Monday, April 9, 2012

I'm with Günter, this time

For several days now I’ve been following the outrage directed at Günter Grass for having criticized Israel for its hinting at a first strike against Iran, and for Germany’s support of Israel in this venture.  (For a good English-language summary of the issue, click here.)   It has not made much of a splash until now in the American press, but it has been front page news in Germany since the story broke.  And now Israel has declared Günter Grass persona non grata in Israel, thus internationalizing the story. 

No matter how you look at it, when a German is critical of Israel, you know some shit is going to hit a fan.  There are a lot of trigger happy people willing to slap the anti-Semite label on any critic of anything Jewish or Israeli, and that would appear to be what’s going on here.  A serious piling on by Israeli government spokespeople and a number of German politicians as well.  And even a large number of Western media sources.  I think it’s time Günter Grass got a break.

First, some background.

For me, the context for this story is Condoleeza Rice’s argument, still fresh in most people’s memory, for going into Iraq.  “We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” she said.  Remember that?  Well, Israel, under the direction of Superhawk Benyamin Nethanyahu, is following suit.  Only this time it’s different, they say.  While Bush and Tony Blair lied about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, this time, we are being told, Ahmadinejad really is actively working on developing nuclear weapons and his rhetoric suggests he’s perfectly capable of using them. 

And there’s another difference that would seem to justify upping the fear level this time.  When the U.S. attacked Iraq and turned it over to Teheran to control, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the process, most of the rest of the world was not that badly affected.   This time, people are saying, there’s no way others can help be being drawn in.    Washington, for one, is taking the possibility of a preemptive attack seriously.   They’re playing war games about it.  That’s OK.  That’s what they do with our tax money.  It’s called military preparedness. 

What’s unsettling, though, is that after they played the game and came up with the most likely outcome, the results ain’t pretty.   I won’t go into it here, because I want to get to the Günter Grass kerfluffle, but if you want details, here’s a New York Times article on the games.  And if you want more evidence that there is consensus among American military leaders, at least, that an attack on Iran would be pure folly, follow this link.    Or this one.  

One putative Middle East expert, Michael Lüders, argues there is a “likelihood bordering on certainty” that such an attack is coming.   Granted, Lüders' background in political science comes with a focus on Arabic literature which he studied in Damascus, so you may want to think his views are biased against Israel, but that's your call.  And he's part of the discourse, in any case.   And if you want a clearly leftist view, you'll find one here.

So much for background.   The story was quietly cooking on a back burner, at least as far as I was concerned, until suddenly I see the face of Günter Grass all over the German media.  Still probably Germany’s most famous literary figure, author of The Tin Drum and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature,  Grass is now getting on in years - he’s 84.  But he’s still writing and last Wednesday he  published a poem in the Süddeutsche Zeitung taking Israel to task for threatening Iran with a first strike.

Have a look at some of the commentary.  It runs the full range from “How dare this fucking Nazi open his big mouth and try to tell Israel what to do?” to “It’s always so refreshing when somebody finds the courage to break a taboo and say what should have been said a long time ago.”

Nothing new there, right?  Anybody with even a casual familiarity with Israel knows that practically everything affecting Israel leads to the full range of reactions.  Here, though, a surprising number of Jewish voices are playing the anti-Semitism card.  Unfairly, it seems to me.   This is beginning to look to me like a classic example of the misuse of the term, in fact, where the difference between Jewishness and the State of Israel, and the debate over the whether Israel has a right to exist gets tied up with any bad Israeli policy.

As of this writing, I have been unable to find an English translation of his poem, so I made one myself, if you’d like to read the whole thing.  It’s not long.  And I’m not going to add to the petty criticism that it’s not good poetry.  I don’t think it is, to be truthful, but as he has said in a TV interview, he wrote it in the tradition of a long line of German poets speaking out on political issues, not as poetry to delight the senses.  

Grass says he was motivated to speak out about two things bothering him – the fact that Israel is talking out loud about a possible first strike against Iran to eliminate their atomic facilities, and the fact that Germany has just sent Israel a sixth submarine which could transport enough missiles close enough to Iran to cause massive loss of life.   Call it a “literary first strike.”  You wouldn’t be the first.  He also makes a point of saying that Germans have been intimidated into silence by their history and that it’s time to break this taboo.

