Günter Grass’s poem ‘Was gesagt werden muss’ (in English: ‘What must be said’) published earlier this week in the ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’ has raised anew the question as to whether it is possible to be critical of Israel without being—or accused of being—anti-Semitic. This was perhaps also one of its intentions.
At one level, the poem calls for the stop of the delivery to Israel of a German submarine with missiles capable of firing nuclear weapons. It criticizes arms’ deals in the name of reparation for the Holocaust, a crime that can and ought never to be regarded as remedied (as Grass further explained in his TV interview to 3sat); calls for the international control and oversight of both Iran’s and Israel’s atomic programs; and reminds Germany of its moral obligation to keep out of military conflicts (as well as the production and trade of arms) given its primordial sins from the past.
At another level, the poem is its author’s self-examination for keeping silent for so long. Grass feels it is necessary to criticize Israel, yet he has avoided doing so because he is German and for fear of being labeled an anti-Semite. But this self-censorship he now experiences as hypocritical.
It is a problem several intellectuals, German and non-German, have faced throughout the second half of the twentieth century; and in some respects it is one that is not very different from the taboo that plagued left intellectuals in the immediate postwar period regarding communism. How does or can one criticize a state or a political ideology that represents the fulfillment of a dream based on universal values?
The Israel government has reacted to the poem by placing Grass on the list of inadmissible aliens, with Prime-Minister Netanyahu recalling that Günter Grass was a member, in his youth, of the Waffen SS. The Israeli Embassy in Berlin drew associations with the “European tradition to accuse Jews of ritual murder before Passover.” More moderate voices, like Tom Segev, have refrained from such hysterical reactions, whilst still questioning Grass’s legitimacy to discuss the subject by pointing to his nationality, his age, his vanity, his lingering guilt for his past and his partial knowledge.
Even if this is true—Grass is German, old, definitely responsible for his actions in his youth, undoubtedly vain like most well-known writers and public intellectuals, and neither a historian nor a political scientist—it still does not justify the dismissal of his arguments. This is especially so considering that he has voiced his critique of Israel in public, which means he is open to debate.