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Red Rag column: Günter Grass, Passover
By: Gideon Spiro
9 April 2012

What must be said

Two years ago, in April 2010, I wrote a column under the heading, “A danger called Israel”. [1] The column was written on the occasion of the conference called by President Obama for the reduction of nuclear arms in the world. In that column I wrote that Israel, as a nuclear power, had set the Middle East on a nuclear arms race. Nuclear bombs in a volatile and conflicted region like the Middle East constitutes a danger to the entire world, and so to divest Israel of its nuclear arms in the framework of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction is an international interest.

Israel’s opposition to such a process, and the repeated threats by Israeli government representatives of military action against Iran, which could escalate into nuclear conflict, have turned Israel into an international menace. We must not forget that the extremist right-wing government that rules Israel today includes Foreign Minister Lieberman, who in the past threatened Egypt with the bombing of the Aswan Dam.

I also condemned Germany’s provision to Israel of submarines that carry nuclear warheads, and pointed out the absurdity of Germany, which was responsible for the first Holocaust, atoning for it by contributing to the next holocaust – the nuclear one. The last thing the region needs is nuclear-missile-carrying submarines.

The column was translated into English and German and was published on the Internet and in periodicals. Two years have passed since that column was written and now the German author and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Günter Grass has published, to a storm of controversy, a poem which contains criticism of Israel that is very similar to what I published then. I do not know if Grass read my column, but as an author who is also involved in political life, he could also have reached his conclusions without me.

So what did Günter Grass write that brought all the mice out of their holes to yell: “Nazi, anti-Semite, accusing the Jews of all the ills in the world, on the eve of Passover perpetuating the blood libel that accused Jews of murdering Christian children to make matzah” and other such pearls?

To judge by what has been reported in the Israeli press, Grass said nothing at all about Judaism. He wrote that Israel is a nuclear power out of control that scoffs at international law by building settlements, and he criticizes the government of Germany for contributing to Israel’s nuclear power, and expresses concern about the danger of an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran, which could wipe out the Iranian people. That reference to the destruction of the Iranian people drove many Israelis crazy. Even Gideon Levy mildly rebuked Grass for it in his column in Haaretz. [2] But it was precisely on that very point that Grass said what must be said: those who are armed with nuclear weapons have plans on file for their use, among the consequences of which are murder and genocide.

Those words contain not a shred of anti-Semitism, but legitimate criticism of a racist Israel that promotes Occupation and war. It is important that this criticism comes from a German of renown who, unlike most Israelis, has learned lessons from the Nazi era and embraced uncompromising commitments for a democratic and peace-loving Germany.

I had the honour of interviewing Günter Grass when he visited the University of Haifa in November 1971. I was then the editor of the student newspaper Post Mortem. Even then Grass perceived the militarization of Israeli society. I asked him if he had any criticism of Israel. Yes, he replied. What is it? “There is the phenomenon of many former military men who hold high positions in the civilian establishment. There is a danger that Israel will take on a Spartan character, in which the army has excessive weight, and that is never any help for any country.” (Post Mortem, 17 November 1971). Those words are still true today.

The Israeli farce around Grass reached its climax when Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is saturated with blatant racism, announced that he was denying Günter Grass the right to visit Israel. That is a badge of honour for Grass. Suddenly many Israelis have become sensitive to Grass’ “Nazi past”. Why do I put it between quotation-marks? Because Grass’ Nazi past is summed up in his enlistment in a Waffen-SS unit of the German army as a 17-year-old, when Germany was collapsing, and by his account he never fired a single shot.

On the other hand, when it came to Germans with Nazi pasts who held high office and occupied key positions in West Germany, not only did various Israeli governments not get excited about it, but they saw it as a kind of advantage, because more and more benefits could be extorted from them. That is how it was with Hans Globke, the personal assistant of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who took part in the drafting of the Nuremberg Laws, and that is how it was with Chancellor Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who was a member of the Nazi Party (he even joined in 1933), that is how it was with the cooperation between the IDF and the German army when it was still commanded by officers who had held high ranks in Hitler’s army, and that is how it was as well with Gerhard Schröder (not the Chancellor of 1998-2005 who has the same name), when, as Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Bundestag, he visited Israel in 1971 as the guest of Foreign Minister Abba Eban.

Schröder was a member of the Nazi Party and acted as legal advisor to Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s Minister of Economics. According to a report in the newspaper New Chronicle, Schröder also joined the SA. I asked the then-Attorney General of Israel, Meir Shamgar, to arrest Schröder and put him on trial under the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law. Shamgar replied to me that “There are no grounds for the taking of action on my part, as requested by you.” In my distress, along with a great deal of naivety, I asked the High Court of Justice to issue a warrant for the arrest of Schröder, but the judges rejected the request (High Court of Justice 359/71, 12 September 1971 – Judges Sussman, Mani and Kister).

It is clear from all this that what bothers Israelis is not Grass’ brief service in the German army, but his critical stance toward Israel’s policy. So they cynically seize upon his military service and brandish it with foaming lips, while racists of the extremist Right, the neo-Nazis produced by colonial Israel, sit in the front row.

Does this mean that no disagreement with Grass should be expressed? Absolutely not, and I too have some such observations; but not here, so as not to join in the hysterical chorus. On another occasion, when tempers have calmed.

Freedom that has become slavery

I did not celebrate the Seder night this year. My partner and I stayed at home. We spared ourselves the reading of the Haggadah, which to me is an unimpressive document infused with more than a little violence. The god of the Haggadah appears as a cruel one: “I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt, from man to beast, and I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt”, and after that the plagues of Egypt, blood, lice, pestilence, death of the first-born, and after that “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not acknowledge You … Pour out Your indignation upon them, and let the wrath of Your anger overtake them. Pursue them with anger, and destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord” and it concludes with Chad Gadya, in which the Holy One, Blessed be He, kills the Angel of Death, who had slaughtered the butcher, who had slaughtered the ox, and then the stick is burnt that had beaten the dog that had bitten the cat that had eaten the little goat. Violence exults.

“Destroy them from beneath the heavens of the Lord” – for that we need nuclear bombs, and that imperative frightens not just Günter Grass, but I too fear that some rabbi who sees himself as an emissary of the Almighty will hand down a halachic ruling that Iran or Egypt must be destroyed. To proceed with this horrific scenario: some commander in a nuclear submarine or politician on land with his hand beside the red button, religious people who are disciples of the rabbi and know the activation-code, might consider the rabbi’s ruling to be binding on them, and we’ll all be vapourized in a radioactive mushroom.

It does not have to be a rabbi or religious person who brings the end of days upon us. Some secular politician infused with nationalism and racism and drunk with the cult of force could also bring about the Armageddon.

As you can see, the holiday of Passover too leads me to the idea of a Middle East free of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Passover is also called the Feast of Freedom. The People of Israel went out of slavery into freedom. For 45 years now Israel has been negating the freedom of the Palestinian people. The State of Israel has become enslaved to the Occupation. The mere thought that the Jews of apartheid in Hebron are sitting and reading the Haggadah on the Seder night is a good enough reason to separate oneself from that evil community. Instead of reading the Haggadah, it is better to read The Tin Drum by Günter Grass.

Translator’s notes



Translated from Hebrew for Occupation Magazine by George Malent

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