The intellectual cowardice of Günter Grass’s critics

Israel/PalestineMiddle East
on 26 Comments

In his controversial new poem, “What Must Be Said,” Günter Grass felt obliged to anticipate the utterly predictable reaction: “the verdict ‘Anti-semitism’ falls easily.”

Jacob Heilbrunn describes Grass’s language as “wild and fevered and calumniatory,” though this is a more accurate description of his own commentary. Under a headline posing the question, Is Günter Grass An Antisemite?, Heilbrunn proceeds with passion and no reason to a foregone conclusion:

Now, anti-Semitism is a charge that is flung about too frequently against critics of Israel. Unfortunately, in this instance it is fully deserved. Here is what must be said: Grass has achieved the impossible. He has further besmirched his reputation.

The theatrical and logical contours of the performances of Israel’s mindless and rabid defenders should by now be perfectly familiar.

First comes the shock and outrage. When anyone in proximity to the trauma of the Holocaust gets upset they tend to solicit a human response. We don’t try and reason with them — we offer them sympathy and try and soothe their distraught emotions. But when the shock and outrage is contrived, it serves a purpose: it is designed to distract and pacify those who might otherwise pose awkward or challenging questions.

Then comes the defamation. Why must Grass be condemned and his words ignored? Because as a seventeen year-old he served for five months in the Waffen-SS. “[A] former member of the SS has no moral standing, to put it mildly, to criticize Israel.” Heilbrunn whips the SS line so hard and fast, he’s forced to drag up from his thesaurus the awkward phrase “quondam SS member.”

Then comes the logical sleight-of-hand: a criticism is rebuffed by being restated in a distorted form. And the distortion always involves the same shift: actions are treated as matters of identity.

Israel is attacked not because of what it does but because of what it is: a Jewish state. Actions demand accountability, but if the assault is treated as striking at the state’s very identity, then the victim can bask in its innocence.

This is how it works in Grass’s case. Grass has written that Israel poses the greatest threat to world peace. Read the headlines, listen to the politicians and commentators. How outrageous! Except there’s one small problem: that’s not what he wrote. He wrote this:

Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel’s atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace?

When there is a rush to war because of the mere fear that Iran might develop nuclear weapons, how can the world remain silent about the fact that Israel already possesses hundreds of these tools of genocide?

What is being described as an attack on Israel is no such thing. It is a demand that Israel’s own nuclear arsenal be recognized and acknowledged as a decisive element in the rising tension in the Middle East.

Perhaps there are those who believe that Israel’s existence utterly depends on its possession of nuclear weapons. If that’s the case then maybe we should no longer refer to it as a Jewish and democratic state, but as a nuclear-armed Jewish and democratic state, since retaining the ability to incinerate its neighbors is apparently an essential attribute of such a state.

If however the existence of a Jewish state and its possession of a nuclear arsenal are not inextricably intertwined, then it is perfectly legitimate for Günter Grass or anyone else to say that in the shadow of war, the world can no longer remain silent about Israel’s weapons of mass destruction.

This is cross-posted from Woodward’s site, War in Context.

26 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    April 6, 2012, 10:39 am

    Imagine if anyone were to seek to excuse (or absolve) Nazi Germany for its actions (attacking most of Europe without provocation, the killing of its own citizens including Jews without sufficient reason [Holocaust]) by saying — “Germany was blamed not for what it did but for what it was”, arguing that Germany’s self-image was of a powerful state needing lebensraum and the cleansing of people other than healthy aryan supporters of its national identity!.

    Such a claim would be laughed off the stage, and first of all by Jews.

    Israelis may hold in their hearts the idea that the State could not have been formed without war and ethnic cleansing, but they did not say that even during the terrorism that led to UNGA-181, and the Jewish Agency professed to accept UNGA-181 with its provisions for peaceful multi-ethnic states which respected the rights of all citizens.

    No, Virginia, Israel’s violence was not intrinsic, not what “Jews are”, not even what “Israel needed to be”, but deliberately chosen acts subject to moral inspection.

