Gunter Grass Poeticizes Iranian Nuclear Threat and Demonizes Israel's Defensive Steps
by NORMAN SIMMS
April 11, 2012
There are too many people who, expressing great but not always sincere, sympathy for the Jews murdered in the Holocaust, have no time for living Jews daring to defend themselves, as Israelis do when after so many years of listening to Iran's rants about the need to wipe the Zionist entity off the face of the map and disingenuously claiming they wish nuclear power only for peaceful purposes, refuse to take a pre-emptive strike off the table. Binyamin Netanyahu's cautious warning to Ahmadinejad and his cohorts, however, is interpreted as aggressive behaviour, and a greater danger to the world than a nuclear armed Iran, let alone than a murderous Syrian regime bolstered by Teheran, not to mention smaller proxy gangs such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Now out of his undeserved dotage, former Waffen SS member Günter Grass, who hid this minor fault in his youthful character for as long as he could, emerges to produce a poem-Was gesagt werden muss-that takes moral equivalence to extravagant lengths. When he argues that the State of Israel, in its restrained and targeted responses to vicious terrorist attacks and scatter-sent rock attacks on its towns and cities, is somehow equal in evil to those very attacks Israelis suffer at the hands of the terrorists, Grass twists himself into an illogical knot.
For Grass, whatever the Iranians say is merely bad-mouthing, what the Israelis say is a universal threat to peace; yet this preposterous balance of responsibilities, in Grass's poeticized mind, Iranian threats become mere bad-mouthing as opposed to Jerusalem's world-endangering defensive statements. It is as if, he implies, Jews inside and outside of Israel have no right to put aside the rhetorical trick of interpreting all anti-Semitic libels and anti-Zionist rage as mere hyperbole, exaggeration, and posturing. With this preposterous claim, Grass has stepped from one side of the looking-glass into the other, and he wants us to go along with him.
This is said with a straight face, a bland look, and a fatuous disregard for reality: Jews, after all their history, particularly the waves of pogroms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and the unspeakable enormities of the Shoah, are supposed to avoid taking precautions. Why do our leftwing colleagues, "the thinking intellectuals," as they call themselves, find it so hard to understand Jewish logic and oratory, but have no trouble receiving all fanatical shrieks from the Islamicist world as a justifiable cri du cœur?
The pathetic whining of the 84-year-old German novelist is one thing, the newspapers who have printed and reproduced his polemical verses another. And the defenders of Grass's right to free speech yet something else. Those who not only argue for the right to say anything, no matter how hateful or stupid, often taken to the next level of inanity that the "right" to free speech includes the duty of the press and other media to provide a forum for such spite and venom, still more.
Another falsely claimed right is the obligation of readers to accept whatever is said by a celebrity without question or comment. Need we point out that free speech is not an absolute but something dependent upon circumstances, contexts and conditions? This has to be seen as more than the old chestnut about shouting Fire! in a crowded movie theatre. The liberty to express one's ideas, emotions and prejudices is limited by the authority of the speaker (such as a lecturer who teaches lessons contrary to all received scholarly protocols), the maturity and mental health of the audience (such as a mob already excited by fears and dangers), the nature of the rhetoric (such as an orator playing on the inherent ambiguities of language and the historical echoes of homiletic, liturgical or ritual discourses).
And another point: those who go beyond defense of Herr Grass to agree with him, thank him for finally speaking the truth about Israel-as though, alas, virtually every columnist, commentator and blogger were not forever denouncing Israel, Israelis and the so-called Israeli-Jewish Lobby in America. This is another part of the anti-Semitic myth, that the press is controlled by the Jews and so those who oppose Israel never get a chance to speak out freely about its crimes against humanity. They use the media to manipulate public opinion, that the Holocaust was so unique and terrible that it makes all Jews and all of Israel immune from moral criticism and the obligations of international law. Somehow this is asserted despite the fact that almost every UN comment on the Middle East is a slur against the Jewish state, or that the Human Rights Committee, stacked with votes from Syria, North Korea, Libya and so forth, spends at least 99.9% of its time castigating Zionism.
Grass, author of The Tin Drum, we must remember, is a Nobel Prize winner (1999), and that must excuse everything, so it is assumed. Even, as the Israeli embassy pointed out in Berlin, when the issuing of this poetic diatribe by a supposed German intellectual occurs on the eve of Passover, just before Christian Easter, the traditional season of Jew-baiting pogroms in Europe. The failure to realize this fact demonstrates a lack of sensitivity, as well as an ignorance of history, if it does not reveal a grotesque and puerile game of name-calling.
