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Poison Pen

A Nobel Prize-winning German novelist—a former SS soldier, no less—accuses the state of Israel of seeking to exterminate an entire people, and the literary republic yawns. But when Israel bars its accuser from entering the country, because ex-Nazis have no place in the Jewish state, the cries of "bullying" and "censorship" nearly drown out the original accusation.

Relevant Links
An Open Letter to Günter Grass  Daniel Johnson, New York Sun. After 60 years, was it Grass’s conscience that prompted him to admit that he belonged to the Waffen SS? “The absence of contrition . . . excludes that possibility. I am afraid that the most cynical motive is also the most plausible: You had an autobiography to sell.” (2006; Part II is here.)
The New Prejudice  Howard Jacobson, Independent. By brute consensus, now, Israel is the proof that Jews did not adequately learn the lesson of the Holocaust.
Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism  Robert Wistrich, Jewish Political Studies Review. Anti-Zionism uses stereotypes concerning the “Jewish/Zionist lobby,” Israeli/Jewish “criminality,” and Sharonist “warmongering” that are fundamentally manipulative and anti-Semitic.

Günter Grass, the 84-year-old German writer best known for his 1959 novel The Tin Drum, published a poem earlier this month in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (a Munich daily), which was generally described as critical of Israel. "What Must Be Said," a 69-line poem written as a first-person confession in Grass's own voice, "breaks a long standing German taboo and publicly criticizes Israel," Al-Jazeera cheered.

In Germany, outrage. Elsewhere, not so much. Or not until Eli Yishai, the state's interior minister, barred Grass from entering Israel. Then, as Ruthie Blum observed, the "minor brouhaha" over Grass's poem erupted into a "major attack on Israel." The Guardian sneered that the Jewish state was engaging in "state censorship"—as if the Israeli government can suppress what is published in Munich. "To ban him is infantile pique," Salman Rushdie, Grass's fellow novelist, tweeted. "Nobody can seriously believe Günter Grass is anti-Semitic. The issue today is a bad poem and Israel's bad response to it."

Is Grass anti-Semitic? Is his poem bad? A writer in the Telegraph professed ignorance, claiming poor German, although no such hesitation prevented him from characterizing the "Israeli response," delivered in Hebrew, as "bullying." At least one German publication dismissed Grass's text as wirre Poesie ("muddled poetry"). Grass himself was heard complaining on the radio that his critics were ignoring "the contents of the poem."

Not only did the poem disappear from the controversy, but it almost never appeared under its own guise. Even to call the monologue a "poem" is to offer charity that "What Must Be Said" does not earn for itself. Manfred Lahnstein, a former German Federal Minister of Finance, said it well for Yediot Ahronot: Grass's text is a "pamphlet beefed up by some technical tricks to make it look like a 'poem.'" It is poetry if and only if poetry is the abandonment of literary form, logical argument, and even basic grammar for the sake of delivering pronouncements ex cathedra.

Even so, the tendency was to poeticize its unpleasant message out of existence. The Guardian ran an English version by Breon Mitchell (a distinguished translator of Kafka and Heinrich Böll who reworked The Tin Drum for its 50th anniversary edition in 2009), but Mitchell's version softened the original German to blotch its hostility. In the original German, for example, Grass accuses Israel of seeking to launch a nuclear strike that iranische Volk auslöschen könnte. The German verb auslöschen means to extinguish, to snuff out, to obliterate. But Mitchell has Grass saying, instead, that an Israeli strike "could destroy [the] Iranian people." A people can be destroyed without annihilating them, however, and Grass is pretty clear which he means.

In case anyone misses the first hint, Grass later writes that Israel's warheads are allesvernichtende ("exterminating"). The echo of the Nazi term for extermination camps (Vernichtungslagers) is difficult to overlook. It is a particularly underhanded method for accusing Israelis of acting like Nazis, but Mitchell chooses to overlook it. What Israel seeks in his version is simply "nuclear warheads."

Again, Grass accuses Israel of suspecting Iran of an atom bomb: einer Atombombe vermutet wird. Mitchell has Grass awkwardly saying that a bomb "may be being/ developed." In developing its own nuclear capabilities, by contrast, Israel is "out of control," Grass charges—außer Kontrolle. When Mitchell translates him, though, Grass says merely that Israel is "beyond supervision." The difference between a state that is beyond supervision and a state that is out of control is the difference between a rogue state and an aggressor bent upon war.

