Irvine, CA – My parents would never buy a Mercedes. Period. They couldn’t understand Jews who would (legitimate adults didn’t buy Volkswagons either back in the 1970s, at least where I lived). In fact, aside from long-dead German composers and pastries from the local German-American bakery – whose owners were probably Jewish – Jewish-Americans wanted nothing to do with Germany.
For obvious reasons.
Even today, it’s very hard for non-Jews to understand the trauma Jews born in the post-Holocaust generation experienced related to Germany. Our family lived in a strange zone between the past and present. At regular moments throughout the year – birthdays of relatives I’d never know, because they were annihilated, Jewish holidays, pretty much any family gathering of more than five people – the stories would be retold, ritualistically. “Your granfather searched endlessly … He spent half his life’s savings trying to buy their way out … they just disappeared, never to be heard from again … Your grandmother was never the same…”
Some families had actual survivors living among them; not a single member of my family in Europe survived. I would discreetly – or so I thought – stare at their tattoos in the summertime, when they wore short-sleeved shirts. These people, who somehow managed to survive a hell I couldn’t begin to comprehend, seemed larger-than-life. Their tattoo was like a mark of super-herodom, at least to a seven-year-old.
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My mother’s own life story added a personal twist. For some reason, she visited Gemany in the 1950s as a tourist. I suppose to see the country that had taken so much from her – many of her family, and her first husband, a wonderful young poet, killed at the Battle of the Bulge. One night, while being put up by a family somewhere in the countryside, she was shown to the spare bedroom, and when they bid her goodnight, she opened the closet to put her clothes away, only to find a neatly pressed Nazi uniform and jackboots inside. She grabbed her things and ran out of the house in a panic, without saying a word, roaming the streets until the morning when she could find a hotel.
You just don’t criticise Israel
No one in my family was particularly Zionist, but you just didn’t criticise Israel. It was not epistemologically possible. Israel was the direct result of the Holocaust. It was the only good thing that came out of the Holocaust. To criticise Israel was to criticise six million dead. No, this doesn’t make logical sense. But there was no logic involved here; or rather there was a different logic, a different rationality involved. It was at the level of the gut, or whatever is inside the gut.
Even in the 1980s, when the viscerality of the Holocaust finally began to fade, and I became active in human rights advocacy, my mother couldn’t bring herself to criticise Israel. I would list all the routine human rights violations, the settlements, the invasion of Lebanon; it didn’t matter. She would agree they were all bad, but would always say the same thing:
“You don’t understand; you can’t understand. They have no choice; it’s too soon,” she’d explain, before invoking various psychological explanations – she was a psychotherapist – for why people so abused could become the abusers. “Aren’t the Arabs just as bad?” she’d ask me, knowing full well that Arabs, Soviets, Americans, and everyone else was just as bad – but unable to bring herself to acknowledge this didn’t absolve Israel from deserved criticism.
It was easier just to avoid the subject altogether.
Even today, Jewish friends of my generation – now two generations removed from the Holocaust – when meeting a German will find themselves asking him or her: “Was your grandfather a Nazi?” or: “What did your family do during the war?” A thirty- or forty-year old German was still, somehow, required to defend himself against the Nazi regime.
A poem – where are the others?
What Must Be Said
Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long
It is the alleged right to first strike
Yet why do I forbid myself
The universal concealment of these facts,
Now, though, because in my country
Why though have I stayed silent until now?
Why do I say only now,
And granted: I am silent no longer
Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,
So I undestand the knee-jerk reaction against Gunter Grass’s poem against Israel – excuse me, the Israeli government – especially given his attempts to hide his wartime service not merely in the German army, but in the Waffen SS. Yes he was a teenager, but doesn’t a teenager know right from wrong enough not to join the SS? Other people forgive him for that. I won’t.
The poem causing all the current controversy is titled: Was gesagt werden muss (“What Must Be Said”). It’s certainly not one of Grass’ best works, but it wasn’t meant for a poetry journal; it was published in a German newspaper [GER] with the clear aim of provoking a much-needed discussion. In it, he asks: “Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long / What clearly is and has been / Practiced in war games, at the end of which we as survivors / Are at best footnotes.”
