Grass, 84, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, is considered by many to be Germany’s most famous living writer. The reason why his latest work, “What Must Be Said,” struck such a chord among Israelis and their allies abroad may stem in part from the shaky relations forged between Germany and Israel since the Holocaust, and the fact Israel is facing a similar existential threat, according to many, in the guise of the current Iranian regime.
Though Grass’s sixty-nine line poem was not explicitly anti-Semitic, his background as a former young Nazi soldier in the Waffen-SS has cast doubt on his motive and the veracity of his claims, and led critics to consider his analysis no less than a pointed, crude, racially-motivated slight aimed at the Jewish State. For supporters of Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s move to bar Grass from entering Israel, the poet’s casting of Israel and Iran as morally equivalent powers reflects an absurd line of thinking only consonant with a downright anti-Semitic weltanschauung.
“If Günter wants to spread his twisted and lying works, I suggest he does this from Iran, where he can find a supportive audience,” Yishai said, according to the AP.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called Grass’s poem “cynicism,” and PM Benjamin Netanyahu said the poet’s claims were “ignorant and shameful.”
Though Israel welcomed the denunciations of politicians and journalists in Germany following publication of “What Must Be Said” last week, Grass’s words have given Germany-Israel relations an air of tension relatively absent since the days of World War II.
Over the years, German diplomats and leaders have made a positive foreign policy with Israel a priority, as both sides have striven to overcome the historical differences that make rapprochement an elusive goal. As a recent investigation conducted by the German government found in January, anti-Semitic leanings can still be found in one out of five Germans. For many Israelis, the mere mention of controversial remarks in association with a notable German is alarming, as it brings to mind the atrocities that befell the Jewish people less than seventy five years ago.
Aside from recalling the memory of the Holocaust, however, Grass’s poem has also offended many with its poor timing. Confronted with the growing Iranian nuclear program, Israel has become sensitive to anti-Semitic affronts and stressed how the gap between the anti-Zionist vitriol emerging from Tehran and the military capacities available to Iranian radicals to carry out their plans is narrowing.
The resonance of World War II with the current situation posed to Israel was echoed in a speech given by Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu at The American Israel Public Policy Conference in early March, which was largely focused on the Iranian threat. Bibi’s speech was peppered with references to the Holocaust.
“I want to recognize Yossi Peled who is here tonight,” Netanyahu said early on his address. “Yossi was born in Belgium. His parents hid him with a Christian family during World War II. His father and many other members of his family were murdered at Auschwitz… He became one of Israel’s bravest and greatest generals.”
“And today, Yossi Peled serves as a minister in my government,” the PM continued. “Yossi’s life is the story of the Jewish people – the story of a powerless and stateless people who became a strong and proud nation able to defend itself. And…Israel must always reserve the right to defend itself.”
“They say that a military confrontation with Iran would undermine the efforts already underway, that it would be ineffective, and that it would provoke even more vindictive action by Iran,” Bibi would add later on his speech, answering to critics of an Israeli preemptive strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities.“I’ve heard these arguments before. In fact, I’ve read them before. In my desk, I have copies of an exchange of letters between the World Jewish Congress and the US War Department. The year was 1944.”
Quoting from a letter sent by the U.S. to the World Jewish Congress, Netanyahu explained how any retaliatory efforts from Iran (or the Germans, in 1944) would pale in comparison with a nuclear regime (or a continuing Holocaust, as resulted from the U.S.’s refusal to act in 1944). He vowed to ensure that no such military failure would unfold again.
“2012 is not 1944,” the PM stated.
Between Germany yesterday and Iran today, Israelis and their supporters worldwide have taken umbrage with the controversial lines written by Grass.
However, while some have heaped scorn upon the Nobel laureate and, perhaps, Germany, in general, for failing to rid its discourse of an anti-Semitic patina, others have placed blame on Israel for reacting to criticism so harshly. During the course of its history, Israel has banned a number of critics from entering the country, including Noam Chomsky, the famed linguist and political commentator, who has raised the ire of many an Israeli for his views on Middle East issues. But some see such measures as over-the-top. According to these voices, such Israeli reactions put the Jewish State on par with the likes of the Iranian regime. As in Tehran, Jerusalem is increasingly growing sensitive to criticism, and “anti-Semitism” is being widely used in circumstances where, some believe, it is not warranted.
“The need to delegitimize criticism is a very dangerous, autocratic tendency which has increased in recent years,” said historian Tom Segev, according to AP. “It’s very demagogic. Netanyahu and Leiberman are experts in doing that. Every word of criticism will immediately be presented as a sign of anti-Semitism.”
“If we are really distributing entry permits to Israel according to people’s political views, then we really are putting ourselves in the company of countries like Iran, and Syria,” Segev added.
The basis for giving Grass the status of a persona non grata was his Nazi background. However, according to the Associated Press, Minister Yishai said the real premise for the decision stemmed from Grass’s latest poem.
In “What Must Be Said,” Grass blamed the West for heaping reproof upon Tehran for its nuclear activities while neglecting Israel in the process. He said Israel’s nuclear capabilities endanger “The already fragile world peace,” saying the Israeli government thinks it has the “right to the first strike that could annihilate the Iranian people.” (Critics have cited this latest quote as simply inaccurate, considering Israel has only entertained destroying Iran’s nuclear sites, not its innocent citizens.) While keeping quiet previously on such matters, Grass said he was forced to speak up because Germany is currently providing Israel with the means to execute an attack on Iran. One stanza explains:
“Now though, because in my country
Which from time to time has sought and confronted
Its very own crime
That is without compare
In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also
With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares
A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,
Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence
Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
But as a fear wishes to be conclusive,
I say what must be said.”
Grass continued to explain Germany’s need to recognize Israel’s nuclear arsenal for what it is, and to deliberate before selling “a further U-boat” and becoming complicit in any future Israeli attack.
In reaction to the criticism leveled at him in the wake of publication, Grass said: “The overall tenor [of the criticism] is to not engage in the content of the poem, but instead to wage a campaign against me and to claim that my reputation is damaged forever.” He also asserted that his contentions in the poem were mostly directed at Netanyahu’s government, not the country as a whole, and regretted this point wasn’t clearer.
“The man who damages Israel the most at the moment is in my opinion Netanyahu, and I should have included that in my poem,” Grass said in an interview, according to the Times. “What is now an imminent threat is a risk without parallel — a preventive strike, a first strike against Iran, which would have terrible consequences.”
But Grass’s pleas have gone largely unrecognized.
“Even before the traces of the swastika on his clothes were gone, Grass joined the crusade against the State of Israel,” the Hebrew Writers Association said in a public statement Monday, according to Haaretz. “Grass should clean his clothes and his past, express remorse for the days when he served in the Nazi Death Army, because his terrible statement cast a dark shadow over all of his writings.”