So here are the two issues.  The real elephant-in-the-room issue is the threat of war, and the painful political philosophical dilemma of whether any nation is entitled to a first-strike defense or whether one must first take a hit before going to war.  And whether this is even a reasonable question any more now that we’re dealing with nuclear weapons.

As always, there is a question behind the question – who is in a position to call the shots on this threat, and why should we believe them?  Who has the technical knowledge, the arms intelligence, a familiarity with the way the chief players in the game think? 

Whether Iran is a real threat to Israel is the real question.  The anti-Israel rhetoric coming from Iran has been nasty, no doubt, although there is controversy over whether Ahmadinejad actually urged the destruction of Israel, or simply the removal of its control over Jerusalem.

The current Israeli administration appear to believe the rhetoric constitutes the potential of a smoking mushroom cloud , and in this existential struggle, even to doubt that threat is treason.  And for a German to commit treason against Israel is unforgiveable.  To Israeli hawks, anti-Semitism on his part is a given.

It would be a wonderful idea if all these kids scruffing it up on the playground would go to their rooms for some down time.  Günter Grass has apologized for saying “Israel” when he should have said “the current Israeli administration.”  Ahmadinejad apparently meant to say he wanted the Israeli occupiers to stop being occupiers – not that he wanted the death of anyone Jewish.  Come on, guys.  Let’s quiet down and then start this discussion over.

And then, when we do that, we can ask some questions which we really do have a right to ask.   Why is it that Israel, the nuclear power, is threatening Iran, the not-yet nuclear power, with war?  That’s pretty much the way Grass is phrasing the question.  And why is the German taxpayer paying for the military equipment that could carry out a preemptive attack?

What one individual German has to say about anything shouldn’t give rise to such resistance, unless, of course, a case can be made that all Germans speak with one voice and it’s old Günter’s.  Or that this is official Germany talking, as many seem to think it is, and which it clearly isn’t.   Grass asserts his whole point in speaking out is that Germany is unable to express any criticism of Israel, and the folk looking for neo-Nazis or unreconstructed Nazis under every rock would seem to be making his point for him. ­  And pardon the endless drumbeat, but keep in mind we’re talking about Israeli military and foreign policy, not the right to be excused from working on the Sabbath in Australia.

Then there is all this character assassination of Grass because of his membership in the Waffen SS.  We’re told he was drafted at the age of 17 into the SS.  Actually, The New Yorker carried his account of his time in the military from Day One just a month before his 17th birthday to the death of Hitler.  Day One was four months after D-Day, and Germany was crumbling.  You can focus on the bitter fact that he was in the Waffen SS and the perhaps even more bitter fact that he kept this secret until he wrote his autobiography, Peeling the Onion (Amazon has fifteen used copies from $2.18.)  Or you can read the New Yorker story and see it through the 17-year-old Grass’s eyes.

Whatever you think of the man who wrote this recollection,  using his time in the SS to make a case he is an anti-Semite seventy years later, given his rich body of work, is unworthy and uninformed.  Stupid, actually.  If he is an anti-Semite, the evidence has to come from elsewhere.

And there are, in fact, better informed people trying to make that case.  The most insidious criticism of Grass I’ve found is by one of Germany’s leading and most interesting intellectuals, Henryk M. Broder.  I’m a great fan of Broder's, actually.  Have been listening to his view on things for some time.  Mostly he’s a shit-kicker.  Takes unpopular sides, like defending Thilo Sarrazin for his views there is something wrong with being Muslim.  Curiously his “freedom of expression” support for Sarrazin's trashing of Muslims isn't matched by support for Grass's freedom of expression.

Broder and a secular Muslim friend of his made a trip to look at the immigrant population around Germany and called it a Deutschland-Safari.   It is a treasure, in my view.  But when speaking out on the Grass issue he loses his balance and states his view with a pseudo intellectual twist.  Grass, he says, represents the new modern form of Anti-Semitism, that he is the “prototype of the new Antisemitism.”    Look closely at what Broder is talking about and you see him saying anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. 

Other highly placed respected Israelis have said similar things. 

