Grass Roots on Israel

Nobel Laureate author Günter Grass has just published a short poem entitled “What Must Be Said,” in which he accuses Israel, with its undeclared stockpile of nuclear weapons and constant threat of attacking Iran, of being the real threat to peace in the Middle East.  The poem is hardly likely to enter the corpus of great literature, but in it Grass makes valid points that must in fact be made and has stirred a discussion – at least in Germany – that has been constantly avoided.

Granted, Grass has undermined his position and unnecessarily provided material for his critics by suggesting that Israel is poised to launch a nuclear strike that would destroy the Iranian people, something Tel Aviv is not likely to consider doing.  Even the ever-compliant United States would (I hope) bristle at the use of a nuclear weapon, and in any case in the highly unlikely event that Israel’s incredibly powerful conventional defenses were inadequate, the US would be obliged to step in.

Nevertheless, Grass’ basic point is certainly correct: the only Middle Eastern nation west of Pakistan possessing nuclear weapons is Israel, which has never even been asked to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, let alone accept inspection of its facilities.  This bit of grand hypocrisy is hardly surprising, given that America and to a lesser extent Europe have historically granted the Jewish state a blanket dispensation when it comes to accepted international law and behavior.

Critics are screaming at the barest suggestion that Iran may be the victim here, but this is perhaps not as outrageous as it first appears, certainly not from the Iranian point of view.  The West overthrew their democratically elected government in 1923, imposed the utterly ruthless Shah, occupied the country during World War II, created and supported a militarily powerful Israel and encouraged Saddam Hussein in his decade-long war against them.  And now, because of the interests of Israel and the Sunni oil barons, America has declared its (albeit reluctant) willingness to engage in a war of aggression because Iran might be working on nuclear weapons and might have one in a few years.  For all that Iran is controlled by a collection of ideological numbskulls there is at least an aura of victimhood, and certainly no rational person could ever consider imperial Israel a victim.

For the obvious reason of its Nazi past criticism of Israel is very infrequent in Germany.  (Because of domestic politics it is also very infrequent in America, but the utterings of a European author typically do not stir the interest of the self-absorbed American media.)  Clearly, the atrocities of the Third Reich neither justify bad behavior on the part of Israel nor require reasonable Germans to be silent, but as Grass predicts in the poem, any criticism of Israel will result immediately in the accusation of anti-Semitism, which is exactly what happened.

Criticizing Israel is of course no more anti-Semitic than criticizing Germany is anti-German, and Israeli citizens in fact do it every day (only to be branded “self-loathing”).  But so great is western guilt and Zionist influence that it is now generally accepted that gainsaying Israel is in fact anti-Semitic; the latest edition of Webster’s does offer as the second definition of “anti-Semitism” criticizing Israel.  So, one does so at one’s own risk.

Sundry Germans, particularly newspaper columnists, immediately jumped on Grass as an anti-Semite, especially the Jewish writer Henryk Broder, who described the novelist as “the prototype of the educated anti-Semite,” in part for labeling the appropriation of Palestinian land as a criminal act (which of course it is by established international law).  As can easily be imagined, the extreme right-wing government in Tel Aviv promptly branded Grass an unrepentant Nazi, and Interior Minister Eli Yeshai barred the author from ever entering Israel, a petty measure already taken against others, such as linguist Noam Chomsky and Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maquire, who dared criticize Israel.  (In 2001 there were calls, unsuccessful, to do the same to Daniel Barenboim, who had the temerity to conduct a piece by Richard Wagner; these people are off the deep end.)  To their credit even some German politicians condemned this fit of Israeli pique.

Grass has on numerous occasions demonstrated himself to be something of a jerk, but he is undeniably a world-class novelist and certainly no ignoramus.  Whether or not one agrees with his appreciation of Israel and its nuclear arsenal, he has clearly made a valid point about the danger of criticizing the Jewish state, a point most Germans apparently agree with.  And a point amply demonstrated by the reaction of Israel, which once again has chosen to erect a wall rather than confront rationally those who dare object to its actions, whether they be Palestinian farmers or German authors.

What must be said

Why have I kept silent, held back so long,

on something openly practised in

war games, at the end of which those of us

who survive will at best be footnotes?
It’s the alleged right to a first strike

that could destroy an Iranian people

subjugated by a loudmouth

and gathered in organized rallies,

because an atom bomb may be being

developed within his arc of power.

Yet why do I hesitate to name

that other land in which

for years – although kept secret –

a growing nuclear power has existed

beyond supervision or verification,

subject to no inspection of any kind?

This general silence on the facts,

before which my own silence has bowed,

seems to me a troubling, enforced lie,

leading to a likely punishment

the moment it’s broken:

the verdict “Anti-semitism” falls easily.

But now that my own country,

brought in time after time

for questioning about its own crimes,

profound and beyond compare,

has delivered yet another submarine to Israel,

(in what is purely a business transaction,

though glibly declared an act of reparation)

whose speciality consists in its ability

to direct nuclear warheads toward

an area in which not a single atom bomb

has yet been proved to exist, its feared

existence proof enough, I’ll say what must be said.

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because – burdened enough as Germans –

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

will not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.

And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger

we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.

No other course offers help

to Israelis and Palestinians alike,

to all those living side by side in enmity

in this region occupied by illusions,

and ultimately, to all of us.

Günter Grass

(Translated by Breon Mitchell)

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