Defending Gunter Grass

Gunter Grass is right and, of course, he is not an anti-Semite. If he is, it is certainly not his most recent literary endeavour (here you can find the atrocious translation of his poem ‘What must be said’) that makes such a fact explicit. Rather, the bizarre paroxysm of the German press, political cadres and public figures shows how frighteningly effective has been the Israeli machine in forcing just about everybody to buy the politically perverse conflation of judaism and zionism.

But, not everyone who dislikes something Jewish despises all things Jewish and—normally needless to say, though not at this hour—not every dislike of one or other thing Jewish is irrational, murderous, unjustifiable or evil. I want to believe that hating my grandmother’s Borscht was not a way to pave the road to the camps.

To declare, with happy indignation, Grass’ poem an expression of anti-Semitism, is to banalize antisemitism. And while these things are to be expected from the Israeli machine that has spent 60 years attempting to convince the world that any criticism of the policies of the–self-declared–Jewish State instantaneously converts you into a nazi, it is unforgivable from the German press which should know better. Hysterical philosemitism is just as dangerous as hysterical anti-Semitism and both are misdirected.

One can expect Netanyahu to gorge on anti-Semitism. As other professional victims of ancestral injustice, irrational and murderous hatred is one off his only raisons d’etre. Without the permanent shadow of a genocidal threat he would be collecting unemployment benefits in the City Hall of Hebron. It is not surprising at all that he insists in declaring everything–including many jews who dislike his politics and his friends–j a good excuse for his own political existence. So when he says that Grass is attempting to deny the ‘one and only Jewish state’ the tools to defend itself form impending extermination (unsurprisingly coming from a Nazi, he seems to claim) Netanyahu is simply working on his habitual line of political chicanery which is essentially the demand of silence that Grass is precisely resisting. The desire to see Netanyahu and his tribe of brutes follow Sharon into a deep and irreversible coma does not amount to the desire to negate the existence or express the hope for the destruction of the state of Israel.  So to let these groups bully everyone into silence is precisely what Grass’ poem may have adressed from the capital of Europe and this was long overdue.

So let me make the point very clear. Judaism is not reducible to Zionism and Jews like myself standing deep in the tradition of enlightned progressivism that first took hold in this very country–Germany–recognize a duty and commitment to ideas of justice, fairness and equality which are at times antithetical to the type of loyalty demanded by a nation state. In the case of Israel, they often stand in direct opposition. No Jew who is aware of the social and cultural inheritance of Judaism’s long dance in and out of chains, no jew who sits tonight for passover and demands that ‘every man in each generation should see himself’ as if he had suffered and been himself liberated from Egypt, can sit silently and comfortably in light of Deir Yassin, Sabra and Shatila, Cast Lead or Netanyahu’s impending adventure in Iran. The death of children, the destruction of property, the development of an apartheid state are inexcusable and staying silent in the face of such injustice is not merely a troubling lie–as Grass claims–but an act of complicity with oppression and injustice.

Making claims like this one has brought a curious charge against me. Zionists like to call me—lo and behold—an anti-Semite or a self-hating Jew. It’s important to point out that whenever I have hated a Jew has invariably been someone else and never myself, and not once—at least that I can remember—for being a Jew. In this brave new world, the only people against whom I ever had to give political justifications and excuses for my judaism are zionists.  In fact, I have come to understand, that the type of silence that is now being demanded form Grass by people like Michael Friedmann and that repeatedly was asked of other Jews like myself is essentially a call to abandon my Judaism for the sake of tribal loyalties and this, I will not do nor should anyone with a political conscience and a modicum of common decency.

So simply put, Grass is right. He is right about many things but most of all about the fact that our voices should find each other’s so as to be willing to say what everybody already knows but has been cowered from saying by rumors and allegations of anti-Semitism. Not in the guise of novelty or sudden political illumination–as Tom Segev stupidly seems to believe–but rather to give each other courage to speak when the Israeli machine is determined to dismiss us as criminals and monsters, all of us inheritors of Auschwitz. In calling for Israel to be accountable and demanding justice, Grass speaks with my voice, the voice of a Jew and, indeed, if the words of Grass manage to do anything to stop the Likud’s march to war in Iran, then he will have saved more than a life, which according to the Jewish tradition, is to save the entire world.



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4 comments to “Defending Gunter Grass”

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  1. Günter Grass is, of course, wrong. I don’t want – and I cannot in full – judge on his antijudaism or antisemitism or antiisrealism. It’s all been said, and It’s all been said in more than sufficient length.

    Günter Grass is old, and maybe we should let him say what he thinks he has to say and simply overhear the embarrassing moralizing of someone who, too late, published his SS membership as a 17 years old, but who forced someone else’s membership in the NSDAP into public?

