Gunter Grass died today in Germany. One of the heroes of my childhood, he could roll cigarettes with one hand, as he demonstrated when he filled the largest hall at my college in the 70s.
Grass was the “conscience of a generation,” BBC said today, but he became “virtually a persona non grata” after the publication of a poem in 2012– which we publish below — criticizing Israel, Thomas Kielinger of Die Welt told the broadcast. He added that Grass went somewhat “off his rocker” politically.
It was Grass’s 2006 revelation that he had been a member of the Nazi Waffen SS as a youth that sent shockwaves; but it was the poem, “What Must Be Said,” addressing Israel’s nuclear capability that marginalized him.
His political views continued to divide opinion, and he last made headlines in 2012 with a poem that warned that Israel could launch a nuclear attack on Iran and threaten world peace.
Critics accused him of anti-Semitism. The author himself said he had often supported Israel and had intended to attack the policies of its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The controversy beats out the 1959 international bestseller and literary triumph, The Tin Drum, making paragraph 4 of the NY Times obituary. That’s nuts.
In 2012, Mr. Grass found himself the subject of further scrutiny after publishing a poem criticizing Israel for its hostile language toward Iran over its nuclear program. He expressed revulsion at the idea that Israel might be justified in attacking Iran over a perceived nuclear threat and said that it “endangers the already fragile world peace.”
The poem prompted an international controversy and a personal attack from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Grass later said that he had meant to attack Israel’s government rather than the country as a whole.
It would appear that the biggest critic of the poem was Benjamin Netanyahu:
“Günter Grass’s shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran, a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel, says little about Israel and much about Mr. Grass,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “For six decades, Mr. Grass hid the fact that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS. So for him to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself is perhaps not surprising,” the prime minister added….
The poem was immediately criticized by senior German politicians, the head of the Council of Jews in Germany and numerous cultural commentators in Germany and Israel, some of whom accused Grass of anti-Semitism. Emmanuel Nahshon, an Israeli envoy to Berlin, felt reminded of “blood libels,” which historically took place before Passover
So the rightwing Netanyahu then had the power to cast out a western cultural figure. A similar process underwent Jimmy Carter when he dared to suggest in 2006 that Israel practiced apartheid.
Here’s the poem:
What Must Be Said
Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long
What clearly is and has been
Practiced in war games, at the end of which we as survivors
Are at best footnotes.
It is the alleged right to first strike
That could annihilate the Iranian people–
Enslaved by a loud-mouth
And guided to organized jubilation–
Because in their territory,
It is suspected, a bomb is being built.
Yet why do I forbid myself
To name that other country
In which, for years, even if secretly,
There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand
But beyond control, because no inspection is available?
The universal concealment of these facts,
To which my silence subordinated itself,
I sense as incriminating lies
And force–the punishment is promised
As soon as it is ignored;
The verdict of “anti-Semitism” is familiar.
Now, though, because in my country
Which from time to time has sought and confronted
Its very own crime
That is without compare
In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also
With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares
A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,
Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence
Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
But as a fear wishes to be conclusive,
I say what must be said.
Why though have I stayed silent until now?
Because I thought my origin,
Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged
Kept the state of Israel, to which I am bound
And wish to stay bound,
From accepting this fact as pronounced truth.Why do I say only now,
Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said
What even tomorrow may be too late to say;
Also because we–as Germans burdened enough–
Could be the suppliers to a crime
That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity
Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.And granted: I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped
That this will free many from silence,
That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger
To renounce violence and
That an unhindered and permanent control
Of the Israeli nuclear potential
And the Iranian nuclear sites
Be authorized through an international agency
By the governments of both countries.
Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,
Even more, all people, that in this
Region occupied by mania
Live cheek by jowl among enemies,
And also us, to be helped.
By the way, Israel’s nuclear arsenal is spoken of more openly today than it was even in 2012, because the hypocrisy has become so patent. Hillary Mann Leverett said last week in Washington:
Any new overt use of U.S. force to disarm yet another Middle Eastern state of weapons of mass destruction that it does not have while staying quiet about Israel’s 200-plus nuclear weapons arsenal, would elevate already high levels of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, threaten our remaining allies there, and render their cooperation with the United States practically impossible.