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What Günter Grass must say about Israel

Günter Grass’s poem 'What Must Be Said' is many things, but it is not a blanket denunciation of Israel.

By / April 18, 2012

In 2006, around the time of the publication of his memoir "Peeling the Onion," Gunter Grass revealed that he had served as a tank gunner in the Nazi Waffen-SS at the age of 17.

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In a 1991 interview, German Nobel laureate Günter Grass reflected on his career as a fabulist, saying, “I started to write down my lies very early. And I continue to do so!” These are not the words of an inveterate liar, but of a writer (of fiction and nonfiction) who has mastered the art of rhetoric and who knows that telling lies can sometimes be the most effective way to shine light on the truth.

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By the time of the interview, Grass had already been internationally heralded as the author of "The Tin Drum," a magisterial work of magical realism about the atrocities of the Nazi regime, and as his country’s moral conscience. But then, in a twist that seemed to come straight from a Dickens novel, Grass revealed in 2006 that he had been drafted into the Nazi Waffen SS in his youth, a fact which has deeply undermined his moral and political authority. Were he a character in a novel, Grass might be labeled an unreliable narrator, yet is this not too harsh a verdict? Is being conscripted into the Waffen SS an inexpiable crime? Are not Grass’s works monuments of atonement? Grass’s confession, though it might have been made earlier, nevertheless speaks to the author’s moral courage.

Two weeks ago, the 84-year-old Grass made headlines once again when a controversial poem of his appeared in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Titled “Was gesagt werden muss,” or “What Must Be Said,” the poem deals with Israel’s aggressive stance towards Iran and the threat it poses to “world peace.” In response to the poem, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have pilloried Grass for his libelous and “shameful” stanzas, and Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, citing a law that prohibits ex-Nazis from entering the Jewish state, has declared Grass persona non grata. Further, as Grass himself predicted in his poem, there has been a rash of remarks about his “Anti-semitism.”

Yet, others have jumped to Grass’s defense. Novelist Salman Rushdie tweeted, “OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words” and Gideon Levy opined that people like Grass and José Saramago (a Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author who made some inflammatory remarks about Israelis in his day) “are not anti-Semites, they are expressing the opinion of many people. Instead of accusing them we should consider what we did that led them to express it.” Grass has since clarified that his poem is an indictment of the policies of Benjamin Netanyahu and not of Israel as a whole, but this elucidation seems to have done little to temper the moral outrage against the author.

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