Israel’s poetry critics

The people in Israel and Germany who are most outraged by Nobel Prize-winning author Gunter Grass’ latest work have one thing in common: They think it’s ridiculous, and possibly anti-Semitic, for Grass to assert a moral equivalency between Israel and Iran. Yet by overreacting to Grass’ criticism, Israeli officials are acting like, well, Iranians.

Grass, 84, is being lambasted in his native Germany over his poem “What Must Be Said,” published last week in the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. The poem is Grass’ reaction to assertions by Israeli officials that their country may be justified in launching a first strike against Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, even though Israel is widely believed to have itself acquired nuclear arms without the knowledge or acquiescence of the international community. The poem appeals to Israel to renounce violence and for both Israel and Iran to open nuclear sites to international inspectors.

“Putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level is not ingenious but absurd,” wrote German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. While Grass’ work raises old questions in his native land about whether it’s acceptable to criticize Israel given Germany’s Nazi past, it’s having an even more divisive impact in Israel, where some see it as part of a growing international movement to delegitimize the nation. Hence the resulting personal attacks on Grass by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who suggested that Grass was motivated by anti-Semitism that could be traced back to his time as a World War II soldier in the Waffen SS. And the terrible decision by Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai to bar Grass from entering the country.

Grass’ wartime past is certainly troublesome. Yet it does little to undercut the power of his anti-fascist novels (including the 1959 masterpiece “The Tin Drum”), nor does it imply that there is anything anti-Semitic about his poem. There isn’t; it’s a polemic about Israeli policies with which Grass disagrees. For Israelis to accuse him of anti-Semitism plays into a common belief that such accusations are a mere excuse to suppress dissent against official policy.

Israel and Iran aren’t morally equivalent because Israel is an open democracy that cherishes free speech and the rule of law. Yet barring a prominent European intellectual from the country for expressing his political views is precisely the kind of reaction we’d expect from Iran’s mullahs.