Israel bans German Nobel Laureate over this poem

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.

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  1. Posted April 9, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    For teh record, the future Pope never joined the Waffen SS – he joined the Hitler Youth in 1941, aaged 14, when it was compulsory.

    Gunther Grass, he, volunteered for the submarine service but was turned down, and ended up in a Panzer division of the Waffen SS.

    So. What does the Pope have to do with this business?

  2. Posted April 9, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    @Smiley…Gunther was drafted into the Luftwaffenhelfer as a student (he was 16)…he didn’t join the military voluntarily.

  3. Posted April 9, 2012 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    Beyond the fact that Grass’ history makes him, at best, ill-equipped to pontificate on this matter, it’s worth pointing out that his position in the poem is objectively false.

    The notion of an Israel atomic first strike on Iran is beyond implausible, and it is rooted in fantasy.

    As such, his poem is problematic for being wrong, among other things.

    But in reality Grass is not morally equipped to discuss the response of a group he had a hand in attempting to annihilate’s response to said attempt.

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