Writers will often defend other writers whose work is attacked on political grounds, but few in Israel’s literary circle could muster any sympathy at all for the German novelist Gunter Grass, who suggested in a recent poem that Israel might be plotting to destroy Iran.
For most of them, the message was bad and the art was worse.
Still, some said Israel had overreacted by banning Grass from ever visiting Israel.
The 65-line poem, titled “What Must Be Said,” and published in several European newspapers, takes Israel to task for threatening to attack Iran’s nuclear program, a strike that Grass writes “could annihilate the Iranian people.”
It also accuses Israel of endangering “the already fragile world peace” and says his Germany is complicit by supplying Israel with submarines allegedly capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The text has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum both in Europe and Israel. It has also refocused attention on the war record of the Nobel Prize laureate, who admitted in a 2006 memoir to serving in the Waffen SS—an armed wing of the Nazi Party.
“He doesn’t understand how much damage he’s doing with such stupid and irresponsible comments about Israel wanting to destroy Iran,” A.B. Yehoshua, among Israel’s leading novelists, told the Daily Beast.
Yehoshua, who recalls Grass accompanying German Chancellor Willy Brandt on a landmark visit to Israel in 1973, described the writer’s analysis as plain wrong and said it detracted attention from the real problem–Israel’s ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
“I understand the impulse of a novelist to write about political matters. This is not a sin,” said Yehoshua, who has authored essays on politics and spoken against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
“But this is a subject in which he doesn’t know the details. And the fact that he has a Nobel Prize doesn’t guarantee that he’ll be right on issues he has not studied closely.”
Israeli leaders have indeed threatened military action against Iran if international sanctions fail to stop the country’s drive toward nuclear weapons capability.
But any Israeli attack would likely be restricted to nuclear installations and military targets. And even that limited scenario is subject to intense debate in Israel.
Grass, 84, also mentions in the poem Israel’s own undeclared nuclear arsenal and says it must come under international supervision.
Yehoshua Sobol, an acclaimed Israeli playwright, said Grass has a psychological need to exaggerate Israel’s intentions in order to acquit himself of “the burden of partnership” in Nazi war crimes.
“Grass’s subconscious needs Israel to wipe out the Iranian people because on the day that Israel destroys 80 million people, Grass will finally be found not guilty in the trial of history,” Sobol wrote in the daily Israel Hayom. “Hitler and the Third Reich, whose uniform Grass wore, caused the death of only 50 million people, and now Israel is going to destroy 80 million people."
A decade ago, Israelis had a similarly angry response when the Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago suggested Israel had turned Ramallah into a “concentration camp” by blockading the Palestinian city.
But Grass’s poem seemed to be particularly irksome. Some Israeli writers even criticized its style, describing it as too literal and direct.
“I usually think poems that carry very specific and pragmatic messages shouldn’t be written as poems,” said Etgar Keret, an Israeli short-story writer whose collections have been translated into dozens of languages. “Art is about some kind of ambiguity. It’s necessary for the literary effect.”
But Keret also criticized the response of Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, who declared Grass persona non grata earlier this week and gave border authorities a standing order to prevent him from entering the country.
“I don’t think anyone who wrote a poem should be banned from Israel,” Keret told The Daily Beast. “It’s dangerous when one politician can decide a poem is grounds for banning people. I’m sure there are quite a few short stories of mine that Yishai doesn’t like. I wouldn’t want him to prevent me from returning home next time I’m abroad.”
Neither Yehoshua nor Keret has ever met Grass. One Israeli author who has is Amos Oz, perhaps Israel’s most successful novelist.
Asked about the poem by phone, Oz would only say he was saddened by the incident. “I’m sorry for what he did.”