Ashkan Dejagah 224.88.
(photo credit: AP [file])
The decision on Tuesday by the German Football Federation (DFB) to reinstate Iranian-born striker Ashkan Dejagah, who had been suspended from the under-21 national team in the wake of his refusal to play in last week's match in Israel, ostensibly puts an end to a story which aroused much controversy and passion in both countries last week. In a classic combination of sports, media hype and politics, Dejagah's decision not to travel to Israel was accorded coverage usually reserved for issues of much greater significance.
Now that the story appears to be over, it is time to take a closer look at the incident to assess its implications and determine its winners and losers.
For starters, it should be obvious that 20-year-old soccer players are hardly suited to fully comprehend the far-reaching political implications of the refusal at this point in time of an Iranian-born player representing Germany to travel to and compete in the Jewish state. In that respect, Dejagah, while apparently quite talented when it comes to footwork, was way out of his league in assessing the situation - a fact clearly seen from his interviews, in which he related almost exclusively to his own security concerns for himself and his family.
It would be easy to reject this argument as a convenient cover for anti-Semitism, which it may well have been, and we will never know for sure. But the fact remains that the security of the Dejagah family (he has a brother playing in the Iranian league) cannot be dismissed out of hand. The threats of a government whose leaders openly discuss the destruction of its ideological enemies and is known to have eliminated some of its political opponents cannot and should not be taken lightly.
On the other hand, it is precisely such a situation that affords a unique opportunity to make political statements that reverberate around the entire world. In this case, Dejagah was in a position to take a stand on two separate issues of great import. The first relates to his own community of Muslim immigrants in Germany. By playing in Israel, Dejagah would have represented his acceptance of German values (i.e., Germany's special relationship with the Jewish state in the wake of the Holocaust) at the expense of traditional Muslim hostility toward Israel. For a community that currently faces serious problems of integration and alienation based on the ostensible clash between traditional Islamic values and the mores of modern German society, Dejagah's stance in favor of the latter would have been a powerful statement for those who see their future in the Federal Republic.
A second important element relates, of course, to Jewish-Muslim relations, which are of concern not only in the Middle East, but throughout Europe and everywhere that large Jewish and Muslim communities reside in the same countries. By opting to play in Israel despite the ominous threats from Teheran, Dejagah would have struck an unusually powerful blow for tolerance and resoundingly rejected the hatred of the mullahs, sending a message not only to Iran, but to Muslims the world over.
Maybe it is too much to expect such courage from a 20-year-old soccer star, but there is no question that a wonderful opportunity to score badly-needed points was squandered. In that respect, yesterday's decision by the DFB to reinstate him was an unfortunate mistake that made a difficult situation even worse. Dejagah might indeed ultimately prove worthy of rejoining the German national team, but only after he clearly demonstrates that he deserves that honor. Bringing him back solely on the basis of a declaration against discrimination will only pave the way for future boycotts of Israel and give a totally undeserved victory to the bigots in Teheran. At this point, the score is clearly Iran 1, Germany and Israel 0.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the Israel director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.