Germans have been silent about Israel's "exterminating" first-strike capability for too long, Grass complains. Silence is a Lüge and a Zwang—a lie and a compulsion. Anyone who speaks out will receive a punishment: Das Verdikt "Antisemitismus" ist geläufig, he sighs—"the verdict of anti-Semitism is familiar." But then comes the most repulsive turn in the entire poem. Bravely facing down the "familiar verdict," Grass asks why he has remained silent for so long. In Mitchell's translation:

Because I thought my own origins,
Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,
meant I could not expect Israel, a land
to which I am, and always will be, attached,
to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Grass is breathtakingly dishonest. He realizes, he says, that his Herkunft, his "background" or "heritage," is afflicted with a stigma (Makel), which cannot be erased. He is referring here to what, in his autobiography, he says is "all too commonly called joint responsibility"—the collective German responsibility for war in Europe and the murder of six million Jews.

But Grass bears some individual responsibility too, although he is not about to acknowledge that here. Perhaps he expects his readers to acknowledge it. Six decades after the fact (and a convenient seven years after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature), Grass revealed in his autobiography that he had served in the Waffen SS during Hitler's war. He swears that he was conscripted. His first choice was the Navy, which he tried to join in order to escape the sounds of his parents' lovemaking.

Was he as enthusiastic as other young German draftees, who tended to become caught up in the SS spirit? He can't remember. "I most likely viewed the Waffen SS as an elite unit that was sent into action whenever a breach in the front line had to be stopped up," he writes. "I did not find the double rune on the uniform collar repellent." Still, he insists that he cannot be accused of "active complicity."

Without any other source on the question, Grass's testimony must be respected. But his account of serving in the SS is filled to overflowing with evasions of responsibility. It was not until after he had been drafted, he writes, that he "understood what division [he] had been attached to." Although he heard nothing of war crimes at the time, he "had been incorporated into a system that had planned, organized, and carried out the extermination of millions of people." He swore the Waffen-SS oath of loyalty and obedience to the Führer. "The moon was full, the night freezing cold," he recalls. "A chorus sang 'If Others Prove Untrue, Yet We Shall Steadfast Be,' the song of the Waffen SS." A chorus sang—did he sing along? 

Now, however, his Nazi connections are invaluable to him. How can anyone doubt his courage and honor in daring to accuse Israel of genocidal intentions toward the people of Iran? A former SS soldier who publicly criticizes Israel will receive the "familiar verdict" of anti-Semitism, and only a writer for whom the truth is more dear than his reputation would undertake such a mission. His SS credentials are the best proof of Grass's sincerity.

In a "poem" that boasts of breaking the silence, however, Grass's silence about the reality of the Middle East is ominous. That Israel might be the target of nuclear annihilation is of concern only to someone who, unlike him, grants Israel's right to exist.

The verdict may be familiar, then, but it is no less just. In "What Must Be Said," Günter Grass lends his Nobel Prize-winning literary prestige to the cause of what the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy calls "the new anti-Semitism," the only variety of the longest hatred that has any chance of being heard today—and "only if it can identify 'being Jewish' with the supposedly criminal identity of the State of Israel."

That is to say, people can get away with anti-Semitism these days only by passing it off as anti-Zionism. Since Israel is the political expression of Jewish peoplehood, however, to call into question its right to exist is either to wish the Jews powerless to defend themselves again or to deny they are a people. The first may seem less vicious than the second, but for an ex-SS soldier like Günter Grass, the dream of Jewish powerlessness is deeply embedded in a history of exterminating destruction. And in either case, Grass is an articulate literary spokesman for a new European anti-Semitism that pretends it is merely anti-Zionism, although there is not a pinch of salt's difference between the two.

D.G. Myers, a critic and literary historian in the Melton Center for Jewish Studies at the Ohio State University, writes a monthly fiction chronicle for Commentary magazine as well as its blog Literary Commentary.

