Günter Grass, Israel and the crime of poetry

In his poem, Nobel laureate Günter Grass criticises Israel and condemns German arms sales to the Jewish state.

Günter Grass identifies Israel as a threat to world peace in his poem, 'What Must Be Said' [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY – On Wednesday, April 4, 2012, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung published Nobel laureate Günter Grass’ poem (the German original) that has created quite a stir not only in Germany, Israel and Iran, but also across the globe. As a result Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai has banned the Nobel laureate from entering Israel. 

In this poem, Günter Grass breaks a long standing German taboo and publicly criticises Israel for aggressive warmongering against Iran, identifies the Jewish state as a threat to world peace, accuses “the West” of hypocrisy and denounces his own government for providing nuclear submarines to Israel: 

… Because we – as Germans burdened enough –
Could be the suppliers to a crime
That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity
Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.

The poem drew much appreciation from those opposing yet another pending war in the region by pointing to the big elephant in the room, but also widespread condemnation by Jewish and non-Jewish groups and public figures in Germany, igniting the irritable Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in effect corroborating Günter Grass’ own assessment that his silence so far had to do with the concern that he would be accused of anti-Semitism. He was accused of anti-Semitism. 

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But has the charge of anti-Semitism really silenced the critics of Israel – as Günter Grass suggests in this poem? Not really – or perhaps only so in Germany, for obvious reasons, but certainly not around the globe. The only people who are afraid of being called anti-Semites are the anti-Semites. Yes certain segments of pro-Israeli Zionists, by no means all, hurtle that accusation to silence their opponents. But by no stretch of the imagination has that charge silenced anyone but the anti-Semites – and they better remain silent. 

In the European and by extension North American birthplace of anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism is either perfectly alive and well, or transformed into Islamophobia, or camouflaged into Evangelical Zionism, or else abused by some Zionists to silence any opposition coming towards Israel – certainly to no avail. 

To be sure, the condition in Germany is perhaps different – as indeed it should be. But by overcoming that false fear, Günter Grass can no longer be accused of anti-Semitism – and thus the significance of his poem is not in the straw man he constructs to shoot down (perhaps rhetorically, for after all, we are talking about a poem). It is somewhere else. 

Tomorrow may be too late

In the body of the poem itself, titled “What Must Be Said”, Günter Grass, 84, says that he risks the danger of being called an anti-Semite because:  

Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said
What even tomorrow may be too late to say…

Remaining silent at these dire circumstances is irresponsible and dangerous:

I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
Of the West…

Now that is good enough a reason to break the silence – and you need not invoke fear of being called an anti-Semite. Günter Grass expresses fear of a pending war that “could erase the Iranian people”. He pulls no punches as to the facts that we all know:

Yet why do I forbid myself
To name that other country
In which, for years, even if secretly,
There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand
But beyond control, because no testing is available?

He then points finger at his own country: 

Now, though, because in my country
Which from time to time has sought and confronted
The very crime
That is without compare
In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also
With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares
A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,
Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence
Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
But through fear of what may be conclusive,
I say what must be said.

Setting the dubious fear of being accused of anti-Semitism aside, Günter Grass provides ample reasons – European hypocrisy, German complacency, American barefaced double-standards, Ahmadinejad’s buffoonery and Israeli warmongering – for his poem to assume the global significance that it has. But the importance of the poem is not in stating the obvious – it is in revealing the repressed. 

European colonialism and Jewish Holocaust 

Given the history that culminated in the Jewish Holocaust, Jews around the globe, including Israel, have every right to get agitated with a prominent German public intellectual lecturing them about violence. But Zionism is chiefly responsible for having wasted the moral authority of the Jewish Holocaust – through what Norman Finkelstein has aptly called “the Holocaust Industry” – on establishing a racist apartheid state called “Israel” – a colonial settlement as a haven for the victims of a whole history of European anti-Semitism, on the broken back of a people who had nothing to do with that travesty.    

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With a leading German public intellectual openly criticising Israel, pointing to European hypocrisy, and blaming his own country for aiding and abetting in the aggressive militarisation of the Jewish state – a gushing wound is opened that implicates both Europe and the colonial settlement that in more than one sense is its own creation. In two specific terms, both as a haven for the victims of the Jewish Holocaust and as the legacy of European colonialism, Israel reflects back on its European pedigree. It is here that Grass’ poem reveals more than meets the eye. 