    • Without Walls
      April 6, 2012, 1:05 pm

      pabelmont –

      “attacking most of Europe without provocation, the killing of its own citizens including Jews without sufficient reason [Holocaust]) . . .”

      vis–à–vis

      “Israel’s violence was not intrinsic, not what “Jews are”, not even what “Israel needed to be”, but deliberately chosen acts subject to moral inspection.”

      the latter first — do you argue that there were “no provocations” to Israel’s “deliberately chosen acts”?

      re the former: Benjamin Netanyahu writes this in Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat the International Terrorist Network, 2001 ed., 2nd printing**

      “[Moral] clarity is what enabled the Allies to root out Nazism in the twentieth century. They did not look for the “root cause” of . . .Nazism–because they knew that some acts are evil in and of themselves, and do not deserve any consideration or “understanding.” They did not ask whether Hitler was right about the alleged wrong done to Germany at Versailles. That they left to the historians. The leaders of the Western Alliance said something else: Nothing justifies Nazism. Nothing!
      We must be equally clear-cut today: Nothing justifies terrorism. Nothing!

      It sure sounds like Bibi is trying to avoid having to deal with the possibility of “provocations” behind Germany’s actions.

      Max Warburg held a different view.

      Warburg was an adviser to the Provisional government; his partner, Carl Melchior and the economist Moritz Julius Bonn were among the delegation to Versailles to negotiate the peace treaty. With four others of Jewish origin (Dernburg, Rathenau, Arnhold, Hagen), Warburg and Bonn were included in the delegation to the coal reparations conference at Spa in Belgium, at which the French threatened to occupy the Ruhr unless their demands were met. In the face of this ultimatum the German delegation were split. The industrialist Hugo Stinnes, who urged rejection, was opposed by Bonn, Dernburg and Rathenau, which led him to blame their ‘alien psyche’ and ‘soul of a foreign race’ for their ‘defeatism’ . . .One might well be tempted to accept the stereotypes on which this outburst was based. Had not Jewish business leaders, before and during the war, shown a more realistic and far-sighted understanding of the complexities of the world economy than many of their Gentile colleagues . . .Warburg’s own retrospective verdict on the episode, that it was one of a ‘clash of mentalities’, might seem to confirm this.” [p 213]

      A resident of Hamburg and on the Board of the Zentralwohlfahrtsstelle der deutsche Juden, Warburg wrote to his friend “Georg Gothein after the Nazis’ electoral triumph in 1932:

      “There cannot be many who feel as strongly about the Nazi movement as I do and yet I regard it without a feeling of bitterness. It is the natural consequence of an insane policy by Germany’s enemies. In a way one must rejoice that after all these years of suffering there are still such strong forces within the German people as have joined together in this movement. It is deeply regrettable that it is also sowing so much hatred which will take years to eliminate. But this is a necessary reaction. [Pulzer, p. 233]

      It has been Israel’s tragic misfortune to have been led for so long by such as the Netanyahus, Senior and Junior, who are blinded by inchoate hate and dismissive of the wisdom of history and of their betters.

      It is even more tragic that the thinking and writings and ravings of the Netanyahus have served as the blueprint for US foreign policy for more than two generations.

      ** [1st printing was Jun 2001; 2nd printing has a new Forward, revolving around Sept 11, 2001 -- in which Netanyahu does NOT mention Saudi Arabia but mentions Iran at least a dozen times in 15 pages]

  2. Bandolero
    April 6, 2012, 12:12 pm

    Sorry, the core quote of this article is rubbish. The problem is bad translations.

    Grass wrote – as published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung:

    “Warum sage ich jetzt erst,
    gealtert und mit letzter Tinte:
    Die Atommacht Israel gefährdet
    den ohnehin brüchigen Weltfrieden?”

    “”Die Atommacht Israel” shall be correctly translated as “The nuclear power Israel” – just like it was done here at Mondo Weiss in the translation provided by Norbert Jost. It is very clear – the meaning is: Israel – a nuclear power – endagers the already fragile world peace. The interpretation “Israel’s atomic power” is not possible to be derived from the German words.

