In his Israel poem, Gunter Grass chose the wrong side – again
More sobering than the words of Gunter Grass' controversial poem is the global climate in which it was published.
Gunter Grass, the Nobel-prize winning author who recently published a "poem" warning against Israel's alleged nuclear capability, seems to have expected the ensuing criticism. In its lines he even anticipated the calls of "anti-Semitism" that would be his "punishment."
The Israel of his verses is threatening to "annihilate the Iranian people" - an inaccurate accusation, since the threat of attack is and has been solely directed at Iran's nuclear facilities, and since actually it is the Iranian "loud-mouth," as Grass calls him, who has threatened to annihilate the Jewish state. But Grass doesn't stop there: He goes so far as to condemn Israel as the "perpetrator."
More sobering than the words themselves is the global climate in which Grass has published "What Must Be Said." Western allies are doing everything in their power to give the Iranian regime a chance to back down from what the IAEA has reported is a nuclear program that includes weapons components. The North Korean regime is test-launching one of its most dangerous rockets to date. And the Syrian regime is playing an almost absurd game of denial as it continues a year-long siege against its own citizens. And who does Grass identify as the "recognized danger"? Israel.
Grass is a German writer. He is also a citizen of the European Union, the collective of nations claimed to be the best geopolitical solution that part of the world has found to century after century of war. As a European, Grass is a compatriot of Mohammed Merah: the 23-year-old French citizen who last month killed three French-Muslim servicemen and four French Jewish civilians - an adult and three children. Grass' poem was published in a Europe still reeling from Merah's murders and yet he apparently fails to see how it may stoke the very same hatred that led to such a crime.
The shocking fact is that Grass' words serve so conveniently as reasoning for precisely the kind of crime that Merah has committed. As the cause of his speaking out, Grass singles out Germany's upcoming sale to Israel of an advanced submarine with what he calls "all-destroying warheads," which he claims is taking place on a "purely commercial basis" and with "nimble lips" to boot. Yet he seems oblivious to toeing a rhetorical line that aligns itself with Merah's execution of French-Muslim paratroopers for their involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
It is not surprising, then, that the environment in which a German author who grew up under Hitler feels he can self-righteously publish a poem slandering Israel, is the same environment in which a young man can decide that Jews - adults and children both - deserve to be slaughtered for what he calls the deaths of Palestinian children killed by Israelis. For in the last analysis, when he killed both Jews and Muslims, what did Merah consider himself fighting against? The same "hypocrisy / Of the West" of which Grass is apparently so "tired."
As for Germans? They are "burdened enough," says Grass. Because the last thing for which he apparently has strength is yet another historic conflict - especially one that is shaping up to be the most serious and dangerous international conflagration since the Cold War, which it seems to already resemble in the sense of sabotage and car bombs in Iran, Thailand, and Georgia. Grass' solution? Giving over "unhindered and permanent control / Of the Israeli nuclear potential / And the Iranian nuclear sites."
Israel has never so much as acknowledged, let alone threatened to use, its alleged nuclear "potential," yet Grass's proposal is slightly akin to asking postwar United States to give up control of its nuclear arsenal so that the "loud-mouth" Stalin would give up the Soviet Union's pursuit of the A-bomb.
But one can understand why Grass sees Israel as a threat: It endangers the peace of mind he only attained in recent years - having finally confessed, fairly late in life, to having been in the Waffen SS as a teenager. And while Grass has made public peace with his personal past, Israel - the country to which he claims to be "bound / And wish[es] to stay bound" - keeps disrupting this apparent serenity by insisting to its allies and to its enemies that it will not stand by quietly against a looming existential threat. This not only disturbs Grass' peace of mind, but also challenges him to face a new historical contingency in which he has to choose sides - something of which he is clearly weary. And perhaps for good reason, since we know from his Nazi-era admission that he has a tendency to pick the wrong side. That time he had the excuse of being young. Now he can perhaps blame it on being old.
Grass has published his poem apparently without considering the responsibility with which his highfalutin words may yet haunt his conscience. As a result his peace of mind may remain intact - though one gets the feeling that it is worth more to him than the welfare of the Jewish nation. But then, all things considered, this too is unsurprising.
David Stromberg is a writer, journalist and translator currently pursuing a doctorate in literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.