June 21, 2019 | Tablet Magazine

Against the Current: Germany’s Iranian-Born MP on the Front Lines for Israel and Jewish Life in Germany

Bijan Djir-Sara came to Germany from Iran at 11 and has become one of the Bundestag’s leading opponents of BDS and champions of the Jewish state
June 21, 2019 | Tablet Magazine

Against the Current: Germany’s Iranian-Born MP on the Front Lines for Israel and Jewish Life in Germany

Bijan Djir-Sara came to Germany from Iran at 11 and has become one of the Bundestag’s leading opponents of BDS and champions of the Jewish state

German foreign policy of the recent past has been largely characterized by didactic hectoring of the Jewish state, accommodation with Iran, and pandering toward Hezbollah. This has been the attitude not only of governments in Berlin, but of most parliamentarians in the Federal Republic. But there are holdouts who have resisted and even reversed some of these tendencies and perhaps none is more interesting than the Iranian-born champion of the Jewish state, Bijan Djir-Sarai.

As a deputy in the Bundestag (Germany’s parliament) and member of Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), Djir-Sarai and his party have been countervailing forces at the national level, trying to get Chancellor Angela Merkel to moderate her anti-Israel voting pattern in U.N. bodies, her support for Iran’s clerical regime, and her refusal to ban all of Hezbollah in Germany. This same goes for combating the growing BDS campaign in the Federal Republic.

Born in Tehran 43 years ago, Djir-Sarai came to Germany when he was 11 to live with an uncle. “We need to see the problems that exist in the region much more through Israeli glasses,” Djir-Sarai told Tablet when asked how Germany could improve its relationship with Israel. “Only then will we understand why security and peace are so important to Israel.”

His answer cuts against the grain of mainstream German discourse, which frequently degenerates into painting a false ethical equivalency between Israel and its enemies.

Take for example Christoph Heusgen, Berlin’s ambassador to the U.N., who compared Israel’s anti-terrorism measures with the actions of the EU- and US-designated terrorist entity Hamas. Heusgen said in March, after Hamas in Gaza fired more than 100 rockets at Israeli communities: “Civilians must live without fear of Palestinian rockets or Israeli bulldozers.”

Heusgen, widely viewed by Israeli diplomats as hostile to the Jewish state, participated 16 times in condemning Israel at the U.N. in 2018, out of 21 such proposals.

Djir-Sarai, the FDP foreign policy spokesman, and fellow FDP legislator Frank Müller-Rosentritt sought to stop that diplomatic hammering of Israel by introducing a rare pro-Israel resolution in the Bundestag. It states: The federal government “should clearly distance itself from one-sided, politically motivated initiatives and alliances [at the U.N.].” It encourages the German government to work to counteract the “political forces in the Near and Middle East” that “openly threaten” the Jewish state.

In mid-March, the Bundestag overwhelmingly rejected the FDP’s proposal, sticking with Merkel’s anti-Israel voting record at the U.N. With 626 deputies participating, 408 voted to reject the FDP resolution and only 155 voted in favor. Sixty-three deputies abstained.

Nevertheless, the reform efforts by the FDP and Djir-Sarai paid off. In May, Germany voted for the first time against an anti-Israel resolution at the U.N.’s World Health Organization.

Germany, with the exception of one abstention, had always voted against the Jewish state on the annual WHO resolution. Jens Spahn, the health minister in Merkel’s cabinet, and a high-profile critic of her immigration policies, contributed to changing Germany’s position on the WHO vote.

Djir-Sarai said, “I see the historical responsibility that we have not only for the Jews in Germany, but also for the State of Israel. [This is] always connected to the fact that Israel is the only democracy in a politically very difficult region. These [changes in policy on Israel] should be supported.”

Merkel’s administration remains wedded to the fiction that Hezbollah plays a positive role in Lebanon, stabilizing the government, and therefore its “political wing” should not be outlawed in Germany. Djir-Sarai, in contrast, offered this response to the question of whether Hezbollah should be banned in Germany: “Yes. We all know that this division into political and military arms is a purely political classification that does not stand up to reality. However, a coordinated European position on this issue would be more effective.”

Germany and the EU proscribed Hezbollah’s so-called military wing as a terrorist entity in 2013, but not its so-called political wing.

In May 2019, the intelligence agency of the state of Lower Saxony reported that the number of Hezbollah operatives in Germany rose from 950 in 2017, to 1,050 in 2018.

In May 2019, Merkel rejected an urgent appeal from her country’s nearly 100,000-member Jewish community to outlaw the entirety of Hezbollah in Germany amid rising Jew-hatred in the federal republic.