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Kerry on April 16, 2012 at 7:40 am (Reply)
Yes, AJ cheered, along with all its anti-Semitic bloggers. It is sickening
michael zamczyk on April 16, 2012 at 2:06 pm (Reply)
As a member of the Waffen SS and the Nazi Party, Grass should have been barred from entry to Israel and the United States irrespective of his writings.
Mack Hall on April 16, 2012 at 2:16 pm (Reply)
I have no German; the translation is pretty clear in its hostility, though. Mr. Grass is not welcome in my home, either.
Jeff Blankfort on April 16, 2012 at 4:16 pm (Reply)
What Grass was complaining about is the utter hypocrisy demonstrated by Germany and the West regarding Israel's several hundred nuclear weapons, which are not to be mentioned publicly, even by a U.S. president, while implementing unprecedented punitive sanctions against a country for which there exists no demonstrated evidence that it has even one nuke or that it is in the process of producing one (which, if it later does, just might have something to with Israel's possessing hundreds and repeatedly threatening Iran with war, something that despite all of his crazy comments, Ahmadinejad has never done vis-a-vis Israel, as Dan Meridor admitted the other day). As for the position that Grass's having been a member of the Waffen-SS at the age of 17 makes him a Nazi war criminal,this is patent nonsense on the face of it but will no doubt appeal to readers of Jewish Ideas Daily.
Zach on April 16, 2012 at 6:56 pm (Reply)
Regarding the statement that "people can get away with anti-Semitism these days only by passing it off as anti-Zionism. Since Israel is the political expression of Jewish peoplehood, however, to call into question its right to exist is either to wish the Jews powerless to defend themselves again or to deny they are a people:" This statement lumps common Jews, in Israel and abroad, with the occupational, house-destroying (grab that land!), anti-Arab Bibi regime. Also, how can a country whose leader said "all options are on the table" and refuses to let anyone know about its nuclear weapons (estimated at 200-400) not be the sole danger to a fragile world peace? How is it feasible for a sovereign nation that hasn't attacked a country in more than 200 years, and whose leader has been mistranslated ad nauseam to make him sound evil, racist, and (oh no!) anti-Semitic, to enrich uranium from eight percent to more than 90 percent in one—or three—years, thus posing a danger to the Zionist state?
Zach on April 16, 2012 at 7:07 pm (Reply)
It is sad to see another defense of Israel that does not try to point out fallacy in Grass's poem, if there is one, and just attacks the man who wrote it. Don't refute or debate points, just mention “Nazi” and “SS” 40 times. A disgusting and impressive avoidance of the actual topic.
McQueen on April 16, 2012 at 7:12 pm (Reply)
Jeff Blankfort must know all the people who subscribe to Jewish Ideas Daily—or maybe he knows how all Jews think. Either way, his analysis of world events is not very convincing.
arthur on April 16, 2012 at 9:54 pm (Reply)
Ever hear the term Jew-baiting? This was calculated to embarrass Jews and Israel. His selective, self-protecting memory that absolves him of any wrongdoing. He is indeed a consummate coward. Salman Rushdie is a fine supporter. Can you imagine the fatwa against Grass if he had done something like this in insulting Iran or Islam?
Jerry Blaz on April 16, 2012 at 9:59 pm (Reply)
This fiasco did neither Gunter Grass or the State of Israel a favor. Grass's poem was offensive, but it was not that important to the Jewish people or the state of Israel. It should have been filed in the "circular file" and forgotten. To have a cabinet minister of Israel like Eli Yishai make a public acknowledgement of what should have been forgotten is, at best, a mistake and, at worst, a political move to make Yishai a hero to the Jews who were offended by Grass's senile hubris, which they probably first learned about when Yishai announced he would not permit Grass to enter Israel, though Grass never announced any intention of visiting Israel. It was Grass's faux pas. When an old man cuts wind, we try to ignore it. Anyone who would shout about it from the rooftops is even more socially embarrassing.
Jan Bauman on April 16, 2012 at 10:25 pm (Reply)
When Israel refused years ago to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it should have been a red flag. To this day, in spite of having hundreds of nukes and the means to deliver them, Israel still will not come clean, as it expects Iran to do. Grass called for both Israel and Iran to submit to inspections. It that too much to ask? For many years Grass visited Israel and spoke favorably of the country. He was, then as now, a veteran of the SS. Even had he revealed it as the time, few would have minded, since he was praising Israel. Grass was a teenager when he joined the Waffen SS, at a time when Germany was obviously losing the war and most men were already in the army. Israelis never minded being praised by high members of the apartheid South African government, even though many of those who praised Israel had once been quite fond of Nazi Germany. Is there a bit of hypocrisy among those who are damning Gunter Grass? Indeed there is.
Dave4321 on April 16, 2012 at 11:04 pm (Reply)
