Günter Grass and the Israel poem: a survey of opinion

by Toby Manhire / 09 April, 2012
The German Nobel laureate has been banned from Israel and provoked a heated debate.
The political potential of a poem has been illustrated by the storm surrounding a Günter Grass verse-letter published by the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and other European newspapers.

In “What Must Be Said”, the 84-year-old warns that a nuclear-armed Israel, by shaking its fist at Iran, “endangers an already fragile world peace”.

Published last week, it immediately sparked angry debate in Germany, which soon moved to Israel, culminating in the interior ministry announcing that Grass (who told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that he meant in the poem to criticise Israel as governed by Binyamin Netanyahu, rather than the state of Israel itself) would no longer be admitted entry to the country.

The Guardian summarises the poem’s thrust:

The lyric warns of a looming Israeli aggression against Iran. It argues that Germany should no longer deliver nuclear submarines to Israel that might carry "all-destroying warheads".

Grass also takes aim at Germany's reluctance to offend Israel – reproaching himself for "my silence" on the subject, and acknowledging that he will inevitably face accusations of antisemitism.

He muses: "Why do I only speak out now/Aged and with my last drop of ink:/Israel's nuclear power is endangering/Our already fragile world peace?" He supplies his own apocalyptic answer: it must be said because "tomorrow might be too late".

In Israel, the Grass poem has prompted outcry among everyone from prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who called it “pathetic” and “shameful, through to the poet and Holocaust survivor Itamar Yaoz-Kest, who has hit back with a poem entitled “The Right to Exist”.

Not surprisingly, it has been more warmly received in Iran, where the deputy culture minister released a letter he had penned to the "distinguished author Dr Gunter Grass".

I have read your literary work of human and historical responsibility, and it warns beautifully.

Telling the truth in this way may awake the silent and dormant conscience of the West. Writers are able to single-handedly prevent human tragedies in a way that armies cannot.

The right-inclined Jerusalem Post says the “despicable” work exposes a “moral bankruptcy” on the part of Grass, who was a member of the Waffen-SS as a teenager. The controversy in Germany had “brought to the fore a modern manifestation of anti-Semitism, which is actually a form of mental pathology”, it said in an editorial.

Germans such as Grass are filled with Holocaust-era guilt. To alleviate their dissonance, some Germans project their feelings of guilt on to Israel.

However “provocative” the poem might be, it is a legitimate perspective, counters the liberal daily Haaretz in its editorial.

When the interior minister says, "If Gunter Grass wants to continue to distribute his false and distorted works, I suggest he do so from Iran, where he'll find an appreciative audience," he doesn't even detect the irony in his words. Because it's precisely his decision not to let Grass enter Israel because of a poem he wrote that is characteristic of dark regimes like those in Iran or North Korea.

The combination of declarations against Israel and a past as a Nazi soldier is an explosive combination that invites sharp reactions. But while Benjamin Netanyahu's remark describing Grass' work as "ignorant and shameful declarations that any fair person in the world must condemn" can be accepted as part of the public debate, Yishai's use of his governmental authority is not legitimate. Any protest should be expressed within the democratic-liberal framework, which allows every person to express his views - provocative though they may be.

Grass, a Nobel laureate for literature, did no more than write a poem. The State of Israel, through its interior minister, reacted with hysteria. It seems that at issue is less an undesirable person than an undesirable policy.

Haaretz has published two other interesting commentaries on the subject, “Israelis can be angry with Gunter Grass, but they must listen to him”, by Gideon Levy, and “Gunter Grass’s poem is more pathetic than anti-semitic”, by Tom Segev.

The poem had already stoked controversy in Germany. Die Welt’s Henryk Broder – decribed by Der Spiegel as “the country's most prominent Jewish writer ... who himself is famous for his outspoken views” – denounced Grass for the poem.

He writes in the newspaper:

Grass always had a problem with Jews, but it has never articulated it as clearly as he has in this “poem” ... Grass has always had a tendency toward megalomania, but this time he is completely nuts ...

[Grass] is the prototype of the educated anti-Semite, who is well-meaning when it comes to Jews. Haunted by feelings of guilt and shame and also driven by the desire to settle history, he is now attempting to disarm the “cause of the recognisable threat”.

On the whole, the reception in Germany was one of condemnation, according to a roundup by Spiegel. But Spiegel itself published a rare defence of Grass, by columnist Jakob Augstein:

A great poem it is not. Nor is it a brilliant political analysis. But the brief lines that Günter Grass has published under the title "What Must Be Said" will one day be seen as some of his most influential words. They mark a rupture. It is this one sentence that we will not be able to ignore in the future: "The nuclear power Israel is endangering a world peace that is already fragile” ...

While the verse may not win any awards, Grass has kicked off an important - and long overdue -debate. And, he's right.

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