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Günter Grass and the Anti-Semitism Canard

It is Israel, rather than Günter Grass, that has come across poorly in the recent exchange following the publication of the Grass poem warning about the dangers of Israel's nuclear weapon power. Such responses have happened all too often in the past, and Israel will have to do more than hide behind those gigantic scarlet letters that spell "anti-Semitism" if it is to confront the reality of its own demons. It is a form of totalitarianism to insist that all criticism of Israel is itself a form of anti-Semitism. And it is not anti-Semitism but rather a visceral hatred and fear of Islam which is today by far the greater problem in the west.

COMMENTARY

shameful, offensive, shall we say, to the

Günter Grass and
dignity of every civilised person:

In Iran there is a regime that denies the Hol

the Anti-Semitism Canard

ocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel.

Vinay Lal

It is Israel, rather than Günter Grass, that has come across poorly in the recent exchange following the publication of the Grass poem warning about the dangers of Israel’s nuclear weapon power. Such responses have happened all too often in the past, and Israel will have to do more than hide behind those gigantic scarlet letters that spell “anti-Semitism” if it is to confront the reality of its own demons. It is a form of totalitarianism to insist that all criticism of Israel is itself a form of anti-Semitism. And it is not anti-Semitism but rather a visceral hatred and fear of Islam which is today by far the greater problem in the west.

Vinay Lal (vlal@history.ucla.edu) teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles, the United States.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
april 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 17

G
ünter Grass, some say, has a fondness for controversy. For many years, he excoriated his fellow Germans to come clean about their past and confront the brute facts that might help explain how Germany became the seat of the most terrifying machinery of h uman extermination that the world had ever witnessed. However, not until Grass was nearly 80 years old did he confess that, as a 17-year-old at end of the war, he was conscripted into the Waffen-SS, a paramilitary force attached to the Nazi party.

Grass is in the eye of the storm again, this time with a poem, published in several European newspapers on 4 April and rendered in English as “What Must Be Said”, that warns the world that “ Israel’s atomic power endangers an a lready fragile world peace”. Declaring himself sick of “the West’s hypocrisy” Grass hopes that with his poem

many may be freed from their silence, may demand that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force, may insist that the governments of both Iran and Israel allow an international authority free and open inspection of the nuclear potential and capability of both.

Israel has, in consequence, declared Günter Grass persona non grata. A once eminently diasporic people, formerly scattered to the ends of the earth and living their lives in exile until they could claim Palestine as their homeland, have apparently surmised that the banishment of Grass from Israel represents the most fi tting punishment for the aged but unrepentant poet.

Israel’s Fury

Just what, we must surely ask, was Grass’s sin? The fury whipped up in Israel, and among Israel’s supporters in the west, points to several considerations. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed outrage that Grass should have had the audacity to compare Israel to Iran. Netanyahu described the comparison as

This comparison says very little about Israel and a great deal about Mr Grass. It is Iran, not Israel, which poses a threat to world peace. It is Iran, not Israel, which threatens to destroy other countries. It is Iran, not Israel, which supports terror organisations that fi re missiles on innocent civilians. It is Iran, not Israel, which supports the massacre that the Syrian regime is carrying out on its civilians. It is Iran, not Israel, which stones women, hangs gay people, and ruthlessly suppresses the tens of millions of citizens in its country.

No doubt, the present regime in Iran cannot be viewed as other than highly authoritarian, though there is no reason to suppose that the suppression of some freedoms has stifled all dissent, or creativity in art, music, cinema, and literature. It has not helped Iran that its most public face is provided by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, succinctly and not inaccurately described in Grass’ poem as a “loudmouth” who earned undying notoriety in the west when he described the Holocaust as fi ction.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to resist the view that Netanyahu protests too much. However enormous the misgivings one may have about Iran’s political regime, Iran has never posed a threat to any other country, nor has it launched an attack on another nation. Netanyahu is no less boorish than Ahmadinejad, and it is idle for him, or indeed for any other Zionist, to pretend that Israel has not been the perpetrator of untold number of atrocities against the Palestinians – choking, numbing, and starving them into submission in a war of gravely disproportionate resources. It is no surprise that the list of accusations hurled against Iran did not include its real or alleged sponsorship of political assassinations, since Israel is likely without peer in its mastery in this department of covert politics. But there is something else underlying the swashbuckling behaviour of Netanyahu and his predecessors in high office: Israel has long thought of itself as the sole democracy in west Asia, ringed by unruly Arabs within and hostile states beyond; and if on occasion its unmitigated repression of Palestinians has evoked a mild rebuke from its allies in the west, it has nearly always conducted itself in world politics with the assurance that it may act with impunity. Iran, on the

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other hand, has for an equally long time laboured under its reputation in the west as, in the vocabulary of our times, a “rogue” state. The nationalism of countries such as Iran has always seemed to many in the west, even those who style themselves liberals, as “problematic”. The nationalisation of Iran’s oil industry in 1951 was bound to lead to serious repercussions for the then prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who would be removed in a coup two years later. His overthrow, orchestrated by the US’ Central Investigative Agency and British military intelligence, brought Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose gratitude to his benefactors would amply be on display in the decades ahead, to the helm of power. Since the revolution of 1979, which installed the mullahs in power, and the subsequent Iranian hostage crisis, a rather humbling experience for the Americans, Iran has effectively been shunned as a “pariah state” by the west.

