April 8, 2012
By Gideon Levy
The harsh, and in some parts infuriating, poem by Gunter Grass of course immediately sparked a wave of vilifications against it and mainly against its author. Grass indeed went a few steps too far (and too mendaciously ) – Israel will not destroy the Iranian people – and for that he will be punished, in his own country and in Israel. But in precisely the same way the poem’s nine stanzas lost a sense of proportion in terms of their judgment of Israel, so too the angry responses to it suffer from exaggeration. Tom Segev wrote in Haaretz: “Unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently confided in him, his opinion is vacuous.” (“More pathetic than anti-Semitic,” April 5 ). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned Grass’ Nazi past, and Israeli embassies in Germany went so far as to state, ridiculously, that the poem signified “anti-Semitism in the best European tradition of blood libels before Passover.”
It is doubtful that Grass intended his poem to be published on the eve of Passover. It contains no blood libel. In fact, it is the branding of it as anti-Semitic that is a matter of tradition – all criticism of Israel is immediately thus labeled. Grass’ Nazi past, his joining the Waffen SS as a youth, does not warrant shutting him up some 70 years later, and his opinion is far from vacuous. According to Segev, anyone who is not a nuclear scientist, an Israeli prime minister or an Iranian president must keep silent on the stormiest issue in Israel and the world today. That is a flawed approach.
Grass’ “What Must Be Said” does contain things that must be said. It can and should be said that Israel’s policy is endangering world peace. His position against Israeli nuclear power is also legitimate. He can also oppose supplying submarines to Israel without his past immediately being pulled out as a counterclaim. But Grass exaggerated, unnecessarily and in a way that damaged his own position. Perhaps it is his advanced age and his ambition to attract a last round of attention, and perhaps the words came forth all at once like a cascade, after decades during which it was almost impossible to criticize Israel in Germany.
That’s the way it is when all criticism of Israel is considered illegitimate and improper and is stopped up inside for years. In the end it erupts in an extreme form. Grass’ poem was published only a few weeks after another prominent German, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel, wrote that there is an apartheid regime in Hebron. He also aroused angry responses. Therefore it is better to listen to the statements and, especially, finally, to lift the prohibition against criticizing Israel in Germany.
Israel has many friends in Germany, more than in most European countries. Some of them support us blindly, some have justified guilt feelings and some are true, critical friends of Israel. There are, of course, anti-Semites in Germany and the demand that Germany never forget is also justified. But a situation in which any German who dares criticize Israel is instantly accused of anti-Semitism is intolerable.
Some years ago, after a critical article of mine was published in the German daily Die Welt, one of its editors told me: “No journalist of ours could write an article like that.” I was never again invited to write for that paper. For years, any journalist who joined the huge German media outlet Axel Springer had to sign a pledge never to write anything that casts aspersions on Israel’s right to exist. That is an unhealthy situation that ended with an eruption of exaggerated criticism like Grass’.
Grass is not alone. No less of a major figure, the great author Jose de Sousa Saramago opened the floodgates in his later years when, after a visit to the occupied territories, he compared what was going on there to Auschwitz. Like Grass, Saramago went too far, but his remarks about the Israelis should have been heeded: “Living under the shadow of the Holocaust and expecting forgiveness for everything they will do in the name of their suffering seems coarse. They have learned nothing from the suffering of their parents and their grandparents.”
After we denounce the exaggeration, after we shake off the unjustified part of the charge, we must listen to these great people. They are not anti-Semites, they are expressing the opinion of many people. Instead of accusing them we should consider what we did that led them to express it..