A very nice man from Germany came into my office this week and invited The Jerusalem Post to send a journalist to his country for two months later this year, and to accept a German journalist in return, as part of an admirable exchange program designed to bolster international dialogue and understanding. We hope to take him up on the offer.
He happened to mention that he was based in Frankfurt which, I told him, happens to be where my father was born. Not unnaturally, he asked me if I'd ever visited. I said I hadn't (except for an unexpected stopover when a plane malfunctioned), but that my late father had traveled back intermittently later in his life to do business.
The slightly longer story is that my family actually got out of Germany rather too close to the war for comfort, having been that not unusual combination of deeply Orthodox and deeply German Jews, and been astoundingly reluctant (at least with hindsight) to read the Third Reich writing on the wall. And while my father evidently came sufficiently to terms with his native land's unthinkable descent into barbarism or, rather, sufficiently absorbed its rehabilitation, as to allow himself to briefly return, I've simply, but adamantly, never wanted to follow him.
After the kindly German gentleman had gone, however, I wondered whether I owed him and his nation a rethink. Not only was he quite obviously far too young to have had any personal connection to World War II, but 60 years after it ended, the same can also be said of the overwhelming majority of his countrymen. The host nation whose soccer team kicks off against Costa Rica in Munich tonight in the opening game of the 2006 World Cup truly is a new Germany. It is now shedding its last elderly links to the fatherland that, 70 years ago this summer, hosted the Olympics in Berlin, with the Hindenburg flying proud over the swastika-adorned stadium under Adolf Hitler's approving gaze.
It is a new Germany, moreover, that has long since assiduously made its peace with the Jewish nation, endorsing the establishment of Israel in the 1947 UN partition vote, determinedly forging ties with an initially conflicted national leadership here, and maintaining relatively pro-Israel positions in recent decades.
None of this, I have to acknowledge, has ever previously prompted me to reconsider my disinclination to visit - an aversion that was actually heightened during that unanticipated stopover, when I felt acutely discomfited to have a couple of locals address me in what they presumed, given my apparent Germanic appearance, was my native tongue.
I'm not sure I'm ready to reconsider, even now. But I might have been willing, if not to root for the Germans on the soccer field over the next few weeks, at least to try to conquer my instinct to support their opponents. Except thatâ€¦
WE CAN choose to be flip about whom to back in this month's quadrennial soccer festival, if we even bother to take an interest.
Goal-shy Israel didn't quite make it into the 32-nation finals, so many of us, I suspect, will be supporting our countries of origin, or of our parents' origin - the likes of England, France and Tunisia.
American-born Israelis who have learned to appreciate the incomparable virtues of the original, round-ball, non-advertising-break-dominated version of football will be cheering for their boys. The rest of us will await the comeuppance in a genuine World Cup for a nation that bestows names like "World Series" on its domestic events.
Some of us might be supporting loveable underdogs - improbable qualifiers such as Trinidad & Tobago, or Togo, or the Ivory Coast, or those gifted and relentless underachievers Holland and Spain.
Those desperate for an Israel link might plump for Ghana, the only World Cup team with players based in Israel's domestic league - goalkeeper Sammy Adjei of Ashdod, Hapoel Kfar Saba's Emmanuel Pappoe or Hapoel Tel Aviv's John Panstil.
And those inclined to mix a modicum of international politics into the maelstrom of soccer affiliation might trend toward the likes of ebullient Brazil, Australia and robustly pro-Israel Costa Rica, all countries that voted "yes" in 1947, at the expense of say, Saudi Arabia - which, needless to say, voted "no" - or Mexico and Argentina which, along with the UK, abstained.
EXCEPT THAT perhaps we shouldn't be too flip about this World Cup - not in this era, not in that country. Perhaps a modicum of international politics, or more, is just what we need.
Because another of the nations that, needless to say, voted "no" in 1947 is participating in Germany 2006 - and it is still saying "no" to Israel.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran plays its first World Cup game on Sunday, against Mexico, in of all places Nuremberg, associated forever with Hitler's huge rallies and especially with 1935's Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship and basic rights.
In Berlin a year later, Hitler determined to abuse the Olympic spirit to try and assert the genetic superiority of an Aryan master race. And after some humming and hawing, the International Olympic Committee's American representative, Avery Brundage, paid a pre-Olympic visit to the host nation and declared it safe to play ball with the Nazis. At the opening ceremony, the British and French teams even saluted the dictator.
Flash-forward 70 years, and another dangerous racist, Ahmadinejad, is contemplating bestowing his unsavory presence on World Cup 2006, which incidentally is being held under the motto "A time to make friends." As Iran's soccer coach told the Post this week, Ahmadinejad, who has spent the past few months mounting a daily rhetorical assault on Israel's legitimacy even as he seeks the nuclear potential to achieve his stated dream of a world without Zionism, will travel to Germany if Iran makes it past the "group" stage into the second round, the knockout phase, that begins on June 24.
And some politicians and officials in Germany, the new Germany, have said he will be welcome, while the German government has taken no steps to bar him.
In a column last year, I noted the incredible capacity of soccer - the world's most played and most watched and most influential sport - to stir emotions. I noted, too, that the qualifying phases of the World Cup had indeed stirred passions in Iran whenever the national team played at home - street protests, ugly confrontations with the security forces, women desperately seeking to defy a government ban and get into the stadiums to watch the games, and innumerable instances of briefly liberated fans taking the opportunity to rip down portraits of various ayatollahs.
I noted, too, the Iranian regime's handling of World Cup football the last time the national team qualified, in 1998, when it took the extraordinary step of delaying the TV satellite feed from France so that it could substitute fake crowd scenes, in order to avoid beaming in images of anti-regime protesters brandishing down-with-the-mullahs placards at the stadiums.
The Iranian leaders of 1998 respected their people's soccer fanaticism, and feared it. Ahmadinejad, anything but a fool, has embraced it. If at one time it might have seemed that success for Iran in this month's World Cup could constitute a threat to the regime, a catalyst for protest, then his clever, populist embrace of the sport now makes that highly improbable.
Instead, if his team performs well enough in the next 12 days against Mexico, Portugal and Angola, President Ahmadinejad, 2006's would-be obliterator of nations, will seek to glory, Hitler-style, in their prowess.
Iran's malevolent, Holocaust-denying leader should long since have been told by a revolted international community that he is an unwelcome presence at the World Cup. Instead, the "Keep politics out of international sport" banner has been raised. This is the discredited mantra of racists and their appeasers, invoked at their convenience, and ignored at their convenience, too - as when Iran and other hostile nations routinely bar their athletes from competing against Israelis, and the rest of the world condones them. (Two top English soccer clubs, Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United, cravenly went off to play in the United Arab Emirates recently despite being told their Israeli players would not be admitted; they just left the Israelis behind.) All other considerations aside, nations that insist on such racist practices, it can reasonably be argued, should automatically be denied a place at all international tournaments such as this month's.
Hosting Ahmadinejad amounts to legitimizing his abhorrent regime. World soccer's governing body, FIFA, currently sponsoring a "kick racism out of football" campaign, should have been leading the demands to keep him away. And Germany, host Germany, new Germany, should have been championing his exclusion most keenly of all.
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