In Germany, intellectuals lead the discussion surrounding Gunter Grass' controversial poem about the dangers of an Israeli strike against Iran, but in Israel it's the politicians who are having a field day. On Sunday, Interior Minister Eli Yishai declared that Grass would not be permitted to enter Israel. It's a safe bet that most of our politicians never heard of the 84-year-old Nobel laureate until last week, let alone read one of his many books that have been translated into Hebrew.
But, hey, why should that matter? If he's a former Nazi who is bold enough to criticize Israel today - especially on the Iranian issue - there's no reason why he should be allowed to visit this country, they explained.
Yishai had fierce competition from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman over who would be the chief Grass-basher during Passover. Yishai fired the opening shot by saying that "Grass' poems are an effort to raise the flames of hatred against Israel and the Jewish people, thus promoting the idea he espoused in the past when he wore the SS uniform. If he wishes to continue disseminating his false and contorted works, I suggest he do so from Iran, where he can find a supportive audience."
Lieberman took a different, more elegant and historical tone, reminding whoever forgot that relations between the Persians and Zionists were once harmonious, and that Grass couldn't come between them. Lieberman wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday: "Israel has no problem with the Iranian people. On the contrary. For many years, until the Khomeini revolution [in 1979], relations between the two peoples were excellent. I believe that today, too, most of the Iranian people supports friendship with Israel."
For a moment it seemed that Lieberman had joined the "Israel loves Iran" campaign that sprang up on Facebook last month, but an addendum later in the day calmed these fears: "Our problem isn't with the Iranian people but with their leaders, the extreme ayatollahs and some cynics in the West. The German author's words express the cynicism of some 'intellectuals' in the West who, for publicity and with the hope of selling a few more books, would wish to sacrifice the Jews, for the second time, on the altar of anti-Semitic lunatics. We've seen before how tiny seeds of anti-Semitic hatred are transformed into a huge fire, harming all of humanity."
By the evening Lieberman boasted some 140 "Likes" by people approving of his Facebook comments, but not all his readers were appreciative. Under comments such as "The next prime minister," and "Every word is true," someone wrote: "Leave the Persians alone. What about the Hebron house? Why did you allow it to be evacuated? Have you become a soft leftist? I voted for you. Who can I vote for now?"
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry explained on Sunday that the decision to declare Grass persona non grata was made according to the "law concerning entrance to Israel." The reason: "Grass had once worn an SS uniform."
That's all very nice, but one must wonder why Israel waited until now before blacklisting him. Grass confessed his Nazi past six years ago. Did the interior minister miss the 2006 interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung? Assuming reading German was the problem, did he fail to read the interview with Tom Segev in Haaretz last year? In 2006 Grass revealed that, at the age of 17, at the beginning of 1945, he served with the Waffen SS in the dying months of World War II. He claimed not to have fired a single shot during his service. He was wounded at the end of April 1945.
Grass' confession angered people not only because of his image as a humanist and an antiwar activist, but mainly because he hid his past for so long, while spewing anti-Nazi rhetoric. "This confession comes too late," said historian Joachim Fest. "I can't understand how someone who for decades set himself up as a moral authority, a rather smug one, could pull this off."
The interview with Segev in Haaretz added insult to injury. Grass talked about the suffering of the Germans in the same breath as the Holocaust. "The Holocaust was not the only crime," he said. "We bear responsibility for the Nazis' crimes. But the crimes inflicted serious disasters on the Germans and thus they became victims."
Grass' worst mistake was when he tried to put it all in numbers. "Of eight million German soldiers who were captured by the Russians, perhaps two million survived and all the rest were liquidated," he said in the Segev interview. In other words, not only six million Jews were wiped out in the Holocaust, the Germans have their own six million as well.
"A veritable parallel holocaust," wrote blogger and researcher Anat Peri, while German historian Peter Jahn argued that Grass invented the number. The true number, said Jahn, is three million prisoners of war, out of which a million didn't survive captivity and died of hunger, not in gas chambers. Jahn added that Grass conveniently forgot the three million Russian prisoners who were murdered in captivity, and the massacre of millions of Russian citizens by the Nazis.
To sum it up, if Israel wanted too, it could have forbidden Grass from entering the country years ago. Yishai's declaration simply smacks of populism.
Meanwhile, in Germany, Israel has enjoyed a consensus of support. Yesterday it was German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who wrote in the popular Bild am Sonntag newspaper that "putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level is not ingenious but absurd."
Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany's most important literature critic, labeled the poem "disgusting."
It seems that, at this point in time, there's no danger that the German nuclear submarine Israel has purchased will be forced to make a U-turn.