Günter Grass is no stranger to controversy. An artist, sculptor and writer, he admitted in 2006 that he had once been a member of the Waffen-SS. He was 17, and thus quite likely somewhat naive, but at a time when large numbers of people had been brainwashed by a regime that knew how to use propaganda to win friends and influence people. He seems to have been trying to atone for this, founding an organisation to further the interests of the Sinti and Roma (that is, “Gypsies”), and lending his official support to a campaign for gay and lesbian partnerships to be given the same rights as heterosexual marriages. He is keen to be seen to be supporting at least two groups persecuted by the Nazis.
But never mind that, because he has thrown it all away by publishing a poem called Was gesagt werden muss (“What must be said”). And now all hell has broken loose.
It’s not a great poem, and it’s full of self-important guff about why he has decided to write this now with his “last ink”. Actually, as a poem, it’s as abysmal as you’d expect of a poem that contains phrases like “growing nuclear potential”; but this isn’t the reason it’s caused a fuss.
In short, the poem criticizes the state of Israel for, as he sees it, developing a nuclear threat to deal with, as he sees it, a non-existant threat from Iran. He does have a slightly over-simplistic grasp of foreign policy, does our Herr Grass, but as far as the state of Israel is concerned, the important thing is that a former SS officer is saying nasty things about Israel, and this should not be tolerated.
Even Grass’s critics (the non-Israeli ones, that is) appear to have been taken aback by the reaction. That he has been branded an “antisemite” comes as no shock to anyone, least of all to Grass, whose offending poem actually contains the line, “The verdict ‘antisemitism’ is prevelant.” I did mention the fact that this wasn’t a terribly good poem, didn’t I?
Israel’s politicians are up in arms about this. He has been declared persona non grata. The foreign minister has accused him of wanting to “sacrifice Jews on the altar of antisemitism”. There have been calls for him to be stripped of his Nobel Prize.
Now, the problem here is that Grass hasn’t been saying nasty things about Jews, which would be antisemitism. He has been criticizing Israeli foreign policy. The two things should not be confused. There is no doubt that Jews have historically fared very badly, and that this came to a head in the Third Reich. There is no doubt that antisemitism, along with other forms of racism, still exists. But to cry racism every time government policy is attacked is immature and cynical. Much of what Grass says may be completely wrong, but what it isn’t is antisemitic. Israel — and it’s important to note that I am here talking about Israel as a nation state, and not Jews as a race — appears to be seeking carte blanche on the grounds that they once suffered terribly.
This is no way to prove that you are a nation worthy of international respect. It is true that various Arab nations in the region have acted appallingly, but Israel has not exactly been a paragon of virtue either.
When people complain that, for example, Britain has no right to the Falkland Islands, I don’t take that as an insult to my culture, heritage or religion. It is a criticism of what my government is doing — in my name, granted, but not because I told them to. Usually, critics understand that; crucially, I understand that the critics understand that. I can agree or disagree, but I can’t cry “anti-Britishism” and expect that to settle the argument. I have, in my time, criticized America of a lot of wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop them from letting me into their country last year.
So let me put this as clearly as I can: We shouldn’t tolerate isms. But we must have the freedom to criticize governments. There is no room on this planet for a nation that thinks it has the right to do as it pleases on the grounds that their parents and grandparents were once persecuted.