Günter Grass on Israel: what Norm said at the time

April 13, 2015 at 8:09 pm (anti-semitism, blogosphere, censorship, From the archives, history, intellectuals, iraq, israel, literature, poetry, posted by JD)

The announcement today of the death of Günter Grass brings to mind the late Prof Norm‘s wise words following the Israeli government’s decision to declare Grass persona non grata in the light of the poem published below. This row erupted in 2012 – six years after Grass confessed to having been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager.

What Must Be Said

by Günter Grass

But why have I kept silent till now?

Because I thought my own origins,

Tarnished by a stain that can never be removed,

meant I could not expect Israel, a land

to which I am, and always will be, attached,

to accept this open declaration of the truth.

Why only now, grown old,

and with what ink remains, do I say:

Israel’s atomic power endangers

an already fragile world peace?

Because what must be said

may be too late tomorrow;

and because – burdened enough as Germans –

we may be providing material for a crime

that is foreseeable, so that our complicity

wil not be expunged by any

of the usual excuses.

And granted: I’ve broken my silence

because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy;

and I hope too that many may be freed

from their silence, may demand

that those responsible for the open danger we face renounce the use of force,

may insist that the governments of

both Iran and Israel allow an international authority

free and open inspection of

the nuclear potential and capability of both.


Wisdom from Norm on the  Günter Grass row:

Yesterday Eamonn McDonagh posted about the Israeli government’s decision to declare Günter Grass persona non grata. With the aid of a couple of counterfactual analogies, he argued that Israel was ‘entirely justified’ in excluding Grass from its territory for representing the country as a danger to world peace. As Eamonn also wrote:

There’s no reason for the victims of genocide and their descendants to feel themselves obliged to allow Grass or anyone with a similar history or views to enter their country to lecture them on their immorality and how they continue to pose, just like when he was a young man, a special danger to the world.

Also yesterday, Nick Cohen put up a post of contrary tendency. ‘The only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’, Nick wrote, ‘is if his words will be a direct incitement to crime.’ It was, he added, an insulting assumption on the part of the Israeli government that its citizens ‘cannot listen to arguments they do not like and respond to them with better arguments’. This was a logic of censorship and cultural boycott:

To the Israeli government’s mind, Grass is wicked and therefore cannot be heard.

I have intimated here that the feature of Grass’s poem that was most repugnant was not the world peace stuff but his suggestion that Israel might be contemplating an attack on Iran which could wipe out the Iranian people – so making the Jewish state, on the basis of nothing but his own fancy, an agent of nuclear annihilation. In any case, in what follows I shall argue – though not in this order – that the Israeli government should not have banned Günter Grass as persona non grata; but that Eamonn is right (subject to one reservation) and Nick is wrong on the fundamental principles at stake.

Let’s begin with the opinion of someone else altogether – Salman Rushdie, who said on Twitter:

OK to dislike, even be disgusted by #GünterGrass poem, but to ban him is infantile pique. The answer to words must always be other words.

This sounds good, and of course it’s only a tweet, which doesn’t allow room for contextualization and qualification; but it isn’t true. Generally it is a good principle to meet words with words, and governments certainly shouldn’t prohibit people’s views (unless they incite violence) simply on account of disliking them. But there are other ways that people may legitimately choose to deal with opinions they find odious: for example, they may decline to keep company with those who propagate such opinions, decline to host them in their homes, decline to publish their writings when they have this power of decision, and so forth. Not every exclusion of someone from a space – whether physical, literary or virtual – amounts to censorship.

