A World to Win News Service.
Gunter Grass has achieved something many poets have only dreamt of in recent years: he has brought poetry, or at least a poem, to the centre of public life in Germany and elsewhere around the world.
In retaliation for that poem, Israel has announced that this Nobel Prize-winning writer, who considers himself a supporter of that country he has visited several times, will never be allowed to set foot on its soil again.
When was the last time so much political firepower was aimed at a poem? Lining up to denounce it were Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu; Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman; the Interior Minister, Eli Yishai; and the whole Zionist establishment, including the supposedly “left” newspaper Haaretz; and also German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and the leader of Germany’s parliamentary foreign affairs committee, both of whom felt that these verses endangered the national interest.
The poem has also been condemned by various guardians of literature blustering about the poor quality of Grass’s late-in-life foray into poetry. Whatever the merits of his stanzas may be, it’s odd that no one has raised literary issues until now. For instance, the New York Review of Books, known for its high standards, carried a recent Grass poem just before the scandal.
Readers can look at Grass’s offending poem for themselves, at Guardian.co.uk (4 April) (“What Must be Said”, rendered into English by Breon Mitchell, who also translated Grass for the NYRB) and in German (“Was gesagt werden muss”) on Suedddeutsche.de, the site of the newspaper where it first appeared.
It was written on the occasion of the German government’s decision to build a sixth atomic-powered submarine (at a subsidized price) for Israel. Despite their cute name, “Dolphin”-class submarines are designed to deploy Israeli nuclear-armed missiles in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. They are aimed at Pakistan and especially Iran.
What Israel and its backers find unacceptable in Grass’s piece is that it criticizes the Israeli government for claiming “the alleged right to a first strike / that could destroy an Iranian people / subjugated by a loudmouth”. He continues, “Why only now, grown old / and with what ink remains, do I say: / Israel’s atomic power endangers / an already fragile world peace? / Because what must be said / may be too late tomorrow; / and because – burdened enough as Germans – / we may be providing material for a crime / that is foreseeable, so that our complicity / will not be expunged by any / of the usual excuses.” The poem ends with a call for “those responsible for the open danger we face to renounce the use of force” and for both the Iranian and Israeli governments to open their nuclear facilities to international inspection.
Grass has long been associated with Germany’s sometimes-governing Social Democratic party, and this is far from a radical or even pro-Palestinian position. In an interview following the uproar that greeted his poem, he argued that the “the man who damages Israel the most at the moment is in my opinion Netanyahu, and I should have included that in my poem.”
Yet the Zionists are no longer in a mood to accept this somewhat critical support. The Israeli embassy in Germany issued a statement charging Grass with continuing the “European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder”. This is a reference to what is called “the blood libel”, that the unleavened bread Jews eat at Passover is made with the blood of murdered Christian children. That lie was the pretext for hundreds of years of pogroms – European campaigns to exterminate Jews.
Just in case some people might wonder about the basis and logic for this extremely grave charge, Anshel Pfieffer, writing in Haaretz (8 April), declared that in Grass’s case “all arguments are superfluous” and “logic and reason are useless”.
This anti-reason attitude would have gladdened the hearts of the Nazis and all of today’s religious zealots. But how else could Israel’s defenders react, when the facts are stacked against them: Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, Iran has none. Israel is threatening to use those weapons against Iran because, as Grass wrote, “an atomic bomb may be developing”.
The Haaretz columnist ends by screaming that Grass would like to take away “the Jews’ doomsday weapon” which is, he says, all that prevents the successful completion, in today’s world, of the Nazi project “to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth.”
How can this writer claim that saying “Don’t bomb Iran” is anti-Semitism, or that in saying that no country should use nuclear weapons to attack another, Grass is calling for genocide? Isn’t this upside down? Such use of hysteria and bullying to silence arguments that cannot be defeated by reason is the intellectual equivalent of a “doomsday weapon”.
To equate Israel with “the Jews” is a lie, an old trick promoted both by the Zionist regime and Jew-haters of all kinds. But there is another lie here as well: far from being a country whose survival depends on its own people and weapons, Israel is a settler state that came into existence and has remained in existence only thanks to unwavering Western and American political, financial and military support. It is a pillar of the existing order in the Middle East, and central to American regional domination.
Israel would not be so eager to launch a war against Iran if it were not assured of US military backing no matter what. In fact, whatever secondary disputes there may be between Washington and Tel Aviv, Israeli belligerency serves the strategic goals of the US, including bringing Iran under its heel.
Israel’s nuclear “doomsday weapon” has nothing to do with saving anyone’s life. It is a threat to human lives on a mass scale, in the service of an imperialist cause.
Insofar as the anti-Grass hysterians deign to reason, it is with this argument: because in the final months of World War II, at the age of 17, Grass was drafted into a Waffen SS unit, and because he did not publicly disclose this until his 2006 autobiography, he has no right to speak about moral questions and especially Israel. (The Waffen SS was an elite branch of the armed forces that among other tasks ran concentration camps, although Grass says he was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit and never fired a shot.)
Grass himself addresses this issue in the beginning of his poem. He writes that he has never before criticized Israel because he felt “tarnished by a stain that can never be removed”, but that he feels compelled to speak out now because of his own country’s complicity in a “foreseeable crime”. He warns that this time Germans cannot avoid taking responsibility with the claim that they didn’t know.
Grass has done a great deal to focus public discourse in his country on the question of Germans’ moral responsibilities, starting with his 1959 novel The Tin Drum. It was published at a time when such discussion was held back by Germany’s ruling class, composed in no small part of former Nazis. In the mid-1980s, when many people fiercely opposed US and West German efforts to prepare public opinion and their militaries for another world war, against the Soviet Union, he denounced a symbolically significant visit by the heads of the American and German governments to a cemetery where Waffen SS officers were buried. For decades he has been honest about, and grappled with, the fact that “I belonged to the Hitler Youth and I believed in its aims up to the end of the war,” as he told The New York Times in 2000 (NYT, 6 April 2012)
Grass has been banned from entering Israel under a law that bars visits by former Nazis. This law was not applied to Pope Benedict XVI, another former member of the Hitler Youth and the Nazi armed forces. Why? Because that visit scored points for Israel on the diplomatic front.
It is bitterly ironic that Zionists should attack Grass for “the blood libel”, since it was not secularists nor “leftists” (as Grass is being pejoratively called, whether deservedly or not) but the Catholic Church that propagated it for a millennium, as part of the construction of a Christian identity in murderous opposition to Jews and Muslims. Before he became pope, for several decades Benedict headed the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Catholic Church body formerly know as the Holy Inquisition that set out to “de-Judaize” Europe centuries before the Nazis.
When Benedict came to Israel in 2009, he expressed no remorse for the crimes committed by his country of birth and his church. In fact, he refused to enter the Holocaust museum because it contains material critical of Pope Pius XII for refusing to speak out against the genocide of the Jews during World War 2.
Benedict has not continued this anti-Jewish genocidal past, but unlike Grass, who says “what must be said”, he has never sharply renounced it and instead prefers to remain silent. Obviously, for Israel the question of whether or not someone’s past should be held against them is a matter of convenience.
The attacks on Grass are made in the name of opposing anti-Semitism, but their real purpose is to rally support for the Zionist project, with no politics or morality other than that.