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Günter Grass is all kinds of silly

Günter Grass's poem was all kinds of silly, but so was Eli Yishai's decision to declare the elderly Waffen-SS veteran and writer persona non grata
Günter Grass (photo credit: AP Photo/Jens Meyer)
Günter Grass (photo credit: AP Photo/Jens Meyer)

Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai has announced that elderly Waffen-SS veteran and writer Günter Grass will be barred from entering Israel. I don’t believe Grass was planning to visit Israel, but that wasn’t the point. Mr. Yishai wanted to say that, unlike the rest of Europe’s left-wing poets, artists and intellectuals, and unlike the rest of the surviving Waffen-SS draftees, old Günter wasn’t welcome in Israel.

We keep people out of Britain all the time. We barred George Raft in 1967 for being a little too close to his film gangster persona. We barred Dmitri Shostakovich in 1950 for being — brace yourself! — a communist. The former Labour government used to announce that people were banned even if they didn’t appear to be interested in visiting. So for me this ban isn’t all that remarkable.

Why the poem is silly

The main thing that alter Kämpfer Grass did was write a silly poem in German. The poem said that he had to speak out about Israel’s imminent annihilation of Iran in spite of the tremendous pressure to the contrary.

Israel’s nuclear arsenal (whatever it may or may not be) is probably not capable of annihilating Iran, but that’s not why the poem is silly. Israel has never declared or concealed an intent to try to annihilate Iran, but that’s not why the poem is silly.

(After all, what do I know about genocide? Unlike Grass I’ve never participated in one.)

Those factors would just make the poem inaccurate, if “inaccurate” is a term that can be applied to art.

Grass’s poem is silly because much of the population of Europe already assumes an equivalence between Israel and Iran. I have seen this firsthand, finding myself asking students to justify the suggestion that Israel intends to destroy Iran. I ask them to find strategically aggressive Israeli statements on the internet. Try it sometime.

Drumming up the anti-Israel rhetoric. Günter Grass (photo credit: CC BY-ND Christoph Müller-Girod, Flickr)
Drumming up the anti-Israel rhetoric. Günter Grass (photo credit: CC BY-ND Christoph Müller-Girod, Flickr)

At no risk whatsoever of being declared persona non grata in Israel, where I am now spending a pleasant holiday, let me say that I agree with Günter Grass. It really is a bad idea to annihilate Iran, or any other nation. I suspect that most, if not all, people in the Israeli national security establishment would agree.

Nobody wants to wipe out the Iranian people. Never mind the wisdom or unwisdom of attacking a country as large, populous and resource-rich as Iran, iranische Volk auslöschen just isn’t on anyone’s agenda. But that’s not why his poem is silly.

His poem is silly because its political intent is to break the silence about Germans selling submarines to Israel. He appears to have sweated blood before gritting his teeth, ending that woeful silence, and writing this poem. And there is no silence.

The Iranian state news agency’s English-language service covered most of Grass’s points rather more succinctly in a recent article. The article noted, however, that:

A survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in twelve Arab countries reveals that 51 percent of the respondents believed Israeli regime to be the first major threat to the Arab world, while 22 percent considered the US.

Another survey [PDF] conducted in 2011 by the Berlin-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation shows that more than 50 percent of European people believe the Zionist regime is the most serious threat to global security.

(The Iranian article neglected to mention the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s recent conference on remembering the Holocaust, no doubt due to space considerations. The article also omitted the findings of the Arab Opinion Index on the third greatest perceived threat to Arab security after the US and Israel: Iran. And unlike Grass’s poem, the Iranian article also leaves out the Palestinians.)

The most dangerous thing in the world

The Iranian news service is noting that Europeans have about the same assessment as Arabs: Israel is the most dangerous thing in the world. Roughly half of Europeans already agree with Herr Grass.

Are they a fearful, silent majority? Are they afraid to express their dread of Israel lest they be accused of anti-Semitism? Many, perhaps; though Emma Thompson and her friends appear to be ready to brave the storm.