    For the rest of the poem, the Guardian translation may be usable, but the phrase to make the point here in this article – and Grass’ core sentence – “Israel’s atomic power” – the Guardian published a plain wrong translation.

    So I would translate Grass core sentance:

    Why only now, grown old,
    and with what ink remains, do I say:
    The nuclear power Israel endangers
    the already fragile world peace?

    And in interviews after publishing the poem – especially the long one on aspekte – Grass made also very clear that he wants to say: The Israeli government – with it’s intention to start a war of aggression against Iran, be it a nuclear war of aggression or a conventional – is a danger to world peace.

    • Annie Robbins
      April 6, 2012, 12:41 pm

      yes, another translation says the same thing here: link to moonofalabama.org

      Why do I speak only now,
      aged and with my last ink:
      The nuclear power Israel endangers
      an already fragile world peace?

      • Bandolero
        April 6, 2012, 12:53 pm

        @Annie
        I’m native German speaker. I assure you 100% for sure that that Guardian phrase is a wrong translation.

      • Annie Robbins
        April 6, 2012, 1:21 pm

        perhaps i wasn’t clear bandolero, i meant b’s translation (@ MOA) of ‘The nuclear power Israel endangers’ was the same as yours (confirming your translation). he is a native german speaker also.

      • Formerly T-Bear
        April 6, 2012, 4:55 pm

        Sometimes poetry has the necessary flexibility to express one’s thoughts better than prose. IIRC the BBC report mentioned Gunter Glass was having his normal English translator to provide his intents in translation. Another translation posted by: anonymous | Apr 4, 2012 8:21:48 PM | 38 in the MoonofAlabama (linked above) comments also reads well but may have taken liberties from the original. The Guardian’s version hardly matched the original from Süddeutschen Zeitung even a non-reader of German could see what a raw attempt at translation it was (maybe the press of time to publish had a bearing).

        As for what Gunter Glass did at the end of WW II as a youth, passed away with that youth. The chaotic desperation of loosing to vastly superior Soviet military might put many children into harms way, the children had little recourse to object. It is Gunter Glass’s breaking the silence both in “The Tin Drum” and later in “Peeling the Onion” that provides a means of salvation for not only that generation as well as for succeeding generations to know the horrors of war. Almost no one involved in actual combat from any country ever easily spoke of their experiences, German, English, Soviet, French, Japanese or U.S, it is something that will be found in the aftermath of any war. It is the silence that nurtures the festering of fear and the false gods of future wars.

  3. DICKERSON3870
    April 6, 2012, 12:12 pm

    RE: “Under a headline posing the question, Is Günter Grass An Antisemite?, Heilbrunn proceeds with passion and no reason to a foregone conclusion” ~ Woodward

    FROM SOURCEWATCH.ORG (Hasbara):

    (excerpts) Hasbara refers to the propaganda efforts to improve Israel’s image abroad, to justify its actions, and defend it in world opinion…
    Hasbara Campus Manual
    A Hasbara manual for students to use on US univesity campuses is now available online[2]. A summary of the techniques is provided…
    Propaganda is used by those who want to communicate in ways that engage the emotions and downplay rationality, in an attempt to promote a certain message.
    The manual goes on to describe seven propaganda techniques:

    Name calling: through the careful use of words, then name calling technique links a person or an idea to a negative symbol.
    • Glittering generality: Simply put, glittering generality is name calling in reverse. Instead of trying to attach negative meanings to ideas or people, glittering generalities use positive phrases, which the audience are attached to, in order to lend positive image to things. Words such as “freedom”, “civilization”,…
    • Transfer: Transfer involves taking some of the prestige and authority of one concept and applying it to another. For example, a speaker might decide to speak in front of a United Nations flag, in an attempt to gain legitimacy for himself or his idea.
    • Testimonial: Testimonial means enlisting the support of somebody admired or famous to endorse and ideal or campaign.
    • Plain folks: The plain folks technique attempts to convince the listener that the speaker is a ‘regular guy’, who is trust-worthy because the are like ‘you or me’.
    • Fear: Stressing that ignoring the message will likely lead to war, terrorism[3]
    • Bandwagon: Suggest that the stated position is mainstream and use polls to suggest this. [4] . . .

