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Günter Grass and criticism of Israel
Hasan Abu Nimah
Al Arabiya News
11 April 2012

If you dare criticize Israel’s policies, you should expect to be labeled an “anti-Semite”. And the more criminal, brutal or violent the Israeli actions you criticize, the more “anti-Semitic” you are. This, sadly, is a constant refrain from Israeli officials and propagandists.

Take the reaction to the poem published last week by German Nobel laureate Günter Grass, warning that Israel is a threat to world peace because of its constant obsession with attacking Iran. Grass also warned against a German role in aiding and abetting such a calamitous aggression (Germany supplies Israel with submarines that could be used to launch a nuclear attack), and wondered why Israel’s nuclear weapons are not
subject to inspection.

Grass was severely criticized at home, and Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai banned him from visiting Israel, claiming that his words “fan the flames of hatred against Israel and the Israeli people, thus promoting the idea he was part of when he donned an SS uniform”.

A few years ago, Grass admitted that when he was a teenager, he was briefly a member of one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious militias.
“His distorted poems are not welcome in Israel,” Yishai continued.
“I suggest he try them in Iran where he will find a sympathetic audience.”

Other Israeli reactions likened the poem to a “blood libel” against Jews, timed to coincide with Passover. This hysterical reaction from Israel fits into a well-worn pattern. Israel defines itself as the “Jewish state” and uses the history of persecution of Jews in Europe as a way to grant itself license to do as it pleases.

There is no question that the tragedy of genocide and persecution that befell the Jews in Europe in the last century should never happen again; not to the Jews, not to any other people, anywhere any time. But Israel insists on maintaining the uniqueness of the holocaust, in the sense that nothing similar had ever happened before and no other tragedy that occurred after should be compared, because if that is the case, that historic calamity will count as one of many and that is absolutely not acceptable as it may compromise the exceptionalism which is used to grant Israel its special status and license.

Over the years, this line of argument has been successful in silencing much worldwide criticism of unceasing Israeli atrocities, occupation and aggression, no more so than in Germany which remains burdened by its past. German leaders have sadly drawn the wrong conclusions from history: aiding and abetting Israel, even when it does wrong, is not a valid atonement for Germany’s historic crimes.

If Israel and its supporters worldwide continue to consider criticism of Israel’s policy as an anti-Semitic act that means that all Jews are somehow implicated in Israel’s wrongs, which is most definitely not the case. The consequences of such a generalization is terrible for those Jews who neither accept nor want to be associated with Israel’s illegal practices, occupation and ongoing aggression.

But while many have been indeed silenced and intimidated, many more are unwilling to succumb to this sort of blackmail and intellectual humiliation. Responding to the storm of protest, Grass said in an interview published in Germany last Saturday that his poem was meant to target the current Israeli government, not the country as a whole.

“It’s that which I criticize, a policy that keeps building settlements despite a UN resolution,” said Grass, according to Israel’s Haaretz. (April 8)
Israeli Gideon Levy, a frequent critic of his country’s policy, wrote that Grass’ poem was “harsh, and in some parts infuriating”, and that “Grass indeed went a few steps too far (and too mendaciously) — Israel will not destroy the Iranian people”. But, he wrote: “Responses to it suffer from exaggeration.”

The poem, Levy added, “contains no blood libel. In fact, it is the branding of it as anti-Semitic that is a matter of tradition — all criticism of Israel is immediately thus labeled”.

Levy’s point is that Israel has to listen to such criticism: “It can and should be said that Israel’s policy is endangering world peace. His [Grass’] position against Israeli nuclear power is also legitimate. He can also oppose supplying submarines to Israel without his past immediately being pulled out as a counterclaim.”

In its April 9 editorial, Haaretz described Israeli reaction to Grass as “hysteria”. Yet, what this “exaggerated criticism” of Grass, as the German Health Minister Daniel Bahr described it, tells us is that Israel is not yet ready to listen to criticism from any quarter.

But Grass’ decision to break his silence signals an important change. The past can no longer be used as an effective shield to protect Israel from criticism, even in Germany, where silence about Israel’s transgressions has reigned for much too long.

Perhaps that is why the reaction in Israel was so sharp: there is a sense that the immunity Israel has enjoyed for so long is slipping away.

(The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in the Jordan Times on April 11, 2012)

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