Saturday Art: Thoughts on the Günter Grass Poem ”what must be said,” and Increasingly Assertive Criticism by Artists of Israeli Policies
I. Günter Grass, Germany’s most honored living novelist, disseminated a new poem this week. What Must Be Said has brought the 84-year-old antiwar icon into the crosshairs of militant Zionist expansionists and those seeking to vilify Iran.
The author wrote the poem in German. There have been numerous translations into English and several other languages. Here is what I consider to be the most resonant English language translation yet, by Heather Horn, for The Atlantic:
What Must Be Said
Why do I stay silent, conceal for too long
What clearly is and has been
Practiced in war games, at the end of which we as survivors
Are at best footnotes.
It is the alleged right to first strike
That could annihilate the Iranian people–
Enslaved by a loud-mouth
And guided to organized jubilation–
Because in their territory,
It is suspected, a bomb is being built.
Yet why do I forbid myself
To name that other country
In which, for years, even if secretly,
There has been a growing nuclear potential at hand
But beyond control, because no testing is available?
The universal concealment of these facts,
To which my silence subordinated itself,
I sense as incriminating lies
And force–the punishment is promised
As soon as it is ignored;
The verdict of “anti-Semitism” is familiar.
Now, though, because in my country
Which from time to time has sought and confronted
The very crime
That is without compare
In turn on a purely commercial basis, if also
With nimble lips calling it a reparation, declares
A further U-boat should be delivered to Israel,
Whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads to where the existence
Of a single atomic bomb is unproven,
But through fear of what may be conclusive,
I say what must be said.
Why though have I stayed silent until now?
Because I think my origin,
Which has never been affected by this obliterating flaw,
Forbids this fact to be expected as pronounced truth
Of the country of Israel, to which I am bound
And wish to stay bound.
Why do I say only now,
Aged and with my last ink,
That the nuclear power of Israel endangers
The already fragile world peace?
Because it must be said
What even tomorrow may be too late to say;
Also because we–as Germans burdened enough–
Could be the suppliers to a crime
That is foreseeable, wherefore our complicity
Could not be redeemed through any of the usual excuses.
And granted: I am silent no longer
Because I am tired of the hypocrisy
Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped
That this will free many from silence,
Prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger
To renounce violence and
That an unhindered and permanent control
Of the Israeli nuclear potential
And the Iranian nuclear sites
Be authorized through an international agency
Of the governments of both countries.
Only this way are all, the Israelis and Palestinians,
Even more, all people, that in this
Region occupied by mania
Live cheek by jowl among enemies,
In the end also to help us.
It is being quickly spread, along the lines of multi-lingual, global, 21st century Samidzat. And, like a piece of 1960s Samidzat that went viral, the authorities, knowing it is impossible to stop the word, seek to either belittle the author or claim he is something of an anti-Semitic ex-Nazi. Here’s the first approach:
There is a man-child who never grew up
Who wants to warn the world that it might blow up
He is known as The Tin Ear
And lives in fear
that the world will go kablooie
Or as George Bush would say, nukleer
He is old but was always somewhat confused
For many years the truth to tell he refused
He wrote a book that told a tale
Of a German war of massive scale
When the world went berzerk with war
Because the Nazis did assail
The fact he omitted as he lectured others
Is that he himself was one of the brothers….
Unless Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently confided in him, [Grass'] opinion is vacuous. Grass criticizes the German government for selling Israel another submarine. This is a legitimate view on a matter that should be decided democratically by the German people.
But Grass’ comparison of Israel and Iran is unfair, because unlike Iran, Israel has never threatened to wipe another country off the map.
Grass is critical of Israeli governments, more than of the Israeli people, it seems to me. His critics, in many articles, including that above, are more careless, claiming “Iran,” rather than its very lame-duck President, wants to erase Israel from the map.
Several articles have claimed Grass’ acquiescence, through his three-month-long action at the age of 17, on the rapidly crumbling eastern borders of Germany in the last months of World War II, after being forcibly inducted from anti-aircraft defense into the Waffen SS, as having constituted his being a member of the Nazi Party or of his having been some sort of war criminal:
Grass, who revealed in 2006 that he had been a member of the Nazi Waffen SS, a group committed to eliminating European Jewry during World War II….