    He applies double standards, and I doubt that it’s his age that serves as an excuse for doing so. – It’s not Israel who threatens to annihilate Iran. It is Ahmadinejad who gainsays the holocaust. Grass knows that Israel is not the “Versursacher der ekennbaren Gefahr”, but says so, anyway.

    His “poem” – I am still searching for some lyric in it – is superfluous, stupid,wrong, but maybe well placed in terms of timing. He received all the attention he could hope for, which is by far more than such a piece of work deserves.

    It doesn’t need cojones to say what Grass says, at least not in the Western world. And, of course, he very well knew what the reaction would look like. I hope that he is very much upset about his unintended campaigning for Eli Yishai who immediately took the chance for striking back (no pun intended).

    The reactions to “Was gesagt werden muss”, overall, came soon, too soon, and not many of them were well thought-trough.

    But they all have been calculated by Grass, let’s not forget. And he may think he is a leading intellectual, he might have expected that this would open a discussion about German exports of weapons, or even about Israel’s political situation. But, alas, his “poem” is simply not good enough for that.

    Others’ reactions are more easy-going (where’s the Israeli machine you detect?) And maybe that’s the right way to handle this publication. Maybe it was written, indeed, with Grass’ “letzer Tinte”. Let’s hope for the best.

  2. Dear Katharina,
    To suggest the point he is making is superfluous–as Tom Segev has suggested–is, in my mind, to miss the point. Grass does not say that Israel intends to annihilate Iran but that it can. In fact, a country which holds nuclear weapons–Israel is the only one in the middle east–is the one country that is capable of annihilation. As of right now, no other country has the capacity to do such thing in the region. In addition, Israel has been consistently unaccountable for what in several cases were very likely war crimes–in Cast Lead with high caliber weapons upon a civilian population, white phosphorous, etc–and it is a very good question if Germany and the people of Europe should remain silent.
    As a matter of fact, I think it takes a tremendous amount of courage to call for an end to silence in the face of the predictable onslaught. I have been called an antisemite, Chomsky has been called an antisemite, Finkelstein has been called an antisemite, of course its much easier to deploy this kind of attacks on a German citizen. That is not simply a cheap shot but it is the true shame. SO, is the point that Grass said something new? No, the point is that Israel is marching to war more or less unimpeded and Grass said something at all and this is a very good thing.

  3. Martin,

    No, it doesn’t take any courage to say anything in Germany.
    I don’t know where you get the impression of silence from. There is no silence, there there hasn’t been silence for quite a while.
    German Media are full of criticism of Netanjahu’s statements.
    The “European Jews for a Just Peace” said so, and still do (and congratulate Grass on his poem, ha), and so do numerous persons, institutions, organizations. I wonder if anyone counted the websites that steadily phrase what Grass re-phrases.
    Israel may be able to annihilate Iran – but never threatened to do so. Iran, however, does threaten to annihilate Israel.
    There would be, again and again, a lot to say about war and peace in the middle East, but better, truer things have been said and need to be said that what Grass’ states.

  4. Katharina,
    I think it should suffice to take a general look at the main news outlets and editorials to see that as a matter of fact, there is a neurotic reaction in the mainstream. As Gideon Levy pointed out this last week in his Haaretz column, it was enough for him to write an article critical of Israel a few years ago in DieWelt never to be invited to write for them again. Springer made employees write agreements in which they foreclosed the possibility of making critical remarks about Israel. In addition, I have seen repeatedly and systematically tremendous hesitation by the German public–save some–to criticize anything Jewish. I am rather surprised that this is not something very visible to you. I would be happy to provide further sources. In the Israeli approach to Judaism–claiming it their property–they have managed to mute voices of criticism for a long time. You can look at the response to Finkelstein, Ilan Pappe, early Benny Morris, Noam Chomsky but also Goldstone, members of the Obama Administration who try to put pressure on Israel as HIllary or Biden. So these people are traditional friends of the state and many of them Jewish. It is entirely unsurprising that Grass is being treated the way he is.

    So I will repeat. Truth is, Israel has nuclear weapons and has used massive violence against civilians. Iran has not used military power against Israeli civilians despite the admittedly nasty rhetoric by the men in charge. Israel has used military grade instruments at some point or another against each of its neighbors. All that Grass says is that Israel can: “iranische Volk auslöschen könnte, weil in dessen Machtbereich der Bau einer Atombombe vermutet wird.” And this is simply true, even if inconvenient.

    So the question may not be better or truer. The question may be, what is that we cease to be afraid to said. If a jew has to defend himself from the charge of Antisemitism one can only wonder what kind of political effect that can have on a German. I have come to accept that I will be called an anti-Semite for criticizing Israel. Would you be willing to accept the same consequences?

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