A poem by Nobel Prize-winning German writer Günter Grass has led to the author being barred from entering Israel under a law that prevents former Nazis from entering the country. The poem, “Was gesagt werden muss” (“What must be said”), is about contemporary politics and nuclear weapons: Grass criticizes Israel for threatening to attack Iran for that country’s nuclear program, demands that Israel’s nuclear weapons by monitored and says that Germany, by selling submarines to Israel, is complicit.
While (as the New York Times observes these views are “relatively common among European intellectuals,” a huge controversy has swirled around Grass’s drawing direct parallels between “Israel’s nuclear potential / and the Iranian nuclear facilities” (“des israelischen atomaren Potentials / und der iranischen Atomanlagen”). Grass also describes Israel as “nuclear-armed” (“Atommacht”) and “endangering / the already fragile world peace” (“fährdet / den ohnehin brüchigen Weltfrieden”). His criticism extends to the West for its hypocrisy (“Heuchelei”). With its title asserting that its poet has something that “must be said,” the poem’s tone is defiant but also anguished as Grass asks himself “why have I been silent so long?” (“Warum aber schwieg ich bislang?”), with a reference to his own background (“meine Herkunft”) which has “never been afflicted by a blotted-out stigma” (“die von nie zu tilgendem Makel behaftet ist”).
Outrage Over Grass’s Poem
Grass’s background is another reason for the controversy over “Was gesagt werden muss.” Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, says that the poet’s works “fan[s] the flames of hatred against Israel and the Israeli people, thus promoting the idea he was part of when he donned an SS uniform,” a reference to Grass’s admission that he was conscripted into the Nazi Waffen SS as a 17-year-old. Saying that Grass’s poems are “distorted,” Yishai added that he suggest that “he try them in Iran where he will find a sympathetic audience.”
Grass has also come under heavy critique in Germany. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that his comparisons of Israel and Iran are “absurd” and Holocaust survivor and literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, that the poem is simply “disgusting.”
The 84-year-old Grass has told the Süddeutsche Zeitung , which published the poem on April 4, that he intended to criticize the policies of the present Israeli government under Benyamin Netanyahu. “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 neighbors,” Grass told the newspaper. Israeli politicians and others contend that Grass’s background in the Nazi army has disqualified him from criticizing Israel’s policies; some have charged him with anti-Semitism, a response that Grass had predicted in his poem.
Did Grass Say “What Had To Be Said”?
Larry Derfner at the website +972 says that Grass’s time in the Waffen SS “doesn’t matter” and that Grass is an “easy target for Israel’s enforcers.” The Guardian quotes Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, who says that Grass and others who criticize Israel’s policies are “not anti-Semites” but “expressing the opinions of many people” and should not be accused. Rather, “we should consider what we did that led them to express it.”
As Eli Uncyk writes in a letter to the New York Times, “the best way to judge [Grass's poem's] merits as poetry and as controversial thought-provoking literature” is to read it, whatever one’s views about the writer’s opinions. Uncyk says:
A reader need not agree with the views Mr. Grass expresses on the nuclear weapon issue. But in Israel, more than in any Middle East country, the right and even the obligation to read and debate his poem should be recognized as a democratic right.
The uproar over Grass’s poem suggests that anyone who thinks that poetry doesn’t matter in this day and age should think again.
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