    SOURCE – link to sourcewatch.org

    * “HASBARA HANDBOOK: Promoting Israel on Campus”, published by the World Union of Jewish Students (March 2002) – link to scribd.com

  4. DICKERSON3870
    April 6, 2012, 12:17 pm

    RE: “Then comes the defamation. Why must Grass be condemned and his words ignored? Because as a seventeen year-old he served for five months in the Waffen-SS. ‘[A] former member of the SS has no moral standing, to put it mildly, to criticize Israel.’ Heilbrunn whips the SS line so hard and fast…” ~ Woodward

    FROM THE “Hasbara Handbook”, pages 22-23:

    • Name Calling
    Through the careful choice of words, the name calling technique links a person or an idea to a negative symbol. Creating negative connotations by name calling is done to try and get the audience to reject a person or idea on the basis of negative associations, without allowing a real examination of that person or idea. The most obvious example is name calling — “they are a neo-Nazi group” tends to sound pretty negative to most people. More subtly, name calling works by selecting words with subtle negative meanings for some listeners. For example, describing demonstrators as “youths” creates a different impression from calling them “children”.
    For the Israel activist, it is important to be aware of the subtly different meanings that well chosen words give. Call “demonstrations” “riots”, many Palestinian political organizations “terror organizations”, and so on. .
    . . . Name calling is hard to counter. Don’t allow opponents the opportunity to engage in point scoring. Whenever “name calling” is used, think about referring to the same thing (e.g. Gilo), but with a more favorable description (e.g. “suburb”). Consider calling settlements “communities” or “villages”. Use the same names back; if somebody talks about Sharon’s “war crimes”, talk about Arafat’s war crimes and involvement in terror. . .

    SOURCE, “HASBARA HANDBOOK: Promoting Israel on Campus” (March 2002) -
    link to scribd.com

    • Klaus Bloemker
      April 6, 2012, 9:50 pm

      The misanthropic German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) who lived in Frankfurt with his dog, wrote a treatise on how to win an argument.

      His # 1 rule was: Try to subsume your adversary under a hated category.

      The most hated category is of course ‘Nazi’. That tops ‘Stalinist’ or whatever.

    • Klaus Bloemker
      April 6, 2012, 10:34 pm

      This Hasbara Handbook reminds me of a Scientology technique.

      • Citizen
        April 8, 2012, 11:08 am

        Klaus, which one? A “subversive personality?” Or “Fair Game?” Or “negative engrams?”

      • Klaus Bloemker
        April 8, 2012, 12:05 pm

        Maybe you know better than I do. But beside the Hasbara Handbook there may exist a handbook for ‘dead agenting’ ‘suppressive gentiles’ who endanger Israel’s mission to redeem the world.

  5. sardelapasti
    April 6, 2012, 8:21 pm

    Unnecessary hemming and hawing. If a “Jewish state” were Kosher, an “Aryan state” would be too.

  6. Sumud
    April 7, 2012, 12:25 am

    This is how it works in Grass’s case. Grass has written that Israel poses the greatest threat to world peace. Read the headlines, listen to the politicians and commentators. How outrageous! Except there’s one small problem: that’s not what he wrote.

    Grass may not have written it but according to an EU survey from about 10 years ago most Europeans do believe Israel is the greatest threat to world peace [my emphasis]:

    Israel has been described as the top threat to world peace, ahead of North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran, by an unpublished European Commission poll of 7,500 Europeans, sparking an international row.
    The survey, conducted in October, of 500 people from each of the EU’s member nations included a list of 15 countries with the question, ‘tell me if in your opinion it presents or not a threat to peace in the world’. Israel was reportedly picked by 59 per cent of those interviewed.