Broder argues that Grass has a record of years of anti-Semitism.  He once claimed, falsely, that there were six million German captives of the Russians.  Given the significance of the six million number applied to Jewish deaths in concentration camps, this is an inexcusable example of bad taste and factual irresponsibility on Grass’s part.  Broder's got that right, if it’s true.  I haven’t checked it out.  It does not, however, constitute evidence of anti-Semitism.  Nor is it anti-Semitism for any victims of war – Germans included – to tell their story.  The suggestion that in doing so they are deliberately trivializing the suffering of Jews is not valid.  One hurts.  One says ouch.

You would expect more of Broder, of all people, than to find him apparently unable to distinguish criticism of institutions from criticisms of individuals.   And it is sad to hear the head of the Wiesenthal Center speak out in the same vein.  You’d think that he, too, could tell a Nazi from a modern-day leftie. 

The next charge against him is that, whether anti-Semite or not, he has his head on crooked for letting Israel have it when Iran is so much worthy of criticism.  Israel is a democracy, Iran a theocratic tyranny.  And not just any tyranny – it actively supports Hamas, the organization most clearly identifiable as anti-Israel and most actively engaged in working against Israel’s interests.   Israel, on the other hand, has no interest in taking on Iran.  Suggesting the two are parallel is a morally corrupt suggestion.  Shame on anybody who would cast Israel in the same light.  Many have taken this stance on the issue.

There may well be something to this.  Maybe Israel is the nicer guy.  Nobody’s going to make the case for or against that notion in a few words.  But however you come down on this issue, you’re left with the fact that you’re making a “he hit me first” kind of argument.   Billy’s worse than Johnny, so Billy gets spanked and Johnny doesn't.  

“You’re worse than me” arguments distract from the issue at hand.  Grass’s focus is on the fact that there is a nuclear power making war noises, that the Germans are helping make the wheels go round, and that there appears to be nobody seriously speaking to the consequences.   It doesn’t matter that  Israelis come out a cut above the Iranians (or several cuts above) in the eyes of most Westerners.  This doesn’t argue that they have earned the right to be free from criticism.  The charge that the sabre rattling could actually provoke a violent response should be debated.  In Germany, in the U.N., in Israel, everywhere. 

I won’t list all the sources of criticism I’ve been collecting, because they are readily accessible, in any number of languages, and because the story is still evolving, now that Israel has announced Grass will not be allowed to set foot on Israeli soil any longer.   But, leaving out the comments by morons portraying Grass as one of the Führer’s favorites,  here’s just a couple, to give you a sense of just how steamed up some of Grass’s critics have gotten.

Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz says he saw red when first getting his thoughts down.  “(T)the screen is turning red and the tips of my fingers are demanding the satisfaction of smashing into the keyboard over and over again to say just what I think about the poet.”  (Curiously, that link seems to have been taken down.)

The Hebrew Writers' Association wants to pillory him because he "claimed Israel was preparing a first strike to 'wipe out the Iranian people'."   That's a bad twisting of Grass's words.  What Grass actually said was that "das behauptete Recht auf den Erstschlag (the claim of a right to a first strike) der das von einem Maulhelden unterjochte und zum organisierten Jubel gelenkte iranische Volk auslöschen könnte. (could wipe out a people under the yoke of a bigmouth who rounds them up and makes them celebrate).  It would be nice if the spokesperson at the Hebrew Writers Association had actually read the poem before speaking.

One Israeli Embassy spokesman even referred to the affair as "anti-Semitism in the best European tradition of blood libels before Passover."

On the other hand, Haaretz, Israel’s oppositional press, shares my view that criticism of Grass is misplaced and unworthy.

The world needs to give Israel credit.  It runs remarkably well as a democracy, in some ways better than most Western democracies.  Tel Aviv is, from all reports, an exciting modern sophisticated city.  People fly in, people fly out.  There are gay pride parades – the only country in the Middle East where such freedom exists.  The list of Israeli’s virtues is long.

But getting their knickers twisted over the fact that a German has just said publicly what lots of Israelis say themselves – that all is not right in Israeli politics – takes them down a notch.

Grass ought to be invited to Israel and debated with, not shunned for opposing a right-wing governmental policy.

Günter Grass deserves better.  Israel deserves better.  We all deserve better.

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