April 10, 2012
Günter Grass banned from Israel
by Kelly Burdick
For a week now debate has raged over a poem by Günter Grass (“What Must Be Said,” first published in Süddeutsche Zeitung) that harshly criticizes Israel’s nuclear program and its aggression toward Iran. But the story has now moved beyond debate: as the Guardian reports,
On Sunday, Israel’s interior minister Eli Yishai used a law permitting a bar on entry to former Nazis to declare Grass persona non grata for his “attempt to fan the flames of hatred against the state of Israel and its people, and thus to advance the idea to which he publicly affiliated in his past donning of the SS uniform.”
Yishai’s statement added: “If Gunter wants to continue to spread his twisted and lying works, I suggest he does this from Iran, where he can find a supportive audience.”
Grass revealed in 2006 that he served as a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II, beginning at age 17.
Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman went further, saying Grass’ poem showed the “egoism of so-called western intellectuals who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the altar of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition.”
In Germany, the official reaction was also severe: according to this New York Times report, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle wrote in the newspaper Bild am Sonntag that “Putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level is not ingenious but absurd.”
Grass is not without defenders in Israel: Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy wrote that Grass and critics of Israeli policies were “not anti-Semites, they are expressing the opinions of many people… Instead of accusing them, we should consider what we did that led them to express it.” While historian Tom Segev has criticized the poem, he also said Grass should have the right to visit Israel: “It’s very unpleasant because it moves us in the direction of countries like Iran and Syria that apparently give out entry permits according to people’s political views.”
Grass himself responded to early criticism by saying he regrets not being more clear in the poem, perhaps by clarifying that he was “primarily talking about the [Netanyahu] government.”
Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.