Storm Continues After German Writer’s Poem Against Israel (NY) TIMES) By NICHOLAS KULISH and ETHAN BRONNER BERLIN, GERMANY 04/07/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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BERLIN — Günter Grass, Germany’s most famous living writer, tried
Friday to quell the growing controversy over a poem critical of
Israel that he published this week, saying that he did not mean to
attack the country wholesale but only the policies of the current
However, three days of worldwide debate, including a stinging
personal rebuke from Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu,
show no sign of subsiding.
The nine-stanza, 69-line poem, “What Must Be Said,” appeared
Wednesday on the front of the culture section of the Munich-based
newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Mixing lyrical turns of phrase with
discussions of the need for international supervision of both
Israel’s and Iran’s nuclear programs, it bluntly called Israel a
threat to world peace for its warnings that it might attack Iran’s
nuclear facilities. By supplying weapons to Israel, including
submarines, Germany risked being complicit in “a foreseeable crime,”
Mr. Grass wrote.
“Why do I say only now, aged and with my last drop of ink, that the
nuclear power Israel endangers an already fragile world peace?” his
poem asks. “Because that must be said which may already be too late
to say tomorrow.”
In an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung published Friday, Mr. Grass
said he did not mean to attack Israel, but Mr. Netanyahu’s
policies. “I should have also brought that into the poem,” he said.
Several leading publications reacted to the poem by calling Mr. Grass
an anti-Semite, while others dismissed it as nonsense.
Israel reacted with widespread condemnation and fury. Mr. Netanyahu
issued a statement on Thursday calling Mr. Grass’s comparison of
Israel and Iran “shameful,” saying that it said more about Mr. Grass
than about Israel.
“It is Iran, not Israel, that is a threat to the peace and security
of the world,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “It is Iran, not Israel, that
threatens other states with annihilation.”
Long a self-proclaimed conscience of the German nation, urging
Germans to confront the Nazi past, Mr. Grass was branded a hypocrite
after he revealed in 2006 for the first time that he served in the
Waffen-SS at the end of World War II, when he was 17.
Referring to that admission, Mr. Netanyahu said it was “perhaps not
surprising” that Mr. Grass “cast the one and only Jewish state as the
greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means
to defend itself.”
Germany’s strong support for Israel in its foreign policy is just one
way that the country has tried to make up for the crimes of the
Holocaust. But the lessons of World War II also made many Germans
strongly pacifist and thus uncomfortable with the hawkish tone and
threatening language emanating from Mr. Netanyahu’s government.
“He’s focusing the fears of Germans now around Israel as a danger,”
Gary Smith, executive director at the American Academy in Berlin,
said of Mr. Grass. “I’m afraid this could be a turning point in the
way part of the German public speaks about Israel.”
Writing on the popular news Web site Spiegel Online, Jakob Augstein,
the publisher of the weekly magazine Der Freitag, said that it was
neither a great poem nor brilliant political analysis, but that “one
should thank Grass” for starting the debate about the threat Israel
poses to peace.
Others said that it was not a coincidence that Mr. Grass so often
found himself at the center of controversy, but that controversy was
instead his goal in the first place.
“He wrote this poem knowing from the way he wrote it that there would
be condemnation,” said Frank Schirrmacher, co-publisher of the
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who was interviewing Mr. Grass when
he made his revelation about the Waffen-SS membership. “He needs the
condemnation to move on to the next step, which is to say that it is
impossible in Germany to criticize Israel.”
Mr. Grass, the author of plays and essays as well as novels and
poems, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999. He admitted
that he was a member of the Hitler Youth as a boy and believed at the
time in the group’s aims, but long claimed that he was drafted into
an antiaircraft unit, never mentioning the Waffen-SS until he was 78.
In the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer, a
weekly columnist, devoted his Friday essay to Mr. Grass under the
headline “The Moral Blindness of Günter Grass.”
“Logic and reason are useless when a highly intelligent man, a Nobel
laureate no less, does not understand that his membership in an
organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of
millions of Jews disqualified him from criticizing the descendants of
those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the
insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization
began,” Mr. Pfeffer wrote.
He added, “Having served in the organization that tried, with a fair
amount of success, to wipe the Jews off the face of the earth he
should keep his views to himself when it comes to the Jews’ doomsday
Nicholas Kulish reported from Berlin, and Ethan Bronner from
Jerusalem. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 04/07/12)
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