Empowerment Center in Israel. The finals will be held on March 8, International Women's Day: The topic for the 2010-2011 school year is gender issues in Israel.

The Education Ministry hopes to expand the project next year to the national level.

Some 30 high-school civics and social science teachers recently completed a six-session seminar on the basics of debating. While there have been local debating activities in the past, the new project is the first to receive ministerial support.

The current initiative, which unlike past efforts focuses on training teachers in debate, has the backing of Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar. This year 20 schools, mostly in the center of the country, are participating, but next year organizers hope there will be more than 100.

The art of formal debate is much less developed in local schools than in European and U.S. ones, where it is taught sometimes in elementary school.

The program is part of the ministry's "Year of the Hebrew Language" and also ties in with efforts to introduce advanced teaching methods.

"Our students need to improve their rhetorical and oral expression skills," said the ministry's national social sciences education coordinator, Dana Friedman. Friedman, who is involved in the project, says it also constitutes "an excellent foundation for encounters between various social groups, cultures and [ethnic] sectors."

Teachers in the seminar learned about the culture of debate, strategies for introducing and refuting arguments, and gender issues. According to Reut Nadav, who taught the seminar and will continue to guide the project, debating is "a method that seeks to develop students' thinking abilities and makes the students much more involved."

Nadav says that while in the classroom girls may compete with boys for the teacher's attention, "they blossom in debate class. They don't have to claim their place, it's 'guaranteed' to them, thanks to the rules of debate."

"The common denominator among many of the world's leaders, including Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, is that at some point they learned the theories of persuasion and debate," says CECI executive director Yuval Lipkin. "The program gives teachers the ability to pass on the tools for developing rhetorical abilities so that students can improve their powers of persuasion and their public speaking abilities."

Teachers will judge the first round of debates between schools. In the finals the panels will be joined by Yoni Cohen-Idov, 2010 champion of the World Universities Debating Championship.

Nadav stresses that the judges base their decisions on the quality of the arguments used "It's important to be charismatic," she said, "but more attention is paid to content than style."