    Israel outraged as EU poll names it a threat to peace

    I agree. In the short term Israel is a demented nation that can’t conceive of itself as at peace with Palestinians or any of her other Middle East neighbours, not forgetting of course the relentless warmongering re: Iran. In the medium term it seems entirely possible some nutjob fundamentalists in the IDF will nuke all of the Middle East and Europe rather than allow the apartheid regime to evolve into a single democratic multi-ethnic state with a Palestinian majority.

    • Klaus Bloemker
      April 7, 2012, 10:02 am

      I remember the Israeli and Jewish organization’s outrage about this poll very well. The result of the poll was of course interpreted as proof of the lingering on of European anti-Semitism.

      Israel’s policies never pose a problem – the problem always exists only in the prejudiced minds of the observers of Israel.

    • Klaus Bloemker
      April 7, 2012, 10:53 am

      The Central Council of Jews in Germany ran an article on its website on February 27, 2004 with the headline:
      “Anti-Semitism – a European ‘mental disease’”.

      The article cited the result of the Eurostat poll as proof of this ‘disease’.
      It also pointed to the increased anti-Semitism of the Muslim immigrants.

      • Annie Robbins
        April 7, 2012, 11:49 am

        commentary mag wrote about it too.

        But if anti-Semitism is a variety of racism, it is a most peculiar variety, with many unique characteristics. In my view as a historian, it is so peculiar that it deserves to be placed in a quite different category. I would call it an intellectual disease, a disease of the mind, extremely infectious and massively destructive. It is a disease to which both human individuals and entire human societies are prone.

        Geneticists and experts in related fields may object that my observation is not scientifically valid. My rejoinder is simple: how can one make scientific judgments in this area? Scientists cannot even agree on how to define race itself, or whether the category exists in any meaningful sense. The immense advances in genetics over the last half-century, far from simplifying the problem, have made it appear more complex and mysterious.1 All that scientists appear able to do is to present the evidence, often conflicting, of studies they have undertaken. And this, essentially, is what a historian does as well. He shows how human beings have behaved, over long periods and in many different places, when confronted with the apparent fact of marked racial differences.

        i’m underwhelmed
        link to commentarymagazine.com

      • Klaus Bloemker
        April 7, 2012, 12:24 pm

        David Harris of the American Jewish Commitee said something similar before a US Congress commitee and wrote in a letter to the International Herald Tribune:

        “Anti-Semitism is the world’s oldest social pathology.”

      • Without Walls
        April 8, 2012, 12:38 pm

        The following is [from] an edited transcript of the sixty-first in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Tuesday, July 13, 2010, with Thomas R. Mattair presiding. Panelists were Hillary Mann Leverett, Martin Indyk, Ian Lustick, Paul Pillar

        Q: What can we do to ward off a potential unilateral Israeli strike against Iran? I have feared this since I read “Clean Break” back in 1996, which called for regime change in Iran and then Iraq. I fear it more now after hearing Netanyahu’s interview while he was here, saying that everything is on the table. It’s been reinforced by some of the things that Mr. Indyk has said.

        as the linked caption says, the quote is from an edited transcript. Earlier, the Hill Forum posted a slightly fuller, unedited? version of the same question –

        “Q: Okay. I am XXXXX SteinXXX from Executive Intelligence Review. And my question begins with something that Paul Pillar mentioned, which is – and it is in my view the most immediate danger that we face as a foreign policy issue and might be the highest priority, which is what do we do here in the United States to ward off a potential unilateral Israeli strike against Iran? “

        The point — American policy makers and informed observers have been greatly concerned about Israel’s threat to world peace for at least 18 months.

  7. Thomson Rutherford
    April 7, 2012, 2:36 am

    This furiously continuing flap demonstrates once again, as if we needed any more illustrations, the extraordinarily powerful influence that Jews have over the media. Certainly, the New York Times doesn’t want to let it die. I’m sure that doesn’t surprise Guenter Grass.
    link to nytimes.com

  8. yourstruly
    April 7, 2012, 3:04 am

    since as a youth gunter grass served in the SS, decades later he’s automatically to be dubbed antisemitic? apparently israel firsters believe that once a racist always a racist. following this logic how did alabaman hugo black ever become a supreme court justice? after all during his youth he too had joined a fascist movement, the kkk, yet he went on to become one of the courts most progressive members.

