Betar and democracy

The crux of the problem is that remembering an assassinated prime minister should not be political.

betar jerusalem 298.88 (photo credit:
betar jerusalem 298.88
(photo credit:
Yesterday, Betar Jerusalem was hauled before the Israel Football Association's supreme court over the behavior of thousands of its fans, who booed when called to stand for a few moments of silence on the 12th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. No punishment, however, will go to the root of what this despicable demonstration exposed: a crumbling of democratic norms that is more widespread than may first appear. Reacting on Monday to the incident, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, himself a fan of the Betar team, said: "I detest these brutish and violent people who, I'm sorry to say, are a sizable sector of the fans. I want to state in the clearest, angriest terms that this behavior - not of a small group ... was wicked and unbearable." The head of the Israeli soccer federation, Avi Luzon, told Israel Radio: "It was not just a handful, that's what's so appalling. It was, I'm afraid, a majority of the crowd that was there." Arkadi Gaydamak, the owner of the Betar team, condemned those booing Rabin's memory, but also excused the fans by saying that calling for a moment of silence was inappropriate at a soccer game. "People went to the soccer game not to express political discussions," he said. But this is the precisely the problem: remembering an assassinated prime minister should not be political. Yediot Aharonot's top columnist, Nachum Barnea, pins the problem on a general coarsening of our culture. "The disease that Israeli society suffers from can be described by two short words: No respect," he writes. "The no respect shown by the fans in yellow in the eastern stands of Teddy Stadium does not end with the memory of Yitzhak Rabin. They curse everyone: the players of the rival team, the referee, the coach of their own team, the players, the owners. ... Respect has run out off the soccer field as well. There is no respect around the cabinet table. The defense minister holds the prime minister in disdain, who holds the foreign minister in disdain and so on and so forth. ... It is forbidden to enter the Knesset wearing jeans, but there isn't a tailored suit in the world that can manufacture respect when it isn't there." Barnea is generally right, and what is significant here is less the lack of respect than what is being so freely disrespected. The inability to see the murder of a prime minister as a violation of democracy is a form of disrespect for democracy itself. Part of its origin lies in the poor job we do of educating our children about how democracy works, beyond the basic mechanics. The essence of democracy is not how a bill becomes a law, or even the principle of separation of powers embodied in the three main branches of government. It is in how democracies strive for a system that preserves majority rule without creating a tyranny of the majority, and that reflects popular opinion without becoming too populist. Finally, there is the dilemma that has become especially acute in the free world lately, namely whether the popular desire to avoid international conflict can be reconciled with the need to defend against external threats. Democracy, then, is built not only on inculcating respect for other citizens, but also for the system of government. But how can the educational system teach this when our highest political echelons so actively generate disdain for the institutions that they lead and represent? Our Knesset can hardly be held in lower esteem, and not just because of how some of its members behave. It is not enough to teach democracy, it also must be practiced. In this context, an unpopular government is once again potentially poised to take decisions that could profoundly affect our nation's security and future. It must be fervently hoped that any such decisions will be made contingent on their attaining the clear support of the people. If there is a growing coarsening, and even a scent of violence in the air, a vital response is education about democracy, its workings, its obligations, so plainly lacking on the terraces of Betar. Also critical, though, is that government have sufficient respect for the people to act within a semblance of consensus on existential issues. This too is essential to nurturing our national democratic ethos.