Refusing to Play

Iranian-born German soccer player Ashkan Dejagah is making headlines for electing to skip his team’s upcoming match in Tel Aviv. Officially, he begged out for “personal” reasons although he has mentioned “political” reasons, as well.

The story is a significant one in Germany, a country already struggling to integrate its immigrant/minority communities. And perhaps not surprisingly, the leaders of the Jewish community have chimed in with their unambiguous critique.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has sharply criticized the player’s stance. “It is inconceivable and impossible that a national team player initiates a private boycott of Jews,” Vice President Dieter Graumann told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Meanwhile, Central Council President Charlotte Knobloch called on the DFB to exclude Dejagah from the national team. (MORE)

The first question is, of course, does Dejagah have good reason to skip the trip to Israel? And the answer is: maybe.

The player, who still has family in Iran, told the BZ newspaper: “I have nothing against Israel. But I’m worried about having problems later when traveling to Iran.” Iran refuses to recognize Israel and forbids its citizens from visiting the country or playing in any sporting competitions with Israel.

I have no way of judging Dejagah’s sincerity, but this explanation certainly seems conceivable to me. Should he really risk never getting to see some of his family again to play a soccer match?

Additionally, let’s do a thought experiment: What would happen if a Jewish-American soccer player refused to play a match in Iran? Would the Jewish community condemn his actions? Or would he be celebrated for his loyalty to the Jewish people?

Of course, critics might respond: Israel is an open democracy; Iran is a belligerent, maverick state.

But this is a personal story here, not a diplomatic one. Dejagah is a citizen of Germany, but he is also a citizen of Iran, and he has loyalties to his home-country, as well. Iran and Israel had contentious relations before Ahmadinejad came to town, and sports has long been an arena for demonstrating patriotic sympathies.

I don’t think America had issues with specific Russian swimmers back in 1980, but we still boycotted the summer Olympics.

Bottom line: Is it possible Dejagah is initiating a “private boycott of Jews” as Dieter Graumann would have us believe? It’s possible. But that’s a pretty aggressive, condemnatory line, and with the other possible issues and questions here, I’d say it’s probably out of line.

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