  9. Talkback
    April 7, 2012, 4:41 am

    “And the distortion always involves the same shift: actions are treated as matters of identity.

    Israel is attacked not because of what it does but because of what it is: a Jewish state. Actions demand accountability, but if the assault is treated as striking at the state’s very identity, then the victim can bask in its innocence.” (Paul Woodward)

    And if it can’t denies that it’s actions are critized it mixes how it does something with what it does (because it ‘only’ defends itself).

    And if it can’t deny how it did something it claims it’s not it’s fault (but the terrorist’s).

    And if it can’t deny that it was it’s fault it was a mistake (and mistakes always happens in war.)

    And if it can’t deny that it wasn’t a mistake it points to other criminals and you’re back to square one: Israel is only critized because it’s hated for what it is.

    It’s futile to hold a pathological narcissist accountable.

  10. Les
    April 7, 2012, 9:53 am

    Speaking of hasbara, take note of the Guardian’s perverse translation.

    April 06, 2012
    The Guardian Is Misleading With Its Translation of Grass

    MoA provided a translation of Günter Grass’ poem “What has to be said”. The original poem was published in German by Süddeutsche Zeitung.

    Part of Grass’ poetry expression is through is the use of line breaks and punctuation. I believe it is important to replicate them in a translation even when it may make the text at first a more awkward reading.

    The Guardian has now provided a translation that not only does not stick to the punctuation, verse setting and even tenses of the original but severely distorts the central point of the poem in the fifth stanza.

    Here the fifth stanza in the Guardian translation:

    But now that my own country,
    brought in time after time
    for questioning about its own crimes,
    profound and beyond compare,
    is said to be the departure point,
    (on what is merely business,
    though easily declared an act of reparation)
    for yet another submarine equipped
    to transport nuclear warheads
    to Israel, where not a single atom bomb
    has yet been proved to exist, with fear alone
    the only evidence, I’ll say what must be said.

    Whereto are the nuclear warheads transported in the Guardian’s version of the poem? Where, in the Guardian’s translation, has “no single atom bomb yet been proven to exists”?

    From reading the Guardian’s translation a reader would for both questions give “Israel” as the answer. But that is totally wrong.

    The same sequence from my translation:


    another submarine to Israel
    shall be delivered, whose specialty
    consists of, steering all-annihilating warheads
    whereto, the existence
    of a single bomb is unproven,
    but as a fear shall be conclusiveness,

    The German version:

    ein weiteres U-Boot nach Israel
    geliefert werden soll, dessen Spezialität
    darin besteht, allesvernichtende Sprengköpfe
    dorthin lenken zu können, wo die Existenz
    einer einzigen Atombombe unbewiesen ist,
    doch als Befürchtung von Beweiskraft sein will,

    In my surely correct translation the submarine goes to Israel while the warheads go whereto (dorthin) the existence of of even one bomb is unproven which clearly implies not Israel but Iran.

    I do not know if the Guardian’s translation is intentional misleading. Their translator Breon Mitchel, who also translated Grass’ Tin Drum, seems not to be a native German speaker and maybe just didn’t get it.

    Whatever the reason for that misleading translation is, it is embarrassing for Mitchel and the Guardian to provide such a lousy one.

    link to moonofalabama.org

    • Klaus Bloemker
      April 7, 2012, 2:43 pm

      The Guardian translation doesn’t make sense: Ship a submarine to a country that will outfit it with nuclear warheads but it’s not proven that the country has any.
      Your translation is 100% correct.

  11. mikerol
    May 1, 2012, 2:59 pm

    link to goaliesanxiety.blogspot.com
    contains daily updated links to the 100 + different positive and negative positions taken on the Grass anti-war poem controversy.

    link to summapolitico.blogspot.com is the first part of a summary of the entire controversy.

    link to facebook.com

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