By: Christopher Linnan On April 4, 2012 renowned German author Günther Grass published his poem “Was gesagt werden muss,” or “What Needs to be Said” in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a daily liberal South German Newspaper with a nationwide readership of 1.1 million. Grass’s poem provides a stinging rebuke of what he perceives to be a reckless and militant foreign policy adopted by Israel against Iran. He also criticizes his own country for condoning Israeli policy, and providing Israel with a submarine capable of deploying nuclear warheads. Grass correlates German silence with the guilt of being the perpetrators of the Holocaust, but he argues that the potential nuclear capability of Israel has forced him to speak out.
Unsurprisingly, this poem has ignited a fierce debate inside both Germany and Israel. Grass’s criticism is complicated by his own personal history, as he joined the Waffen-SS towards the end of World War II, though by his own account he never fired a shot.[i] The response from the right-wing Israeli governing coalition led by prime minister Netanyahu has been extremely harsh, as Grass has been banned from traveling to Israel, and is best represented by Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman who has argued that Grass’s poem is “ an expression of the cynicism of some the West's intellectuals, who, for publicity purposes and the desire to sell a few more books, are willing to sacrifice the Jewish nation a second time on the altar of crazy anti-Semites.”[ii]
The reaction from pro-Israeli Germans has also been very heated, as demonstrated by German author Henryk Broder, who called Grass “the prototype of the educated anti-Semite who means well toward Jews. He is hounded by guilt and feelings of shame but at the same time driven to reconcile history.” [iii] Much of the criticism that Grass has received confirms the assertion he made in his poem that criticizing Israel’s foreign policy has become equated with anti-Semitism.
The debate about Israel and the Middle East has become so ideologically charged that we have lost the ability to have an open discourse about the topic. The political dialogue in the Middle East is led by parties unwilling to compromise, such as the hardliners in the Likud party in Israel, and Hamas and Hezbollah in the Arab world. If we are unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of an opinion that differs from our own, then peace in the Middle East truly is impossible. An editorial in the prominent left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz argues that “it's precisely [Netanyahu’s] 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.”[iv] If disagreeing with the hard-line foreign policy pursued by the Netanyahu government is anti-Semitic, then there are quite a few anti-Semitic Jews inside Israel.
Grass’s poem can hardly be characterized as pro-Iranian, as he labels President Ahmadinejad a Maulheld, or loudmouth, and he goes out of his way to denounce Iranian nuclear ambitions. Israel receives billions of dollars in foreign aid from Western powers every year, and is sold high tech weaponry, such as the aforementioned nuclear submarine, so any potential Israeli pre-emptive strike has been at least implicitly condoned by the West. It is imperative that the West has a serious debate about our approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict - including the question of whether we are pursuing the right policies. As members of the Western world we pride ourselves on an open political dialogue and free speech, so it is crucial that we respect it, and we must make sure our allies respect it as well, even if the viewpoint is unpopular.
[i] Günther Grass, Peeling the Onion (Boston: Mariner Books, 2008).
[ii] Guy Azriel, “German poet declared unwelcome in Israel,” CNN 8 April 2012, http://articles.cnn.com/2012-04-08/world/world_europe_israel-german-poet_1_netanyahu-israel-and-iran-poem?_s=PM:EUROPE, accessed 14 April 2012.
[iii] Alan Cowell and Jennifer Schuessler, “Günter Grass's Poem About Israel Draws Criticism,” New York Times 5 April 2012, C2.
[iv] “Israel has reacted with hysteria over Günter Grass,” Haaretz 9 April 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/israel-has-reacted-with-hysteria-over-gunter-grass-1.423312, accessed 14 April 2012.