A government should not ban opinions which don’t constitute incitement; but, to the best of my knowledge, the Israeli government has not done this with respect to Günter Grass’s views. It has not done it on its own territory, where presumably anyone is free to articulate those views, publicize them, support them, criticize them, or whatever; and it has not done it anywhere else for obvious reasons, since it does not have that authority. It has simply declared that Grass is no longer welcome in Israel – and this is a matter that Israel may, with perfect legitimacy, decide. When Eamonn says, therefore, that Israel has no obligation to admit Grass, he is right: as a country it has a definite right to decide on who is and who isn’t welcome to visit. This is not the same thing, however, as saying that Israel is entirely justified in excluding Grass. It has a right to exclude him, but there may be reasons why it should not do so nonetheless (reasons I will come to shortly). It’s the same as saying that someone has the right not to let another into her house, but that she was wrong on the specific occasion to insist on her right, because (say) the putative visitor was cold, wet and exhausted and needed shelter for a short spell to get out of the raging storm.

On the other hand, Nick’s ‘only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker’ – namely, direct incitement to crime – applies to the opinions that should be expressible within a government’s territorial jurisdiction, but not necessarily to the admissibility of persons. It strikes me as not at all unreasonable for national communities to decide that there are individuals whose ideological track record renders them unwanted as guests. At the same time, contrary to what Nick suggests, by the exclusion of Grass the Israeli government is not preventing its citizens from listening to arguments they do not like or suppressing Grass’s views. Neither is his exclusion from the country comparable to the logic of cultural boycotts. The latter target whole categories of people independently of anything they have done or of what they have said or may think, simply on the grounds of their national identity.

Why, then, do I say that the Israeli government is wrong to have declared Grass persona non grata? I say this because it has made it a matter of authoritative political decision who is welcome as a guest in Israel, when (or at any rate so I assume) it does not actually know whether there would be a national consensus to this effect. If it had security and intelligence reasons for the exclusion that it could not disclose, this would be a relevant consideration. But I cannot believe Israeli intelligence would back the view that a visit from Günter Grass could pose a serious threat to Israeli society or public order. In free and democratic polities, who may be invited into the country as a guest is generally left to private individuals and organizations. The interests of Israel would have been better served by leaving it so in the present case. If some group of Israelis should be stupid enough to think the opinions expressed in Grass’s latest ‘work’ are worth hearing out of his own mouth, then bevakasha, let them host him and enjoy the privilege of hearing him malign their country, just like numberless Jew-haters the world over, as exterminationist and genocidal. The political health and reputation of Israel will likely suffer less from indulging this stupidity than from putting in place a ban which may be entirely pointless anyway.


  1. Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

    So Herr Gunter was drafted into the Waffen SS and it was not voluntarily. He just obeyed orders! Then he has a belated go at Israel. So when in history was he not a Nazi? Did he try to get out of the terrible Nazi State. Was he just a tax collector! The Waffen SS were the social conscience of the SS.

  2. Rilke said,

    The Waffen SS were the armed wing of the SS not its political wing. As the Waffen SS grew stronger the Nazis used them increasingly to replace the regular army units and staff. They began as a sort of field police and political soldiers and ended as a sort of fanatical military branch of the Nazi state. I know little of Grass’ induction into the Waffen SS, but it may be that he was drafted as it grew to replace regular army units. If so, then this is perhaps more excusable as refusal would certainly mean a Nazi court martial, depending on the stage of the war at the time. If it was late on in the war after the Red Army crossed into German held territory, then refusal usually meant summary execution. If he volunteered for an SS unit rather than a standard Wermacht unit then this is a very different matter and shows a degree of choice and culpability with the Nazi machine. The dates and particulars matter in such cases.

  3. Steven Johnston said,

    Gunter was born on the 16th of October 1927 and was called up to the Waffen SS in 1944, so he must have been 16/17 at the time. Are we really going to ****-can a man for what he did at that age?

    • Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

      The British Army recruit at 16. Cadets are on the firing range much younger. Age is no excuse.

      • Steven Johnston said,

        So everyone that joined between say 1979 – 1997 was a supporter of the Tories?

        Are you saying that young men who joined the South African army during apartheid should be condemned forever as racists?

        Recruits to the armed forces in the Soviet Union are Stalinists?