But the British are free of the oppressive weight of a Waffen-SS past. Germans are afraid to speak or write against Israel’s desperate desire to achieve a final solution to the Iranian problem. Except, of course, for the German press, which has, holus-bolus, been doing exactly that. According to the Israeli ambassador in Berlin, as reported pretty clearly by Iran’s Press TV, the German media are in full cry against Israel’s aggressive machinations on Iran.

The fact is that, as far as many in Europe are concerned, Israel is the most wicked nation on Earth, propped up by a US government in fear of a Jewish lobby financed by the fantastic wealth of grubby ikey bankers. The sudden disappearance of Israel would result in instantaneous harmony across the Middle East. Have I left anything out?

Oh, yes, the Holocaust.

Part of the “evil Israel” narrative is that people are afraid to criticize Jews because Jews cynically manipulate Holocaust guilt. Yishai’s ban will undoubtedly help in a small way to prop up this story. Grass has obviously so bought into this narrative that he really thinks he is the vox clamantis in deserto rather than part of a huge chorus.

Anti-Semitism? Nay, chocolate bunnies

Israel’s embassy in Berlin likened Grass’s poem to blood libel. This is in one sense a bizarre exaggeration: Easter is no longer pogrom season, and the cobbles of Europe no longer run with Jewish blood when Christian children go missing. In fact, a fascination with chocolate bunnies seems to have replaced violent anti-Semitism among Europe’s Christians.

(On the other hand, Grass accused Israel of seeking to annihilate all Iranians — not just the children — which is rather more extreme than the old-fashioned accusations.)

Even better than anti-Semitism: Chocolate bunnies (photo credit: CC BY-SA 16 Miles of String, Flickr)
Even better than anti-Semitism: Chocolate bunnies (photo credit: CC BY-SA 16 Miles of String, Flickr)

Grass’s poem is timely because the most recent deal for a Dolphin- class submarine was signed two weeks ago. Dolphin subs have lots of torpedo tubes that are capable of shooting cruise missiles. Dolphin subs are also very, very quiet when submerged. This makes a preemptive first strike against Israel’s nuclear capability unlikely to disarm Israel. You can’t destroy Israel’s nukes if they’re submerged silently in, say, the Persian Gulf.

According to theorists of nuclear strategy, hardening or hiding a nuclear arsenal in this way renders an enemy’s attack less likely, since it makes retaliation surer. Heavily armed Dolphin-class subs make an Iranian attack less likely, which, in turn, makes an Israeli attack less likely. This makes everyone in the Middle East who dreads a nuclear Iran (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and everyone else) safer.

The German subs are calculated to make a nuclear exchange in the Middle East less — not more — likely. But this is an abstruse point likely to appeal to readers of Herman Kahn; not Günter Grass.

Grass’s poem is silly because it’s based on the idea that speaking out against Israel is dangerous and edgy for lefty Western intellectuals. It’s silly because he’s wrong, and he’s not dangerous, and he’s not edgy, and he’s not saying anything that wasn’t already said during Israel Apartheid Week on university campuses all over Europe.

Keeping the peace. An Israeli dolphin-class submarine in Haifa (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Keeping the peace. An Israeli dolphin-class submarine in Haifa (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Israel is a welcoming habitat for lefty Western intellectuals, and saying Grass can’t come and drink coffee with them because he’s silly is… well, it’s silly.

All of Israel feels powerless against the European narrative of “evil Israel.” The powerful counter-narrative that can challenge Europe’s left-wing (and center-left, and nationalist right) is a story that hasn’t yet been told. So instead of doing something positive Eli Yishai has taken a poke at the man who has appointed himself the still, soft voice of reason amid the imagined Holocaust-induced silence. Take that, lefty Europeans! Günter and his big fat Swedish Nobel Prize aren’t welcome here!

John Keats, like Grass a poet, but not a poet like Grass, once equated truth with beauty. This can be read to mean that art is beautiful insofar as it represents truth, whether superficial truth or deep truth. The grumpy old Grass has unhappily written a poem that hasn’t got much truth. The result is painfully, culpably, embarrassingly silly.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is Principal at Nusbacher & Associates, a strategy consultancy. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom, was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and served as a military intelligence officer.