Ultimately, Grass demonstrates in his poem that the meaning of the pledge “never again” is very different for the historic perpetrators and their victims: for the former Waffen SS recruit, the most important thing is to be never again seen as a perpetrator….
and, the inevitable label of anti-Semitism:
SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you think of Günter Grass’s poem, “What Must Be Said,” which was published in Germany’s center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Wednesday?
Wolffsohn: It would have fit well in the (German far-right weekly) National Zeitung – and I mean that with no ifs or buts. In the poem, Grass makes the victims into perpetrators, and otherwise it contains pretty much every other anti-Semitic stereotype that we know from the far-right scene. And, on top of that, the language is completely lacking in sophistication.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In a statement on Wednesday, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin pointed out that the poem was published just before the feast of Passover.
Wolffsohn: I noticed that, too. In doing so, Grass is following an ignoble tradition. The time around Passover has always been the time of pogroms and a time when the blood-libel myth about Jews is disseminated.
One should read Grass’ own account of his wartime service, published in The New Yorker on June 4, 2007, titled How I Spent the War.
Author Grass has his many detractors. What is more interesting in this 21st century climate of growing resistance to Israeli government bellicosity, are the views of his defenders. His poem has been parsed more thoroughly than any in recent memory. It has been paraphrased and mocked. Perhaps the best line-by-line defense of the content of Grass’ unmetered verses has been that of Israeli blogger Yossi Gurvitz, at his niche at + 972, Wish You Orwell. Here’s Yossi:
So, basically everything said by Grass is plausible, at least within the frame of the psychological warfare waged by Israel. The truth is never anti-Semitic. There was no blood libel here, no anti-Semitism, no claim of children’s blood used for ritual purposes. Furthermore, criticism of Israel’s intended policy has nothing whatsoever to do with Judaism or Jews. The claim (often made by Israeli officials) that Israel represents world Jewry, and that hence any attack on it is an attack on them, is a claim that Jews everywhere owe allegiance to a country of which they are not citizens and to which they never made any formal vow of loyalty, and thus can credibly be considered to be itself anti-Semitic.
Had the Israeli Foreign Ministry any shame left, it would not use the phrases it did against Grass. But, unsurprisingly, it did. The good thing which may come out of this affair is that people may learn to discount screeches of anti-Semitism from Israel with a sigh of “there they go again.”
II. Indeed. I’m coming up, on April 8th, the eighth anniversary of my “there they go again” moment. Since then I’ve seen hundreds of good people and dozens of artists slandered with the anti-Semitism label. This cynical use of the term has gone beyond “The boy who cried ‘Wolf!’” territory, though.
More importantly, artists, especially young ones – in spite of Grass’ octogenarian creds – are ratcheting up their creative work denouncing Zionist expansionism, and instead supporting Palestinian rights, self determination and cultural aspirations. They are continuing to either denounce ties between Israeli cultural institutions and the illegal West Bank settlements, or passing up on performance opportunities in Israel.
For instance, just this past week the debate in the UK about whether or not the Israeli theater organization, Habima, should be able to participate in the upcoming Globe Theater Shakespeare Festival, with its production of The Merchant of Venice, is heating up.
At the heart of the issue for proponents of the ban is Habima’s support for settlement activities in the West Bank, through performances there. This is direct support of illegal, apartheid policy, pure and simple.
As a national theater company, Habima will perform for all residents of Israel. Residents of Ariel are residents of Israel and Habima will stage shows for them.
Ariel is a very large illegal town, erected on Palestinian land in violation of international law. To support Habima, especially in view of this recent statement, is to become complicit in a view that accepts violation of such laws as routine, even acceptable.
On top of that, Habima co-manager, Odelia Friedman, has declared, regarding the troupe:
We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.
Stalin would be proud.
Günter Grass, delving into the junction between propaganda and culture, is dismissed as a cranky old man, previously caught skulking from his secret, hideous past. Yet Israeli cultural institutions and their apparatchiks and favored artists practice this lack of differentiation day in and day out.
Fortunately, those of us who write about this are growing in numbers and venues at which we express ourselves.