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Israel and Gunther Grass: A knee-jerk reaction to a really terrible poem

Israel and Gunther Grass: A knee-jerk reaction to a really terrible poem

The German Nobel laureate last week published a poem, which rallied thousands of Germans to the cause of Israel-bashing and revealed what may be his anti-Semitic tendencies. Unsurprisingly, the reaction from the Netanyahu administration was just as void of class. By KEVIN BLOOM.

In 1999, when I was unsuccessfully attempting to make a life for myself in Berlin, I was invited to present a skit at what was loosely termed a “satirical anti-Nazi literary event”. I was 26-years-old at the time and, although I was too young to respectfully decline and run the other way, I was old enough to view the words “satirical” and “Nazi” in the same sentence with suspicion.

But the person who’d invited me to the event, the son of a well-known German author, assured me that as a Jew himself there was nothing to be worried about, and that if anything did go wrong he’d have my back. My manhood thus questioned, I appeared at the venue – a basement in a medieval building in Mitte – at the appointed hour.

As a welcome gift, the host handed me a piece of black masking tape, about five centimeters in length, and asked me to place it above my upper lip. Not seeing the humour in this, I refused. Still, I took my seat on the stage to see what the evening had in store. The first skit began half an hour later, and comprised a young man with a crew-cut doing an impression of the Fuerer at the Nuremberg Rallies, spittle flying and harsh guttural consonants bouncing off the stone walls. That wasn’t so funny either. I left via the back stairs.

Why is that long-ago night relevant to what’s been happening in Germany since Nobel laureate Gunther Grass published his poem What Must Be Said in the Süddeutsche Zeitung? Because, to quote The New York Times, Grass “has reopened old wounds about the country’s past and the question of what Germans can and cannot do and say in light of the Holocaust”.

Outside of the Arab world, government officials and leading opinion-makers have all agreed that the poem falls way short of Grass’s finest work. Salman Rushdie, in a tweet on Monday night, simply called his friend’s poem  “bad”; the Harvard-based criminal and civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz, in a column in the Huffington Post, called it “absurdly ignorant and perversely bigoted”; and German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle called it “disgusting”.

It was the more general reaction within Germany, however, that was the most revealing in the context of what passed 13 years ago for the abovementioned “satirical anti-Nazi” event. Although nonagenarian Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a Holocaust survivor and the country’s pre-eminent literary critic, censured Grass’s verse in the strongest possible terms, the wider consensus seemed to be that the writer had received a bum rap.

As The New York Times observed: “Many who commented on the dozens, if not hundreds, of German newspaper articles on the topic have jumped to Mr. Grass’s defense. In the comments section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s Web site, the most recommended comments on an article about the interview [with Reich-Ranicki] are supportive of Mr. Grass and critical of Mr. Reich-Ranicki. ‘Only in Germany after a valid critique of Israel’s policy of warmongering do you hear the old creak of the camp gates,’ wrote one commenter. Another called Mr. Reich-Ranicki a ‘toady.’”

Question is: was the poem a valid critique of Israel’s policies? And as importantly: does a person who only admitted his history as a Nazi soldier in 2006, after keeping it a secret for most of his life (bear in mind that Grass published his major opus, The Tin Drum, in 1959, and that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999), have the right to say anything at all about the matter?

To deal with the first question, we need to look at the words of the poem as Grass wrote them. The seventh stanza appears to be where the meat is: “Why do I say only now,/ Aged and with my last ink,/ That the nuclear power of Israel endangers/ The already fragile world peace?/ Because it must be said/ What even tomorrow may be too late to say;/ Also because we – as Germans burdened enough –/ Could be the suppliers to a crime/ That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity/ Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.” 

It’s here that Grass sets up a moral equivalence between Iran and Israel, accusing the latter of being the real danger to world peace, and accusing Germany – in its sale of submarines to the Jewish state – of becoming involved in a war crime.

While ordinarily, and for a variety of reasons (as articulated in previous pieces on this site), the views and comments of Bibi Netanyahu tend to read as odious, in this instance it’s difficult not to agree with him. The Israeli prime minister correctly pointed out that the Iranian regime “denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel,” and that “it is Iran, not Israel, that threatens other states with annihilation.”

