The intellectual cowardice of Günter Grass’s critics

Israel/PalestineMiddle East
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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.

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