The hope that “Grass’s poem could be the gift that keeps on giving” – expressed by Mondoweiss contributor Annie Robbins – has so far been fulfilled in the sense that the controversy that erupted immediately after the publication of the “poem” is still raging on. And while there has been much withering criticism, Mondoweissers were right to hope that the aging Nobel laureate would find defenders for his unpoetic promulgation of old antisemitic tropes.
As Yaacov Lozowick wrote in a recent post on Mondoweiss:
“they fit comfortably into ancient traditions of Jew-hatred, and thus their potential significance shouldn’t be shrugged off. It’s important to keep in mind that the free and pluralistic society of the West also harbors such ugly forms of thought.”
But while the enthusiasm of the Mondoweiss crowd for Grass’s pathetic “poem” was entirely expected, it is arguably revealing that the supposedly more high-brow +972 magazine has turned out to be no less enthusiastic.
First +972 contributor Yossi Gurvitz set out to “pick apart” the charges of the Israeli Embassy in Berlin that Grass’s “poem” echoed European traditions of antisemitism. Gurvitz proceeds to list Grass’s claims about Israel and asserts that they are entirely accurate – to get a taste of his ignorance and his utterly pathetic modus operandi, consider this point [emphasis original]:
“Is Netanyahu considering wiping out the Iranian people? Considering some of his statements, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
Gurvitz concludes triumphantly:
“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.”
No, Yossi Gurvitz, Grass made “no claim of children’s blood used for ritual purposes” – but the people who made this claim in the Middle Ages felt that “it’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
Gurvitz concludes expressing the hope:
“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.’”
So just for the record: at +972, it would be a “good thing” if the world shrugged off Israeli complaints about antisemitism when Iran’s leaders refer to Israel as a “cancer” that must be removed, or when Islamists spread the most vicious lies about Jews.
The next praise for Grass at +972 came from Larry Derfner in a post entitled “More power to Gunter Grass for ‘What must be said’.” Derfner was at least sober enough to note a few reservations, but ultimately he also concluded:
“Gunter Grass told the truth, he was brave in telling it, he was brave in admitting that he’d been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager, and by speaking out against an Israeli attack on Iran, he’s doing this country a great service at some personal cost while most Israelis and American Jews are safely following the herd behind Bibi over the cliff.”
In yet another post, Derfner offered “A further defense of Gunter Grass,” arguing that given Grass’s record (with which Derfner doesn’t seem too familiar), one has to conclude that
“Grass is not an anti-Semite or hater of Israel – he’s a liberal friend of the Jews and of Israel who wants this country to turn away from all the things liberals naturally dread – extreme nationalism, militarism, ethnocentrism, paranoia – the very things, unfortunately, that Israel has come to stand for.”
There are two particularly striking aspects to the defense of Grass at +972:
First, it is remarkably unsophisticated – informed first and foremost by the approach: have ideology, will comment. Both Derfner and Gurvitz look at the “poem” in isolation, oblivious of the very relevant context of complex German debates about “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” [i.e. coming to terms with the past].
Secondly, just like Grass, the +972 writers – even though they are Israelis – don’t seem to think it’s worthwhile to consider Iran’s conduct and the threat that Iran already poses for Israel through proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas, and they are equally uninterested in the Iranian regime’s vicious rhetoric about Israel. But as historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen emphasized in his analysis of the Grass poem:
“In demonizing Israel, there is a widespread practice in Germany, also perfected here by Grass, of ignoring the context in which Israel exists and acts. That context is that Israel has been existentially threatened for its entire existence and continues to be so today, both by states that wish merely to defeat it or to have it relinquish the West Bank (Gaza it already gave back), and by states, often supported by their publics, that wish to destroy it and eliminate or exterminate its Jews. Why does Grass fail to mention that Iranian leaders, and not just Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have routinely threatened to destroy Israel and kill Jews, and occasionally even hinted that it could be done with nuclear weapons? As the “moderate” former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani explained already in 2001, “the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.” Why does Grass fail to mention that the Iranian leaders speak of Israel using Nazi-like language and metaphors, of cancer and pestilence which must be utterly eradicated? Do I have to say that such speech has been shown to be the rhetorical prelude to genocide?”
All this is of no concern to the +972 contributors whose blog is generously supported by the New Israel Fund. But if this kind of ignorant writing that reflects only disdain for the concerns of mainstream Israelis represents a “New Israel,” I for one appreciate the old Israel all the more.
A reader has drawn my attention to a Cif Watch post that documents a Twitter exchange with Yossi Gurvitz, but also links to a piece on “The Jewish problem” published by Gurvitz on +972 in September 2010. Some of the gems to be found there:
“Israel is itself becoming the problem of the Jews. It is, almost singularly, responsible for creation of a new anti-Semitic myth, that of “dual loyalty”. […] Zionism is a parasite, feeding upon anti-Semitism; it cannot exist without its mirror image (anti-Semitism, of course, can do quite nicely without Zionism). One only has to watch the eagerness with which anti-Semitism, or semi-anti-Semitism, is covered in the Israeli media: maybe now all of those Jews, living the good life abroad, will come to their senses and say we were right all along.”
Since there is now also a heated debate about Israel’s decision to declare Grass persona non grata, I should mention that +972 didn’t fail to opine on this issue thusly:
“Now Interior Minister Eli Yishai has declared Grass to be persona non grata while Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has accused the German author of being ”willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the altar of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition.”
Yishai and Lieberman are the two most outspoken racists in the Israeli government, so if one of the ways to know a person is by his enemies, I’d say Grass is looking pretty good.”
But if one of the ways to know a person is by his admirers, we would have to note that according to press reports, Grass was warmly praised by Iran’s state-owned English-language television, which declared: “Never before in Germany’s postwar history has a prominent intellectual attacked Israel in such a courageous way… Metaphorically speaking, the poet has launched a deadly lyrical strike against Israel.”
Similarly, Iran’s Deputy Culture Minister Javad Shamaqdari stated in a letter to Grass: “I read your literary work of human and historical responsibility, and it warns beautifully.”
No doubt the Iranian Deputy Culture Minister would also like the +972 posts in defense of Grass – in fact, come to think of it, he might like quite a bit of their output…
By now, there have been many excellent articles criticizing Grass; I would like to quote here just a very recent one by Bernard-Henri Lévy, who opens his piece by highlighting some issues that are too often neglected by those who like to obsess about Israel:
“There is North Korea and its autistic tyrant, equipped with a by and large operational nuclear arsenal.
There is Pakistan, armed with warheads — no one knows how many, nor precisely where they are located, nor what guarantees we have that they will not, one day, fall into the hands of groups linked to Al Qaeda.
There is Putin’s Russia, which, in the space of two wars, has accomplished the exploit of exterminating a quarter of the population of Chechnya.
There is the butcher of Damascus, whose body count so far is at 10,000 and whose criminal stubbornness threatens the region’s peace.
There is Iran, of course, whose leaders have made it known that their nuclear arms, when they will have acquired them, will serve to strike one of their neighbors.
In short, we are living on a planet where candidates for the most officially pyromaniac State, openly aiming at its own citizens and the surrounding populations, threatening the world with conflagrations or disasters unprecedented in decades, are by no means lacking.
Yet here is a European writer, one of the greatest and most eminent, for he is Nobel prize laureate Günter Grass, who has nothing better to do than to publish a poem in which he explains that there is only one serious threat hanging over our heads, and that this threat comes from a tiny country, one of the smallest in the world, one of the most vulnerable as well and, by the by, a democracy: the State of Israel.”