  4. damon said,

    Israel banned Grass over a poem? Wow.
    They should be ridiculed for that.
    If they would ban for a poem, there’s a lot of Israelis that might be banned from the EU. Spokesmen like Lt. Col. Peter Lerner for example.

    Others would defend him of course, but if it was down to me, I’d ban him from visiting Britain again.

    • Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

      Seems to me the man is using his extensive talent in defense of his country agains Islamic fascists. No reason to ban him from the UK.

      • Steven Johnston said,

        He can’t be banned from the UK as he died yesterday.

  5. Rilke said,

    Odd one this about Grass. By 1944 it was more or less suicide to refuse to be drafted into a Waffen SS unit if you were fit for military service and doing no other military or ‘essential’ war work. At 17 Grass qualifies on all counts and refusal would certainly have meant summary execution, frequently the same day. This would mitigate in his favour.
    However, by 44, the atrocities and extensive crimes of the Waffen SS were well known, especially in the Eastern theatre. As I say, if he actually volunteered for a Waffen SS unit rather than say anti-air raid work, regular Wermacht infantry or some such, then one would have to ask why.
    Youthful fanaticism or legitimate fear of death are very different motives.

    • Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

      He was part of the Nazi war machine by his own admission. Ich war ordered to make dem Yids dig their own graves and was ordered to shoot them in the heid and throw them into the pits and cover them in lime. It wisnae ma fault they telt me tae dae it, honest. I just joined up for the smart uniform tae pull ra burds, honest you honour.

  6. Steven Johnston said,

    He didn’t volunteer he was drafted. Like you, not much he could do about it.


    • Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

      Steven I was referring to the link at 4 above.

      • damon said,

        I know people will defend him and the IDF’s fire policy.
        But I think that a few less bombs, missiles and artillery rounds could have been fired without endangering Israel too much.
        Enough to have spared just a handful of the innocent civilians who died and who were maimed perhaps.
        Like the boys on the beach playing football for example.
        Hit from a missile fired from a ship out at sea.
        What did they think they were looking at through their long range binoculars? Men setting up rockets?
        They can only have seen movement on the beach and presumed that it was Hamas people.
        The same disregard was shown when they dropped a bomb at the gates of a UN school refuge, because they saw a couple of Hamas guys going past on a motorcycle. I know that ”the rules of war” allow this disregard for innocent lives as long as you are aiming for legitimate war targets, but morally it’s pretty disgusting. But only in my not particularly valuable opinion.

  7. Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

    I say to damon above that when you enter or initiate a conflict and hide behind civilians many of whom are happy to give cover then they will be killed or injured. It is called war damon. And then we had the tunnels no doubt built and propped up by materiels meant for housing and infrastructure and paid for by the international community. Do stop taking sides damon.

    • Steven Johnston said,

      I agree, we should not take sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict as neither side if for the worker.

    • damon said,

      I’m not on anyone’s side in the I/P conflict particularly. Apart from the innocent civilians who get caught up in it when it gets like last summer in Gaza.
      Of course Hamas are the biggest immediate problem and causer of the actual outbreak of war fighting, but people in Gaza are family members of Israeli citizens too and to be so harsh to family members of your own people shows something of a rotten mentality there. Because they aren’t Jews. If there were Jews living there in Gaza as well, Israel would have taken the greatest care not to harm or terrorise them.
      The innocent people who were sheltering in UN schools were not responsible for anything. And young children who now have to live with the injuries they received last year did not deserve to be regarded so cheaply.
      In my opinion.

  8. Rilke said,

    It seems we have no basis for concluding that any devastating act was a crime. Given that all in war is justified accoring to Glesgag, then how can silly Glesgag condemn Grass and the Nazis? I do not see any logical basis for condemning the Waffen SS, given what Glesgag says, as the Waffen SS claimed that all atroctity was justified in a race war for Germany’s ‘survival’. Try and think about what your are writing you idiot!

    • Glesga Keeping Scotland Free From Loonies said,

      Pure crap Rike. Read and then respond.

  9. Rilke said,

    “It is called war damon”… hilarious!

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