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Tuesday, February 21, 2017
- A lyrical attack by Germany’s acclaimed novelist and essayist Günter Grass in which he labelled Israel’s alleged atomic arsenal and looming pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear installations a threat to world peace has triggered fury and controversy amongst Israelis.
In his 66-line poem entitled ‘What Must Be Said’ and published on the front page of the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung’s culture section, the Nobel Prize laureate in literature in 1999 asked: “Why only now, grown old/…, do I say:/Israel’s atomic power endangers/an already fragile world peace?/Because what must be said/may be too late tomorrow.”
In a Cassandra-like apocalyptic style, Grass lamented, “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.”
Widely believed to be a nuclear power – it’s not a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – Israel has kept a veil of calculated ambiguity on its own nuclear programme, only stating that it won’t be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the region.
Iran has, in a sense, emulated this policy of concealment.
Hence on Friday, a week before the scheduled negotiations between the P1+5 group (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China, plus Germany) and the Islamic Republic, an Iranian lawmaker declared, “Iran has the scientific and technological capability to produce a nuclear weapon, but will never choose this path.”
U.S. President Barack Obama has recently tried to pull the veil over Iran’s true nuclear intentions. According to the Washington Post, he’s relayed a message to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei via Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the U.S. would agree to a civilian nuclear programme if Iran proved it wasn’t developing nuclear weapons.
Israel has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear programme unilaterally if, despite mounting international sanctions, Iran doesn’t abandon its nuclear programme.
Iran’s nuclear policy is perceived in Israel as an existential threat in light of the less-than-lyrical anti- Zionist tirades by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Grass’s ‘loudmouth’) who has vowed to annihilate Israel, and has denied the Holocaust in which six million Jews were exterminated by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Referring to “blood libel”, a traditional anti-Semitic accusation that took place before Passover – the Jewish seven-day festival began Friday evening – an Israeli envoy to Berlin angrily used the format of the Grass diatribe and threw it back to the poet’s face.
“What must be said is that/it’s a European tradition to accuse the Jews/before the Passover festival of ritual murder,” Emmanuel Nahshon wrote on the Israeli embassy website, and concluded, “We aren’t ready to take on the role assigned on us by Grass/of the German people’s efforts to come to term with the past.”
Grass might also have wanted to target Germany. For having supplied Israel with submarines that can be equipped with nuclear warheads, “We may be providing material for a crime/that is foreseeable,” he wrote in verse.
But he said, albeit maladroitly, that his poem was meant first as a warning to the Israeli Prime Minister’s policy vis-à-vis Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu, himself accused in his own country of cheap use of the memory of the Holocaust as he time and again draws a parallel between Iran and Nazi Germany, issued a stern condemnation.
Emphatically reproving Grass’s “shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran,” he used his own celebrated oratory skills. “It’s Iran – not Israel – that’s a threat to world peace and security/It’s Iran – not Israel – that threatens other states with annihilation.”
And, on a more personal attack, he accused Grass of concealing (“for six decades”) his past as a member of the Waffen SS. “So for him to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself is perhaps not surprising,” he added.
After the publication of ‘The tin Drum’ (1959), which depicts the rise of Nazism in his hometown Danzig, Grass was long hailed the moral conscience of post-war Germany. But in his autobiography ‘Peeling the Onion’ (2006), Grass painfully confessed that as a youth he had joined the Nazi party’s military at the end of World War II. Suddenly, Grass personified a compromised Germany still haunted by national self- disgust.
In an opinion piece entitled ‘Günter Grass’s Moral Blindness’, Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer wrote: “His membership in an organisation that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualified him from criticising the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organisation began.”
“The verdict ‘Anti-Semitism’ falls easily,” Grass had felt compelled to acknowledge pre-emptively in his poem.
Grass’s awkward criticism can be interpreted as rooted in his own guilt as if the 84-year-old poet wished the Jewish people to accuse him of anti-Semitism in order to expiate his problematic youth, noted renowned Israeli historian Tom Segev, author of ‘The Seventh Million’, a book about the decisive impact of the Holocaust on the identity, ideology, and politics of Israel.
“You can relax, Mr. Grass. You’ve written a rather pathetic poem, but you’re not anti-Semitic. You’re not even anti-Israeli,” Segev ironically addressed the poet, also in Haaretz. “You said you wrote that poem ‘with what ink remains’. Let’s hope you have enough for another beautiful novel.”