But there is an important caveat: by allowing him such an easy victory, Grass has only strengthened the sensationalist claims of Netanyahu that the year is 1939 and Iran is Nazi Germany, claims that in turn strengthen the American Jewish lobby’s belief in its own conservative righteousness. Given how this lobby appeals to the paranoia among older American Jews that the Holocaust will one day be repeated, and taking into account its immense influence over White House policies, what Grass has unwittingly done is cause further damage to prospects for a negotiated resolution to the Israel-Iran standoff (not that the prospects, under the Netanyahu administration, were so great to begin with).

It was typical of the Netanyahu government that, on Sunday, Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai called for Grass to be banned forever from entering the country. Israel’s anti-democratic tendencies, its daily movements further to the right of the political spectrum, have been sadly validated by Grass’s mistake. “Now,” you can almost hear the Israeli cabinet saying, “we can properly stick it to the Jewish hippies who think that anti-Semitism is an overblown myth! Now we can shut the gates on free speech even faster!”

It was all summed up by Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman – a man who, in 2006, famously called for Arab members of the Knesset that had dealings with Hamas to be treated as Nazis and executed – in these words: “[Grass’s] poem is an expression of the cynicism of some of the West’s intellectuals who, for publicity purposes and the desire to sell a few more books, are willing to sacrifice the Jewish nation a second time on the altar of crazy anti-Semites.”

Which brings up the second question – does Grass, a former member of the Waffen SS, have the right to make comments on Israeli foreign policy? To shout “no” unequivocally is to fall into the trap that the Israeli interior ministry (a branch of the administration controlled by the ultra-religious Shas Party) has just plummeted into. Netanyahu and the Jewish American lobby, despite all evidence to the contrary, remain fond of telling critics that Israel is a lone democracy in a sea of despotism. If these critics needed any more proof that this is not the case, they’ve got it in the banning of Grass.

Of course, none of the above can be taken to imply that the  Nobel laureate is not an anti-Semite. There are emotive aspects to the poem, lines that make us want to look kindly on its author – for instance: “Why though have I stayed silent until now?/ Because I thought my origin/ Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged/ Kept the state of Israel, to which I am bound/ And wish to stay bound,/ From accepting this fact as pronounced truth.”

Yet two incontrovertible facts lead us to the conclusion that Grass is being disingenuous. The minor fact is that he only revealed his “stain” to the world when he was a year shy of his 80th birthday, meaning it was more than “expunged” for the bulk of his life, it was actually non-existent. The major fact is that Grass suggests, throughout the poem, that Israel is contemplating nuking Iran.

This, in the words of The Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, is delusional. “Not even the Iranian regime seems to believe [it]. To make yourself believe that Israel is seeking to murder the 74 million people of Iran, you must make yourself believe that the leaders of the Jewish state outstrip Adolf Hitler in genocidal intent.”

Say what you want about Netanyahu, the most he will deliver in a pre-emptive strike against Iran is a targeted aerial bombardment on a handful of strategic sites. Grass tried to backtrack after the poem was published, saying, “What is now an imminent threat is a risk without parallel – a preventive strike, a first strike against Iran, which would have terrible consequences.”

He’s correct on that score, but it’s not what he originally wrote (and as a Nobel laureate, he’s supposed to be pretty good with words). In the end, while all it may seem to amount to is an appalling Israeli reaction to an appalling German poem, the incident has done damage. Like that satirical anti-Nazi literary event in Berlin all those years ago, the world could have done without it. DM

Read more:

  • Gunther Grass’s poem “What Must Be Said,” translated into English in The Atlantic.
  • “Israel Bars German Laureate Grass Over Poem,” in the NYTimes.
  • “Lieberman calls Arab MKs who meet with Hamas ‘collaborators’,” in the Jerusalem Post.
  • “Gunther Grass and Germany’s Responsibility,” in The Atlantic.

Photo: Nobel prize-winning German writer Gunter Grass during a news conference to promote his then latest book “Peeling the onion” in Madrid on 21 May 2007. REUTERS/Susana Vera.


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