Can Toastmasters Ramallah stay politics-free?


A room of people seated at a table listen to a speaker. A man stands at a podium at the front, with his back to the camera.

Ahmad Shami, one of the founders of Toastmasters Ramallah and currently a spokesperson for Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, speaks to the room about the importance of planning to achieve professional success at a Toastmasters meeting on July 23, 2018.

Ari Plachta/PRI

Laith Azzam, 19, is delivering a speech about artificial intelligence to dozens of Palestinians in their 20s and 30s in a Ramallah office boardroom. Politics are the last thing on his mind. The third-year medical student gets excited by the latest developments science and tech, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet the reason he’s here at Toastmasters Ramallah, part of a network of public speaking clubs around the US and abroad, has everything to do with the fact that he and the club’s other members grew up under decades of Israeli military occupation in the West Bank.

Azzam joined Toastmasters as a positive way to oppose Israeli policies, as opposed to violence.

“I do not believe in some forms of resistance that we as Palestinians show here in Palestine, so I created my own form of proving the right of existence,” he says, “through extracurricular activities, as a way to create change.”

Toastmasters is an organization founded in the early 1920s in California that now has public speaking clubs all over the world. Members speak their way through a structured, almost cultish curriculum in hopes they will become capable of delivering confident orations that range from work presentations to wedding toasts. Speakers are asked to avoid controversial subjects like politics, religion and race. It’s an unspoken rule.

So far, this growing group in Ramallah has followed that custom. But major aspects of its members’ lives are controlled by Israel, a country in which they have no say. And with no serious peace process underway, Palestinians today have little hope to see a state of their own. But the club’s founders and members admit that keeping this chatty forum politics-free is simply close to impossible in the West Bank.

Back in 2015, a group of friends discovered Toastmasters while visiting the US and decided to bring the program back to the West…

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