There seems to be, then, a major disconnection between the novelist and the political activist. The gap or incoherence forces several questions into the open. Is there a connection between artistic talent and political acumen? Does the personal morality of the man or woman disqualify the aesthetic value of the work produced? Or to raise another similar question in regard to a public figure and a private opinion: does the celebrated author who accumulated power and influence in the course of his or her career continue to enjoy that respect in the final period of his life no matter what he subsequently does or says-or reveals about himself in his youth?
In my view, the answer to each of these problematic questions is a resounding no. To answer yes would be to buy into a now discredited Romantic myth of genius and to see the creative figure as beyond good and evil, more than able-actually defined by-the breaking of social conventions and moral principles. These Nietzschian Űbermenschen were rightly dismissed by Max Nordau, one of the founders of Zionism in the 1890s, as morbid egotists and mentally incompetent. Those who now praise Grass for his stand against Israel grant to him an authority he does not deserve, and hence bang out their own prejudices on an old man's tin drum, are unaware of how hollow it all sounds. They also confuse art and life, bland and plodding lines of verse for real poetry, and prejudice for profundity.
"What Must Be Said?" is the title of Grass's poem first published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and now in many other newspapers. The implication has been expressed by his supporters and apologists: Up to now, they claim, Germans have not been able to speak the truth about that pesky little country of Israel, that one tiny Jewish state in the midst of all those Islamic republics, undemocratic principalities, oil-rich sheikdoms and one-party Baath Party thuggeries, because they have felt guilty for the Holocaust for long enough and because they are afraid of what the Jews in America will do.
The real nuclear threat of Israel, according to this Dichtung, trumps the raucous words of the Iranian rulers who are anyway, mired in their internal squabbles. It is time, says our hero, to step out of the shadows and say what must be said: Germany must take on the moral responsibility of its past and protect the world from the Jewish State, not let its weapons-submarines capable of launching doomsday missiles-be sold and used by a people who have never learned their lesson from history. "The nuclear power Israel is endangering a world peace that is already fragile," so sings the aged poet, but which world is at peace and who really makes it fragile?
The plodding lines of the poem run on and on, without grace or subtlety, a sad little rant against a nation that takes up barely 2% of Arab lands in the Middle East, most of it desert, founded by the men and women who survived the Nazi genocide and the wave after wave of Islamic expulsions. Since the impossible has happened too often, it would be unwise and fool-hardy to think it won't happen again, and Grass is afraid that this time the Jews have the power to prevent it from happening.
What's the big deal? Sebastian Hammelehle in Der Spiegel points out the flippancy in Grass's poem, the flippancy of matters that you know you shouldn't say but say anyway because there's no law against it, like how foreigners are filling up Germany or Israel spoiling everything for everybody else by antagonizing the Arabs, so typical of Jews anyway. Like other German intellectuals, smug in their self-righteousness, Grass is "weary of hypocrisy"... and of pretending they are guilty for the Holocaust or that they admire Israel's proud independence.
Of course, these worthy Germans are also sick of the Iranians and the rest of those Untermenschen, only, those Semites are all bluster and probably crazy, so they can be pampered and flattered since one needs their oil; but the Jews, ach! too bad we didn't get rid of them once and for all. Now they have the nuclear bomb, these Yids; they can't be trusted, and now it's time to bring it all out into the open, finally have an honest debate-and say what must be said.
If we could let Günter Grass's words go and not respond, would his pernicious message disappear into the ambient atmosphere? If only. But the controversy has been sparked, the letters-to-the-editor and the blogsters have taken their cue from the master and exposed their own pent-up frustrations with calls for action against Israel, and Israelis, Zionists and Jews have all been conflated into the same unwanted entity.
While the world waits with bated breath for an official translation of Was gesagt werden muss, Jeffrey Herf gives a free rendering in The New Republic for 5 April in a report called "The Odious Musings of Gunter Grass." Background on the real historical state of war between Iran and Israel going back to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 may be found in an op-ed piece by Emanuele Ottolengi entitled "Iran Regime Change Only Hope" in The New Zealand Herald (2 April 2012).
Norman Simms is the author of Alfred Dreyfus: Man, Milieu, Mentality and Midrash (Academic Studies Press, 2011). The second volume in the series, Alfred Dreyfus: In the Context of His Times: Alfred Dreyfus as Lover, Intellectual, Poet and Jew (also by Academic Studies Press) was published in July 2013; and the third Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus in the Phantasmagoria (Cambridge Scholars Publisher, UK) in September 2013.