The Branding of Iran

The countries in the west which for years have rallied behind the United States to declare Iran a “rogue” state have, historically speaking, treated their Jewish population much worse than did Iran, which even today has the largest population of Jews outside Israel in west Asia. It is barely necessary to recall, for example, the barbarism of the French, whether with respect to the Jews or their colonial subjects in Algeria, Indo-China, and elsewhere. On the received narrative, however, the anti-Semitism that was so characteristic a feature of European society is a thing of the past; indeed, what generally gives western civilisation its distinct prominence over other civilisations is its capacity for atonement and repentance. It is precisely in this respect that Grass has been found by Netanyahu and other like-minded yahoos to be severely wanting: as Grass had disguised his past for over six decades, he is said to have been absolutely stripped of credibility. Writing for Haaretz, long established as the voice of Israeli liberals, Anshel Pfeffer ponders in a piece entitled “The Moral Blindness of Günter Grass” why “a highly intelligent man, a Nobel laureate no less”, does not understand that

his membership in an organisation that planned and carried out the wholesale g enocide of millions of Jews disqualifi es 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. What could be more self-evident?

For the likes of Grass, there is, quite selfevidently, no atonement, no remorse, only the certitude of eternal condemnation. Yet the poet had clearly anticipated it all:

But why have I kept silent till now? Because I thought my own origins, tarnished by a stain that can never be removed, meant I could not expect Israel, a land to which I am, and always will be, attached, to accept this open declaration of the truth.

When critiques of Zionism, or of Israel’s conduct towards Palestinians, cannot be adequately answered, there is always the weapon of last resort, the ultimate weapon with which to tarnish the voice of informed democratic and humanistic criticism: the charge of anti-Semitism. “This general s ilence on the facts” – the fact, which Israel is in no position to repudiate, and which Grass’ poem has now uncomfortably brought into the limelight, namely, that I srael’s own nuclear programme remains without supervision, inspection, or verifi cation, subject to no constraints except those which its leaders might impose upon themselves in the light of reason – forced Grass’ hand; and it was not without awareness on his part of how the end of the narrative was foretold. Writes Grass,

This general silence on the facts, before which my own silence has bowed, seems to me a troubling, enforced lie, leading to a likely punishment the moment it’s broken: the verdict “Anti-Semitism” falls easily.

To consider just how easily the verdict of “anti-Semitism” falls on the critics of Israel, let us recall the opprobrium that Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi and the co-founder and then president of the M K Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence at the University of Rochester, had to face when he penned a short blog for the Washington Post (20 January 2008) entitled, “Jewish Identity Can’t Depend on Violence”. Though Arun Gandhi recognised that Israel was far from being the only purveyor of violence in that part of the world, he nevertheless thought that “Israel and the Jews” were the “biggest players” in promoting the “culture of violence”. On a visit to Tel Aviv in 2004, Gandhi wrote, he was surprised to hear

april 28, 2012

even peace activists defending the Separation Wall and the military build-up as the unavoidable condition of their secure existence. The future of Jewish identity struck Gandhi as “bleak”: too many Jews remained “locked into the Holocaust experience”, not merely convinced of the absolute exceptionality of the Holocaust but firm in their view that their victimhood gives them unique entitlements. The case of Israel, Gandhi argued,

is a very good example of [how] a community can overplay a historic experience to the point that it begins to repulse friends…the Jews today not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews.

Fast and furious was the response to Arun Gandhi, and in much less than a week he had been forced to step down as president of the M K Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. Though Arun Gandhi cannot be accused of disguising his Nazi past, nothing prevented him from being brandished with the scarlet letters of anti-Semitism.

One cannot downplay the persistence of anti-Semitism over the centuries, and it is similarly instructive to what extent a forgery such as the “Protocol of the Elders of Zion” continues to resonate among those who are convinced that the Jews are uniquely capable of conspiring to ensure their domination over the world’s fi nancial markets and the power elites in the US and Europe. But it is a form of totalitarianism to insist that all criticism of Israel is itself a form of anti-Semitism. Even the Jew might not critique Israel; if he or she does so, the Zionists have a phrase for such a person: a self-hating Jew. Moreover, it is imperative to recognise that in the United States and much of Europe, it is not anti-Semitism but rather a visceral hatred and fear of Islam which is by far the greater problem. In large swathes of respectable European and US society, the open display of xenophobic behaviour towards Muslims is not burdened by the fear of censure.

It is Israel, rather than Günter Grass, that has come across poorly in this recent exchange. This has happened all too often in the past, and Israel will have to do more than hide behind those gigantic scarlet letters that spell “anti-Semitism” if it is to confront the reality of its own demons.

vol xlviI no 17

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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