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Friday, October 31, 2014

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German poet just doesn’t get it

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Earlier this month, Germany’s most famous author, Gunter Grass, published a poem in the leftist Munich newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that created an international storm. 

Under the title What must be said, Grass claimed that Israel is a threat to world peace and is prepared for a nuclear first strike against Iran that would annihilate the Iranian people. 

The April 12 CJN editorial (aptly titled “What must be said”) rebutted Grass and pointed out that the famous German writer was soundly criticized at home by political leaders and literary critics. Indeed, Grass was similarly rebuked by leading journalists in Germany, though he did have some defenders.

In the New Republic, historian Jeffrey Herf discussed Grass’ obliviousness to the essential fact that it’s Iran that has repeatedly threatened to annihilate Israel, not the other way around. By making Iran appear the potential victim of Israeli nuclear aggression, abetted by Germany’s supplying Israel with submarines, Grass had egregiously inverted reality including, foremost, cause and effect.

But Herf went further. Translating part of the poem, he cited a passage in which Grass attempts to inoculate himself from the charge of antisemitism by raising it as a predictable slander for daring to say “what must be said” about Israel. If anything, Grass argued, he’s demonstrating courage by speaking up – as if condemning Israel were a rare phenomenon.

This is yet another dimension of Grass’ delusion, but it’s one shared by other detractors of Israel, who often try to pre-empt criticism of their own positions by claiming that they’re struggling against those who suppress the truth.

Herf sharply dismissed this nonsense. “The idea, put forward by Grass, that there is a taboo in German intellectual and political life about criticizing Israel and its policies has been a favourite theme of Israel’s critics since the 1960s. On the contrary, hostility to both Israel and the United States, and the view that these two countries are the major threat to world peace, became embedded in the German left-wing and left-liberal mainstream many decades ago. In this sense, Grass’ diatribe is part of a long established conventional wisdom. It takes neither courage nor intelligence to run with the mob.”

The German-Jewish historian Michael Wolffsohn has followed Grass’ writings closely over the years, including his 2006 autobiography Peeling the Onion. In that book, Grass revealed, 62 years after the fact, that at 17 he had joined the Waffen SS. In a Der Spiegel interview, Wolffsohn pulled no punches about this latest controversy: “It would have fit well in the [German far-right weekly] National Zeitung – and I mean that with no ifs or buts. In the poem, Grass makes the victims into perpetrators, and otherwise it contains pretty much every other antisemitic stereotype that we know from the far-right scene.” Wolffsohn noted he’s not one to bandy about the term “antisemitism,” but that in this case “what Grass has written is an antisemitic pamphlet compressed into pseudo-poetry.” 

The international criticism falling on Grass almost came to a sudden halt when attention was distracted by the Israeli Interior Ministry’s decision to declare Grass “persona non grata,” thus barring him from Israel. In the eyes of many, Grass was seen as a victim of an emotional overreaction by the Israeli government. Alan Dershowitz, for one, said (in a piece in the Huffington Post) that this move was unbefitting of democracy, which should only ban people who are security risks. Dershowitz argued that as reprehensible as Grass’ views are about Israel, the proper way to respond to him is through argument.

On that note, the last word should go to Anshel Pfeffer, who noted in Ha’aretz that rational discourse will have no impact on the likes of Grass: “Logic and reason are useless when a highly intelligent man, a Nobel laureate no less, does not understand that his membership in an organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualifies him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began.”

Paul Michaels is director of research and media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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