It is a valid question, as is the question of why Europeans can’t speak openly about Israel’s nuclear programme and the threat it poses to regional and world peace. After all, if Israel agreed to join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and turn over control over its warheads to NATO in return for NATO membership – to cite just one possible solution – (which would put it under NATO’s nuclear umbrella, a far safer place to be than its own much smaller one), it would put far more pressure on Iran to dismantle its programme; more important, it would stop an arms race that would likely result in the even more dangerous situation of Saudi Arabia having nuclear weapons.
We can also understand, however, why it’s in poor taste for a man who volunteered for the SS, an organisation whose sworn mission was to annihilate Jews, to talk about Israel “annihilating” the Iranian people.
Israel has always sought to portray itself as a “normal” country, yet goes out of its way to ensure no one “names it” – to use Grass’ words – as what it is, a colonial state that every day intensifies its occupation of another people’s land. And so Grass has taken it upon himself to “say what must be said”, to name Israel as what it is, a “nuclear power” that “endangers the already fragile world peace”. It’s worth noting he doesn’t even mention the occupation, which is the far greater threat to world peace.
I have no idea if Grass really believed himself to be “bound” to Israel; if he did, we can imagine the bond is broken today, at least by Israel, now that he’s banned from returning. But Grass’ feelings are not what’s interesting or important. What’s important is the larger context, all the other “facts” which refuse to be accepted as “pronounced truths”.
These facts are that Israel, however egregious its crimes – and anyone who denies them is either completely ignorant or a moral idiot – is but one cog in a much larger global machine, one that includes too many other cases of occupation, exploitation, and wanton violence to list comprehensively here (we can name a few – Syria, China, Russia, India, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, the Congo, and of course, NATO and the United States – whose oppression, exploitation, and murder of their own or other peoples is a far more concrete “fact” than the potential for mass destruction caused by Israel’s nuclear programme).
A global moral myopia, not blindness
Writing in Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffel describes Grass’ criticism of Israel as “moral blindness“. But Grass is not blind, he’s just myopic, like so much of the global left, which has long focused on criticising Israel and/or the United States while keeping silent about the crimes committed by the historic victims of Western empire.
The larger fact is that the global economy is addicted to war, to militarism, oil and the rape of the planet for the minerals and resources that fuel the now globalised culture of hyperconsumption that will doom our descendants to a fate we dare not contemplate. Israel’s gluttony for Palestinian territory, and its willingness to encourage a regional nuclear arms race to keep it, is ultimately no different than the the gluttony for the 60-inch TV, the iPhone/Pad, the cavernous homes and cars, the ability to live at levels of consumption that are only sustainable if most of the world lives in poverty that increasingly defines all our cultures.
Israel has gotten Palestine on the cheap, and it costs relatively little to continue the occupation. Far less than it would cost to end it. So why bother? Especially when everyone else is doing, more or less, the same thing and, it’s clear, no one really cares anymore. Germany, whose remarkable economic stability in the recent global financial crisis is in good measure due to its central role in this global economy of hyper-consumption (think of all the energy and resources that go into making and driving all those fancy German cars), is certainly playing its role all too well.
If Grass is right that we must talk about the threat to world peace posed by Israel’s nuclear programme – and far more by its ongoing occupation – then we must also talk about the threat to global peace posed by the sick global system of which Israel is merely one of the more easily identifiable symptoms. Unlike my parents, I’m happy that Germans finally feel secure enough publicly to speak critically about Israel. But if they want their words to have a chance of bringing about a change in its behaviour, they, and everyone else, needs to broaden the discourse to include their own role in enabling and profiting from the system that Israel’s actions so benefits, and the global scope of the victims it daily produces.
Of course, this discourse would require a much longer and more complex poem, written by an even better poet than Grass. If someone manages to write it, I hope it will get the same publicity as “What Must Be Said”.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and a distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming