Sunday, The Israeli Government barred German author Gunter Grass from entering Israel over a poem the Nobel Laureate wrote on Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons. So called pro-Israel Hawks often accuse people who are critical of Israeli policy of anti-Semitism. I, myself, have had the honor of being called a self-loathing Jew.
But what makes Grass’s relationship with Israel and anti-Semitism more complicated is that he served briefly in the Nazi SS Waffen, as he revealed in 2006. I don’t think that Grass is an anti-Semite. He was drafted at age 17, just like the Pope was drafted at age 14, and has dedicated much of his life to anti-Nazi writing. But his past makes it that much easier for people to dismiss his criticism as anti-Semitism and even Nazi ideology. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said,
“For six decades Mr Grass hid the fact that he had been a member of the Waffen SS…. So for him to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself is perhaps not surprising…. But decent people everywhere should strongly condemn these ignorant and reprehensible statements.”
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said
“Grass’ poems are an attempt to ignite the flame of hatred against the people and the state of Israel and thereby promote the idea he was publicly a part of when he wore the SS Nazi uniforms….If Grass wishes to proceed with his distorted and false creations, I suggest he does so in Iran, where he can find a supporting audience.”
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Sunday the poem is,
“an expression of the cynicism of some 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.”
Grass has maintained that his criticism is directed at the policies of the Netanyahu government, not at the Israeli people. Grass even sees his criticism as an expression of his support for Israel and says that remaining silent would be ”cowardice before a friend.”
Israeli historian and journalist Tom Segev defends such criticism:
“It is legitimate to criticize Israel, even in Germany….It is sometimes even necessary. With the oppression of the Palestinians, for example, criticism from outside is very important. In every country, human rights can really only be defended from the outside.”
Gideon Levy urges Israelis to heed the warning in Grass’s poem, but he is not uncritical of the poem. In his Ha’aretz editorial entitled “Israelis can be angry with Gunter Grass, but they must listen to him” Levy writes
In fact, it is the branding of it as anti-Semitic that is a matter of tradition – all criticism of Israel is immediately thus labeled. Grass’ Nazi past, his joining the Waffen SS as a youth, does not warrant shutting him up some 70 years later…. After we denounce the exaggeration, after we shake off the unjustified part of the charge, we must listen to these great people. They are not anti-Semites, they are expressing the opinion of many people. Instead of accusing them we should consider what we did that led them to express it.
The Atlantic’s Heather Horn translated and posted the poem:
What Must Be Said
Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long
What clearly is and has been
Practiced in war games, at the end of which we as survivors
Are at best footnotes.
It is the alleged right to first strike
That could annihilate the Iranian people–
Enslaved by a loud-mouth
And guided to organized jubilation–
Because in their territory,
It is suspected, a bomb is being built.
Yet why do I forbid myself
To name that other country
In which, for years, even if secretly,
There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand
But beyond control, because no inspection is available?
Read the rest of the poem here.
Ironically, the response to the poem only proves one of Grass’s points, which is that criticism of Israel, especially coming from Germany, is taboo.