Günter Grass, some say, invites 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 human 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 April 4 and rendered in English as “What Must Be Said,” that warns the world that “Israel’s atomic power endangers / an already 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 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 fitting punishment for the aged, but unrepentant, poet.
Just what, we must surely ask, was Grass’ 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 shameful, offensive, shall we say, to the dignity of every civilized person: “In Iran there is a regime that denies the Holocaust and calls for the destruction of Israel. 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 organizations that fire 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 Mahmud Ahmedinejad, succinctly and not inaccurately described in Grass’ poem as a “loudmouth,” who earned undying notoriety in the West when he described the Holocaust as a fiction.
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 Ahmedinejad, 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 behavior of Netanyahu and his predecessors in high office: Iran and Israel have long fought a shadow war, and they need each other desperately. The ayatollahs in Iran say and do enough to keep states such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan frothing at the mouth; similarly, the Shia clergy can always count on the presence of Israel to summon the faithful, particularly when internal dissent appears to pose grave threats to the regime. Whether or not the relationship of Iran and Israel can be characterized as one informed by what Freud called the “narcissism of minor differences,” there is no gainsaying the fact that these two countries understand each other very well.
The more Iran and Israel begin to look alike, the greater the swagger with which Israel must contemptuously dismiss Iran as the irredeemable other. Israel has long thought of itself as the sole democracy in the Middle East, 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 other hand, has for an equally long time labored under it 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 as liberals, as “problematic.” The nationalization of Iran’s oil industry in 1951 was bound to lead to serious repercussions for then-Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, who would be removed in a coup two years later. His overthrow, orchestrated by the CIA and British military intelligence, brought Shah Mohammed 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 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 the Middle East. 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, Indochina 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 civilization its distinct prominence over other civilizations 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 organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualifies him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began. What could be more self-evident?” For the likes of Grass, there is, quite self-evidently, 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 toward 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 silence 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 Israel’s own nuclear program remains without supervision, inspection, or verification, 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. 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 recognized 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 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 Arun 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.” What hope is there, asked Arun Gandhi, that Israel will ever come around to the view that its existence cannot be secured by “bombs and weapons’?
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. 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 financial markets and the power elites in the United States 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 may 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 recognize 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 American society, the open display of xenophobic behavior toward Muslims is not burdened by the fear of censure.
It is Israel, rather than 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.
The original version of this article appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai). This version is offered with permission of the author.