The Günter Grass Debacle: Blowback from Anti-Israel Poem Envelopes Both Sides

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German Nobel literature laureate Gunter Grass poses for a photo at his house in the northern German town of Behlendorf on April 5, 2012

Günter Grass, the German author who waited until he’d won a Nobel Prize before revealing that he’d served in Hitler’s SS, might seem an unlikely vessel for criticism of Israel (in 2006 he confessed that in 1944, at the age of 17, he’d belonged to the Waffen; his novel, The Tin Drum, covers the rise of Nazism). Germany’s elected governments hew closely to the Jewish State, deeply and persistently mindful of their shameful history.

So German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle was prominent in the crowd calling Grass out last week after he published a poem titled “It Must Be Said.”  “Why do I say only now…that the nuclear power Israel endangers an already fragile world peace?” the poet inquired of himself. “Because that must be said which may already be too late to say tomorrow.” The intended reference was to Israel’s threats to attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities.

(MORE: Günter Grass’s Silence)

“Putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level is not ingenious but absurd,” Westerwelle said.

And yet, one week later, the topic of the day is not Grass’ dubious meter but Israel’s reaction. The author was PNG’ed — officially barred from entering the country, declared persona non grata. “Grass’ poems fan the flames of hatred against Israel and the Israeli people, thus promoting the idea he was a part of when he donned an SS uniform,” said interior minister Eli Yishai, who imposed the ban. “His distorted poems are not welcome in Israel and might receive a following in Iran.” (Indeed, Press TV, the state-owned Iranian English-language satellite channel, has reportedly praised the poem: “Metaphorically speaking, the poet has launched a deadly lyrical strike against Israel.”)

The fulmination that ensued was predictable enough that Yishai might have held back if he’d paused to anticipate how the ruckus would be diverted his way. His government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, could have had it both ways — kept Grass out of Israel, while avoiding the fallout from the PNG declaration — by simply finding some excuse to turn him away, if he had the nerve to pitch up at Ben Gurion International.  (Lesser lights have been turned away with less fuss, including Noam Chomsky and Ivan Prado, described as Spain’s most famous clown.) The fact is, inside Israel, banning Grass was a popular move. In Europe, not so much.

Israel first. “The Nobel Prize laureate translated into poetry all the propaganda that is manufactured every day by the left wing mouthpieces,” David Merhav wrote in the conservative daily Makor Rishon. “He, as opposed to them, took that to the very end: if Israel is Sparta, then it must pose a threat to world peace. The commentary, the newspaper columns and the op-eds that are written every day against Netanyahu need to be translated, ultimately, into one overriding conclusion: Israel is illegitimate.”

In Ma’ariv, columnist Ben-Dror Yemini noted polls showing a large majority of Germans believe Israel is carrying out a policy of “extermination” against Palestinians, while some 40% think Israel’s treatment of them recalls the Nazis. “The myth perpetrated by the left wing is that criticism by Israelis of Israel saves Israel’s honor and proves that Israel is a democratic state,” Yemini writes. “I have yet to meet the German or the European who has been exposed to their own industry of lies, and whose conclusion was: wow, what a wonderful democracy. The facts prove that when a lie is repeated a thousand times — that Israel is a monster — the conclusion is that it is a monster.”

Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie called the ban “infantile pique” and, in Germany, Suddeutsche Zeitung termed Yishai’s ban “absurd.” “It would have been more clever to invite Grass to a debate,” the center-left daily wrote. “He wouldn’t have won, either.” But while Berliner Zeitung also faulted Yishai for drawing attention away from Grass’ words and personal history, it shared Yemini’s concern with German public opinion. “Questions persist,” the leftist paper said. “For example, that of the extent to which the special relations between the German government and Israel — which under Chancellor Angela Merkel have been elevated to the status of a raison d’état — actually reflects German reality. Grass incensed the Israelis with his skewed view of the Iran conflict. But the government in Jerusalem is also alarmed by the fact that opinion polls show that most Germans secretly believe that Grass is right. That merely reinforces the uneasy feeling the Israelis have that they can trust themselves alone and that they can rely on neither the United States nor Germany.”

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