In the war waging over Gunter Grass—the Nobel Prize winning German author, teenage Nazi soldier, and author of a poem denouncing Israel’s threats on Iran—it’s hard to tell whose national psyche is more scarred. In Germany, where Grass, 84, published the poem, translated into English as “What Must Be Said,” the intellectual landscape has been virtually split in two.
Dozens of prominent intellectuals have attacked Grass for what they perceive as veiled anti-Semitism, since the poem suggests that Germany, feeling guilty for its own crimes in the Holocaust, now makes it taboo to criticize Israel too strongly. Meanwhile, his defenders in Germany say, essentially, what Grass’s poem says—that Germany should get over its guilt and stop silencing itself from criticizing Israel. It all seems to recall France during the Dreyfus affair, the country split between Grassyards, and anti-Grassyards.
Not that strangely, Israel seems to be mirroring this scarred psyche mentality too. The Netanyahu government, repeatedly referencing Grass’s Nazi past, is portraying Grass’s criticism of Israel into just another high-minded anti-Semitic blow. Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s right-wing foreign minister, said: “for publicity purposes and the desire to sell a few more books, [some West intellectuals] are willing to sacrifice the Jewish nation a second time on the altar of crazy anti-Semites.” And yesterday, of course, Netanyahu’s government banned Grass from entering the country.
But liberal Israelis are fighting back. The journalist Tom Segev, writing in Ha’aretz, criticized Grass’s politics, but didn’t play the Nazi-bating game. Instead he chastised his own government for doing essentially what Iran has done itself, issuing ominous fatwas against speech they deem offensive. “It’s very unpleasant because it moves us in the direction of countries like Iran and Syria that apparently give out entry permits according to people’s political views,” he wrote.
Even Salman Rushdie—the writer made famous for his Iranian-issue fatwa—said as much in his latest Twitter feed (he’s big Twitterer, in case you didn’t know): “OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem,” he tweeted, “but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.”
I’m on the liberal side here. I think it’s all well and good to criticize Grass’s political opinion—though I don’t think it’s repulsive. Unfair and jaded, sure. Certainly no one in Israel, as Grass suggests, has any intention of annihilating the entire Iranian people—something that Ahmadinejad actually says openly about Israelis. But even I still find it strange that someone who criticizes a country that is elusive about its own nuclear capabilities—and that could be Iran or Israel, who lest we forget is notoriously opaque about its nukes—must be shunted out of legitimate debate.
Worse, that the Israeli government, so proud of its democratic nature, would prevent a man from entering its country for a poem—even if it was anti-Semitic—shows just what a comprised notion of democracy it has. I understand that Grass’s decision to join the Nazi military as a 17-year-old—which took him decades to admit, but which still he did—damages his standing. But he has also expressed genuine remorse for that past, and throughout his entire literary career, written movingly about the national disgrace of Nazism. Even if his acts of contrition still leave you a little cold, his criticism of Israel, fairly de rigeur among some liberal intellectuals, does not deserve to be equated with what was truly a disgusting part of his own private past, his one-time Nazism. That’s not an easy pill to swallow, I know. But it’s something a lot more honest, and moral, than shaming him with the skeleton he’s taken out of his own closet, and, one thought, long ago buried.