Djir-Sarai was part of a tiny group of lawmakers who spoke at a protest against the annual pro-Iranian and pro-Hezbollah Al-Quds Day march through the heart of Berlin’s shopping district. Al-Quds Day calls for the obliteration of the Jewish state and is attended by an amalgam of radical Islamists, BDS activists, neo-Nazis, extreme leftists,Hezbollah members, and supporters of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

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What animates Djir-Sarai’s advocacy of liberty and representative government? After all, German foreign policy has been more about promoting business than freedom, and has remained deeply wedded to the Islamic Republic’s clerical leadership, at the expense of Iranian democrats.

He said that his emigration in 1987, at age 11, from authoritarian Iran to a liberal, Western country played a pivotal role in forming his worldview. “You become more politically sensitive. Democracy needs active and committed citizens. Against this backdrop of my own biography, I will engage in political and social life for a lifetime. Germany is a tolerant country, open to the world, and this must be preserved.”

Yet Djir-Sarai has no illusions that Merkel’s government seeks to empower democracy in Iran. On this, Djir-Sarai sounded his first note of pessimism: “The German government will not support the Iranian opposition. That is really wishful thinking.”

Nevertheless, he added regarding the Arab world as well as Iran that “the hope for democracy must never die. At the moment, however, I do not see any figures or movements in these countries bringing the masses to the streets for democracy.”

To fathom the level of über-appeasement Merkel’s government practices, note that in February, her foreign ministry celebrated Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, at an event held at Tehran’s Embassy in Berlin. In June, Germany’s Social Democratic Foreign Minister Heiko Maas went silent when his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, affirmed his country’s policy to execute gays. Paul Ronzheimer, an openly gay reporter for Germany’s Bild newspaper, asked Zarif at a joint press conference with Maas in Tehran: “Why are homosexuals executed in Iran because of their sexual orientation?”

Zarif’s response was that Iran’s “society has principles. And we live according to these principles. These are moral principles concerning the behavior of people in general. And that means that the law is respected and the law is obeyed.”

Iran’s regime, according to a 2008 British WikiLeaks cable, has executed between 4,000 and 6,000 gays and lesbians since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Maas was in Tehran trying to save the fragile Iran nuclear deal and boost business for German firms. Germany exported 2.7 billion euros worth of goods to Iran in 2018. The Federal Republic is the third-largest source of imports for the Islamic Republic.

In a sharp contrast to Merkel’s policy, Djir-Sarai said: “We need an additional agreement to the nuclear agreement that deals with the Iranian missile program and Iranian foreign policy. This is the only chance to avoid a dangerous conflict in the region.”

In 2018, Merkel’s government played a key role in torpedoing the efforts to improve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the formal name for the nuclear deal.

Djir-Sarai’s support for Israel has culminated in unprecedented legislative activity in an effort to stop the rising Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign singling out the Jewish state.

The nonbinding resolution approved by the Bundestag in May 2019, declaring BDS anti-Semitic, was drafted by Djir-Sarai’s Free Democratic Party.

Before the anti-BDS resolution was passed, Djir-Sarai became the first Bundestag lawmaker to urge German banks to refuse service to organizations seeking to boycott Israel.

Djir-Sarai said in April: “The Bank for Social Economy should close the accounts of the NGO Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. Antisemitism must not be tolerated. Business relationships with such actors need to be reconsidered and their platforms limited.” In this respect, Djir-Sarai has been ahead of the curve, for tracking terrorist finance and financial support for hate groups is largely absent from the radar screen of authorities in Germany. Before he reentered the Bundestag in 2017 (he also served in 2009-2013), Djir-Sarai was responsible for information technology, infrastructure and organization for the Rhein-Kreis Neuss district in North Rhine-Westphalia state.

On June 20, the day before this article was published, the Bank for Social Economy, which Djir-Sarai had criticized in April, and which the Simon Wiesenthal Center included on its list of top 10 anti-Semites and anti-Semitic institutions in 2018, shut down the account of a pro-BDS group, Jewish Voice. According to a spokeswoman for Jewish Voice, the bank terminated its account because the group refused to end its pro-BDS activities. Josef Schuster, president of the nearly 100,000-member Central Council of Jews in Germany, called Jewish Voice an “anti-Semitic association” in 2019.

Djir-Sarai represents a district in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. He described his party’s work in connection with Israel as a “factual and objective foreign policy. We are concerned with European values and interests.”

When asked about his goals as a politician, he said, “The FDP is in the opposition in the German Bundestag during this parliamentary term. Nevertheless, we want to continue our active contribution to keeping Germany modern and open to the world. Whether it is in education policy or digitalization, there are still so many challenges in this country that need to be tackled.”

The FDP has served in coalition governments in the past and frequently held the post of foreign minister. If Djir-Sarai ever becomes foreign minister, it would have a profound impact on German-Israel relations and on the security of Jews in Germany.

Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and reports on Germany for The Jerusalem Post. His Twitter feed is @BenWeinthal.

Issues:

Hezbollah Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Human Rights Iran Nuclear Iran Politics and Economy Israel Palestinian Politics United Nations