Right, attacking the idea that Israel is going to nuke tens of millions of Iranians is just a personal attack on the author.
McQueen on April 16, 2012 at 11:14 pm (Reply)
The main point is that Grass lied. He claimed falsely that Israel was planning to utterly wipe out the Iranian people. If that is not blood libel, what is?
SW on April 16, 2012 at 11:59 pm (Reply)
Heated comments make no advance in the discussion except to identify commenters' a priori political views. Grass wrote of an "okkupierten Region," but we all know that the current narrative does not suggest anything other than Jews "occupy" Israel or border areas. Therefore, Grass shows himself to side with the Arabs against Israel. Additionally, Grass suggested an answer through and international authority--"durch eine internationale Instanz"--but only for Israel and Iran, leaving out international control over Russia, China, Pakistan, India, France, Britain, and other nuclear weapons holders, including the United States, because the International Atomic Energy Agency does not inspect U.S. or Chinese sites, either. As to the toothless Non-Proliferation Treaty, brought up as a complaint against Israel, India and Pakistan are not signatories, nor is North Korea; and the IAEA folks are the people who have been "monitoring" Iran for decades and have not found a weapons program (since Iran says its enterprise is "peaceful"). Therefore, these canards are brought in specifically to target Israel, which has not admitted to its nuclear weapons cache under either Labor or Likud. Grass' poem, which I read in the original, is mundane and is not especially forceful or high art. For the most part it is already old news here in Germany, and most with whom I have spoken did not even notice it. It is also just politics, as always, though Grass postures that here in Germany there has been a taboo on the topic that he "courageously" raised. That it nonsense: The local papers here have long spoken about what he decided he "must" say. It is theater and poison, for it is aimed not at Iran but at Israel and totally ignores other non-NPT nations. The whines in support of Grass's stance condemn Israel's "hypocrisy," but Grass has long been himself hypocritical, as have all politicians. As I. F. Stone once observed, "All governments lie." That includes Germany, Israel, Iran and the United States. And Grass's mundane poem is just part of that sort of thing. Es tut mir leid, aber das ist die Wahrheit. And at a cut rate bookshop, his novels are being sold at heavily discounted prices, like all the other stuff.
Ellen on April 17, 2012 at 12:41 pm (Reply)
Gunter Grass, like his Eurocounterparts, is part of a dying civilization. Perhaps, they should all be ignored. In short order they certainly will be, given the impending crackup and bankruptcy of the EU. In the meantime, it's probably worth sending a sarcastic letter to them, as with the armchair revolutionaries on the flotilla, with an exhortation as follows: "Eurohypocrites, go defend the brave people of Syria. They are revolting against a regime led by two people (Bashar and Asma) who until recently were hobnobbing with the beautiful and powerful people of your continent. All power to the people!"
Mack Hall on April 17, 2012 at 8:53 pm (Reply)
Israel is not required to "come clean" to Mr. Grass, to me, or to anyone. One might as reasonably expect Chile to "come clean" to an individual writing bad verse against it.
Jeff Blankfort on April 18, 2012 at 12:53 am (Reply)
While it may be dying, the EU is far and away Israel's largest trading partner--so its passing may be something for Israel to worry about rather than celebrate. As for taking on Syria, it seems that is already being done, with restrictive sanctions already in place and the Saudis and Qatar, two noble democracies, already supplying arms to the Free Syrian Army.
Ellen on April 18, 2012 at 12:10 pm (Reply)
The EU is not far and away the largest trading partner of Israel. Recent statistics show that it has a slightly larger volume of trade than the United States but is rapidly declining relative to Israeli-Asian trade. Israel's trade with Asia has been booming in the last 20 years, coinciding with the shift in global economic wealth from the West toward the East. Israel's economic dependence on exports to Europe and imports of its advanced machinery was always one of its main strategic weaknesses, and one of the main reasons Israeli leaders couldn't tell the truth to European power about how rotten their contemporary civilization is, and that currying favor with the Arabs, in the end, won't do them any good. The Arabs are a declining resource-based civilization and the Europeans are a declining skill-based civilization. There is literally nothing that is produced in Europe today that can't be produced elsewhere. In the industries of the future (e.g., biotechnology, computers, and electronics) Israel is now more advanced than almost all of Europe. That is why someone with the leadership qualities of Netanyahu can thumb his nose at the Europeans, while years ago, Begin and Shamir could not. It's tough being a hypocritical and declining great power like Europe. It's even tougher being a hypocritical and never risen power like the Arabs. They deserve each other.

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