Grass’ Criticism on Israel and Reactions in Germany

On April 8, 2012 by Vincent

Still Premature: German Politics and Press

Günther Grass 2004. Picture by Florian K., CC BY-SA 3.0.

Nobel-prize winner Günther Grass wrote a poem in which he criticised Israel for its foreign policy (translated by the Guardian). He called for peace and warns that an Israeli pre-emptive attack on nuclear plants may wipe out the Iranian population. What followed was a public outcry I have not witnessed for years.

Grass was accused to be anti-Semitic, right-wing extremist, anti-Israel, old, senile, stupid, attention seeking – everything one can imagine. Just five examples to illustrate the madness.

An opinion article of my favourite Berlin newspaper “Tagesspiegel” started with: “Is Günther Grass an anti-Semitic? Yes, he is. That is what his new poem “What needs to be said” proofs. This poem could have also been titled “The Jews are our disaster.” The general secretary of the Christian Democratic Party of Germany said he was “shocked about the tone and direction of the poem” and reminded Grass that Iran was the real danger. Emmanuel Nahshon, Israelian delegate to Germany, went so far to claim it is a European tradition to “accuse Jews of ritual murder before Passover”. Another example is the “Central Council of Jews in Germany”, whose president Dieter Graumann called the poem an “aggressive pamphlet of an agitation“.

There are several points worth criticising in Grass’ poem. For example, one may argue that Grass exaggerated the consequences of such an attack, that he used words like “auslöschen” (to erase), or that he did not pointed enough to the dangers of Iran.

But do these points allow to publicly destroy a person? To insult him, to defame him, to accuse him to be anti-Semitic? I say no! This is because such a behaviour is premature and may be eventually dangerous. Why is that?

First, the debate shows that many in Germany do not distinguish between the state Israel and the Jewish people. But this is a mistake. It is perfectly fine to criticise the Israeli government. That does not imply that one is against the existence of the Jewish people. The last week however, proved that Israel’s policies are still a taboo in Germany. This is premature. Also as a German I have the right to criticise whoever I want as long as I stick to the democratic rules. Everyone who argues against this reduces me to my birth place and reveals her or his nationalist mind – something the horrible experiences of the Nazi-time taught us to fight against.

Second, the inflationary usage of “anti-Semitism” takes away the weight of this accusation. If everyone who criticises Israel in Germany is immediately termed an “anti-Semitic”, then the true haters of Jews will win acceptance: if everyone is apparently anti-Semitic it’s not too bad to be called so, some may think. Thus, everyone who cares about Jews should be very careful when using this word. Otherwise, one may do more harm than good in the long run.

Third, while there was much talk about the person “Grass” and the debate about his poem there was very little debate about the content of his text. The essence of which is that the current Israeli government is conflict and not peace seeking. This however, is probably true and comes as no surprise. The Israeli government consists of conservatives, nationalists and religious fundamentalists: President Netanyahu is very conservative, foreign minister Lieberman is at least far-right, most-likely right-wing extreme, and the third biggest coalition member, the “Shas”-Party, is ultra-orthodox. If such a government is unchecked the consequences could be devastating. This concern is only supported by the fact that the Israeli government declared Günther Grass to be a “persona non grata” today, thus banned him from entering Israel.

According to an Israeli acquittance of mine the Netanyahu government does not face serious opposition in Israel. Hence, the internal checks are limited. This may be the case in many countries but most of the time there are external checks, at least for democratic countries: the UN and the international community. In the case of Israel however, it appears as if criticism is politically incorrect. The United States of America and Germany seldom find critical words and UN resolutions are often blocked. This implies that the external checks are limited too. And exactly this is the point where the premature behaviour of the German press, the political elite and some Jewish organisations becomes dangerous. Limited checks may lead to extreme policies. Extreme policies may lead to war.

Therefore, I support Günther Grass’ main concern: the Israeli government conducts a foreign policy we consider dangerous. And it is about time we let them know.

One Response to “Grass’ Criticism on Israel and Reactions in Germany”

  • Bernd

    To the so-called Poem of Grass should be said several things, most of which have already been articulated by the apparently
    not too small parts of the german cultural elite with intact moralic compass. First someone who was part of the SS and who himself
    aswell as his parents or grandparents probably pulled jewish women and children from their homes, should have the modesty and decency to never
    tell the relatives of that women and children how they should run the state they founded to never be so vulnerable
    again. That those who took part in the biggest crimes of human history only 60 years later deem themselve suited to give their victims
    advice on how to behave morally accurate is probably the biggest staircase wit ever. That said i will move on to the content based evaluation,
    as you demanded.
    You aswell as many germans have a crucial misunderstanding of the state Israel. You say one should always differentiate between the Jews and the state Israel
    and that in a discussion the state Israel can be seperated from the Jews. That is not so. Israel is NOT a state like every other. Israel is a special state,
    because it IS the state of the Jews and is so the only one in the world and the only one that ever existed.
    Israel was founded to be the save haven for the persecuted and discriminated.
    It was founded to never let the Jews be helpless victims again, to end 2000! years of repression, to never have to rely on the moral and civilized behaviour
    of other people and cultures. That is the sole purpose of Israel: safety and total independence for every Jew in the world who would seek refuge.
    So if one denys any of these goals to Israel one
    denys them to the Jews as a whole. Since know one earned they right for safety and independence more, considering all the crimes they
    have suffered, denying the Jews these rights makes one an antisemite. In that light lets review the content of this poem: “The
    nuclear power Israel is endangering the alraedy frail world peace.” That sounds like Israel is the agressor in the Iran-Israel conflict
    and the Middle East, which is not true at all. Isreal never started a real war in its existance, but was attacked by an alliance of its neighbours
    several times. Most of its neighbours including Iran have stated their pursuit to end the existance of Israel, Iran multiple and in very recent times.
    This line of Grass also seems to indicate that Israel is a problem and should vanish. Of course you can always say it is just critizising the current Israelian
    government, however thats not the most obvious interpretation. Grass also uses the word Erstschlag, which refers to a nuclear attack in contrast to the
    Präventivschlag, meaning a surgical attack with conventional weapons, which actually is considered by the Israelis.He even imputes considering the
    exstinction of the iranian people to Israel(implying genocide, implying Israel to committ crimes almost equal to the holocaust), which is absurd and bar any proof.
    Therefore Grass is not only swapping the role of agressor and victim,
    but feeds anchorless presumptions about the state Israel, without even blinking to consider the israelian need for safety and the constant
    existiential threat they face by their neighbours and would face by an nuclear power iran.So Grasses “Poem” is an uterlly one-sided
    presumptious and defaming agitation against Israel, which is not helpful at all in perpetuating peace in the region or increasing the
    accessibility of the Israelis for considerative, balanced and rational criticism. While it may sometimes be hard to distinct between just stupid and
    wrong or antisemitic many of the patterns of wrongness Grass follows in his Poem do indeed indicate his latent antisemitism. To swap the roles between
    true victim and true culprit as well as working with baseless exaggerations and prevalent presumptions are common signs of antisemitism, saying
    Israel instead of Jews doesnt change a bit about that. To conclude: rational criticism of Israels actions is absolutely legitimate and
    unlike Grass would us have believe there is not a Tabu about critizising Israel at all, not even in Germany. Many here have critizised
    Israel, in Media and Politics, and for some political groups well represented critizising Israel is part of their political foundation( Die Linke).
    However germans should be extra careful and considerative in their criticism and someone who attacks Israel with lies and baseless assumptions,
    especially while having a history of long hidden collaboration in the holocaust, should be named for what he is: a modern antisemite.

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