Gunter Grass.
Gunter Grass. Photo by AP
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Author Gunter Grass sees the State of Israel as a threat to world peace. He believes Israel is armed with nuclear weapons, and is threatening Iran as the Islamic Republic looks to obtain a nuclear arsenal.

After the poem he published to this effect in the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung last week drew extensive criticism, he asked to distinguish between the state and its government. It's not Israel that worries him, he said, but the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The reactions to Grass' claims focused on the man, not on his positions. Naysayers recalled his past as a soldier for the Third Reich - a past he concealed until late in life. Interior Minister Eli Yishai hurried to declare Grass persona non grata. Should he land at Ben-Gurion International Airport and hand his passport to the immigration control officers, he will be hurriedly escorted by burly policemen to the first Lufthansa flight back to Frankfurt - or, even better, to Munich, as befits someone who once followed der Fuhrer's orders.

The emotions can be understood, but it's hard to accept the overreaction. When the interior minister says, "If Gunter Grass wants to continue to distribute his false and distorted works, I suggest he do so from Iran, where he'll find an appreciative audience," he doesn't even detect the irony in his words. Because it's precisely his decision not to let Grass enter Israel because of a poem he wrote that is characteristic of dark regimes like those in Iran or North Korea.

The combination of declarations against Israel and a past as a Nazi soldier is an explosive combination that invites sharp reactions. But while Benjamin Netanyahu's remark describing Grass' work as "ignorant and shameful declarations that any fair person in the world must condemn" can be accepted as part of the public debate, Yishai's use of his governmental authority is not legitimate. Any protest should be expressed within the democratic-liberal framework, which allows every person to express his views - provocative though they may be.

Grass, a Nobel laureate for literature, did no more than write a poem. The State of Israel, through its interior minister, reacted with hysteria. It seems that at issue is less an undesirable person than an undesirable policy.