For over 60 years, Palestinians have paid with their lives, liberties and homeland for a European crime with which they had absolutely nothing to do.

The Zionist project precedes the European Jewish Holocaust -that ghastly crime against humanity following the horrid history of European anti-Semitism expressed and manifested in systematic pogroms over many long and dark centuries. Palestine was colonised by the victims of European anti-Semitism – as a haven against Jewish persecution. That paradox remains at the heart of a Jewish state that cannot forget the truth of its own founding myth. 

There is a link between the Jewish Holocaust and the history of European colonialism, of which Zionism (perhaps paradoxically, perhaps not) is a continued contemporary extension.

It was Aimé Césaire who in his Discourse sur le colonialisme/Discourse on Colonialism (1955) argued that the Jewish Holocaust was not an aberration in European history. Rather, Europeans actually perpetrated similar crimes against humanity on the colonised world at large. 

With German atrocities during the Holocaust, Europeans tasted a concentrated dose of the structural violence they had perpetrated upon the world at large. Colonialism and the Holocaust were thus the two sides of the same coin: the aggressive transmutation of defenceless human beings into instruments of power – into disposable “things”. Long before the Jewish Holocaust, the world Europeans had conquered and colonised was the testing ground of that barbaric violence they had termed the “civilising mission of the white man”.  

European guilt about the Holocaust is absolutely necessary and healthy – it is an ennobling guilt. It makes them better human beings, for them to remember what they did to European Jewry. But, and there is the rub, they are, with a supreme hypocrisy that Günter Grass notes in his poem, spending that guilt (when not redirecting it into Islamophobia) on sustaining a colonial settlement, an extension of their own colonial legacy, in supporting Israeli colonialism in the Arab and Muslim world – as a garrison state that further facilitates their renewed imperial interests in the region. Europeans are turning their legitimate guilt into an illegitimate instrument of their sustained imperial designs on the globe, from whom Americans then take their cues. 

European logic of colonialism

Israel is a European colonial settlement, the last astonishingly barefaced remnant of European colonialism in a world that calls itself “postcolonial”. 

The same people who are with perfect justification enraged by the foolish Ahmadinejad (when he denies the Holocaust) are evidently entirely undisturbed when their Prime Minister Golda Meir or their favourite presidential candidate Newt Gingrich denies the existence of Palestinians. 

The daring imagination of Günter Grass’ poem – a heroically tragic act precisely because the poet is implicated in the moral outrage of his own poem – is significant precisely because it captures this German and by extension European logic/madness of colonial conquest and moral cannibalism. A German intellectual exposing the structural link between Zionism and colonialism marks the even more innate link between the Holocaust and colonialism – precisely at the moment of warning against the regional warmongering of Zionism as the post/colonial extension of European colonialism. 

What Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction to Günter Grass’ poem, and many others like him, do not recognise is that precisely when they accuse the German poet of anti-Semitism they are in fact acknowledging the colonial provenance of the Jewish state. The harder they object to Günter Grass, the clearer becomes the fact that the Jewish state is the rhetorical articulation of the very logic of European global colonialism, of which the Jewish Holocaust, as Aimé Césaire rightly recognised, was a local overdose. 

There is one, and only one, definitive resolution for that paradoxical consistency to come to an end: the one state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma. It is only in that basic, simple, elegant, humane, non-violent, enduring and just resolution that the paradox of Zionism as colonialism, and the structural link between the Jewish Holocaust and European colonialism, can once and for all be resolved.

The fact and the inevitability of that solution, delivering both Israelis and Palestinians from their mutual (however asymmetrical) sufferings, has been staring the world in the eye from day one – and yet the belligerent politics of despair has caused an intentional blindness that prevents that simple vision. So, yes, Günter Grass is right – and in this revelation he could no longer possibly be an anti-Semite: 

Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,
Even more, all people, that in this
Region occupied by mania
Live cheek by jowl among enemies,
In the end also to help us.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.  His forthcoming book, The Arab Spring:  The End of Postcolonialism (Zed, 2012) is scheduled for publication in May 2012.