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.

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.

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.

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.

As many have (disparagingly) pointed out, “What Must Be Said” is very straightforward (and inelegant) for a poem. But for all its apparent bluntness, it has suffered from much uncharitable interpretation. A close reading of the poem reveals that Grass is neither the ignoramus nor the self-righteous polemicist that some of his critics have made him out to be. He certainly does not seek to “demonize Israel while portraying Iran as an innocent victim of aggression,” as one critic has argued.

In the first four stanzas of the poem, Grass enacts a kind of self-censorship; he refers only obliquely to Israel and it is not until the fifth stanza that he names Israel as the recipient of a (sixth) German Dolphin submarine. In the official English translation of the poem by Breon Mitchell, the “business transaction” is rendered thus: “my own country ... has delivered yet another submarine to Israel.” This act makes Germany more than just complicit in “the open danger” facing the world; in these lines, Germany is depicted as the real “aggressor” and Israel is merely the passive receiver of a submarine with nuclear warheads. In a sense, Grass is playing down Israel's role in the acquirement of submarines, but at the same time, he suggests that actions speak louder than words, that despite the fact that Israel has never referred to Iran as a "cancer" that must be "wiped off the map," its actions may be symptomatic of more than just a benign desire for self-defense.

The lines that have excited the most ire have also been subjected to the most flagrant misinterpretation. The typical response to Grass’s assertion that “Israel’s atomic power endangers / an already fragile world peace,” has been to decry his elision of the fact that Iran has long sought to destroy Israel. But that second line, “an already fragile world peace,” would seem to encapsulate, for any impartial and well-informed reader, the fact that both Israel and Iran have contributed to the instability of world peace. Grass’s “silence” about the history of the world’s tenuous peace simply indicates that he is less interested in apportioning blame for past crimes than in framing and assessing the status quo.

Finally, refusing to kowtow to the “West’s hypocrisy” over Israel's nuclear program, Grass “insist[s] that the governments of / both Iran and Israel allow an international authority / free and open inspection of / the nuclear potential and capability of both.” These last few lines, calling for a kind of bilateral disarmament, make loud and clear that Grass is neither exclusively sympathetic towards Iran nor overly censorious towards Israel. Indeed, in the second stanza, Grass calls Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “loudmouth” and “subjugator” of his people and mentions “an atom bomb [that] may be being / developed within his arc of power.” And in the sixth stanza, Grass emphasizes his close relationship to Israel, “a land / to which I am, and always will be, attached.” Elsewhere, Grass has claimed, “I have often supported Israel, I have often been in the country and want the country to exist and at last find peace with its neighbours.”

That “for years – although kept secret – / a growing nuclear power has existed / beyond supervision or verification” in Israel is a legitimate cause for concern, regardless of the provenance of Israel’s existential insecurity. Grass’s poem is many things, but it is not a blanket denunciation of Israel. It is an aging man's meditation on Germany’s misplaced guilt and his own battle with moral scruples; a brave (and sometimes rhetorically hyperbolic) appraisal of tensions between Israel and Iran; and a prophesy of the evil that will come to pass with untrammelled acts of belligerence. As such, it behooves us all to listen, with an open mind and shorn of prejudices, to what Grass has to say.

Rhoda Feng is a Monitor contributor.

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