It’s starting to dawn on me how important Gunter Grass’s poem is. The naysayers predictably took their first loud shots against it (and him), that’s to be expected. But the pushback has hardly begun and what remains unclear is the overall reaction of the public both within German society and internationally.
Commenter LeaNder alerted us to this prescient article in Spiegel Online by influential German columnist and political analyst Jakob Augstein (check out his bio, no slouch), who nails it in his article Why We Need an Open Debate on Israel.
Gideon Levy has also weighed in: Israelis can be angry with Gunter Grass, but they must listen to him. While both journalists are critical of Grass, they capture what I believe will be remembered as the lasting impact of his poem.
Augstein writes “the Netanyahu administration has the entire world holding its breath” and “Israel has thrust an ultimatum on the world”. How many people feel like this? And who is speaking for us?
Then he asserts, “A much-delayed dialogue has begun”. Let’s hope so. Would it even be possible to have an open bi continental or global conversation about the fear engendered by the threat Israel represents with the prospect of another war? Augstein:
A great poem it is not. Nor is it a brilliant political analysis. But the brief lines that Günter Grass has published under the title “What Must Be Said” will one day be seen as some of his most influential words. They mark a rupture. It is this one sentence that we will not be able to ignore in the future: “The nuclear power Israel is endangering a world peace that is already fragile.”
It is a sentence that has triggered an outcry. Because it is true. Because it is a German, an author, a Nobel laureate who said it. Because it is Günter Grass who said it. And therein lies the breach. And, for that, one should thank Grass. He has taken it upon himself to utter this sentence for all of us. A much-delayed dialogue has begun.
Now, backed by a US in which presidents must secure the support of Jewish lobby groups in the run-up to elections as well as by a Germany in which historical penance has assumed a military component, the Netanyahu administration has the entire world holding its breath: “Netanyahu’s Israel has dictated the global agenda as no small state has ever done before,” writes the Israeli daily Haaretz. From oil prices to terrorism, there are plenty of reasons for the world to fear a war between Israel and Iran.
Israel has thrust an ultimatum on the world. It doesn’t want to supply evidence that Iran has a bomb. Nor does it want to provide proof that Iran is even building a bomb. Israel’s stance is simple: It doesn’t want Iran to reach the “zone of immunity.” Accordingly, Israel is threatening to launch an attack before the Iranians can bury their atomic facilities so deep in the granite that even the largest bunker-busting American bombs can no longer reach them.
At the moment, Iran is feeling the pressure of sanctions. But the time has finally come to put some pressure on Israel, as well. Mind you, whoever says such a thing is not trying “to relativize the guilt of the Germans by making the Jews into perpetrators,” as Mathias Döpfner says. In this case, we’re not talking about German history. We’re talking about the world. And we’re talking about the present.
“Because it is true”. There, he said it. Even if one does not believe Israel will use those weapons the power over the psyche of ordinary people with this constant conversation about whether Israel should or should not attack Iran (with or without the US), cannot be denied and it is too much to bear. If it haunts me, just imagine what it would feel like being the target of that kind of animosity.
Levy, writing from Israel, extracts the same essential message from Grass’s poem: we need to listen and express ourselves.
Grass’ “What Must Be Said” does contain things that must be said. It can and should be said that Israel’s policy is endangering world peace. His position against Israeli nuclear power is also legitimate. He can also oppose supplying submarines to Israel without his past immediately being pulled out as a counterclaim. But Grass exaggerated, unnecessarily and in a way that damaged his own position. Perhaps it is his advanced age and his ambition to attract a last round of attention, and perhaps the words came forth all at once like a cascade, after decades during which it was almost impossible to criticize Israel in Germany.
That’s the way it is when all criticism of Israel is considered illegitimate and improper and is stopped up inside for years. In the end it erupts in an extreme form.
After we denounce the exaggeration, after we shake off the unjustified part of the charge, we must listen to these great people. They are not anti-Semites, they are expressing the opinion of many people. Instead of accusing them we should consider what we did that led them to express it..
Something tells me Grass’s poem could be the gift that keeps on giving. Open the floodgates and let the real conversation begin. Let’s hope Jakob Augstein is right and Grass’s poem marks a rupture, allowing more of us to express ourselves moving forward.