Tag Archives: Gunter Grass

Shoddy history and the anti-imperialism of fools

Under the title “The Professor’s Shoddy History,” James Kirchick argues in an excellent essay in Tablet that “Berlin’s Jewish Museum gave Judith Butler and Germans permission to indulge dangerous political impulses.” Kirchick offers not only interesting observations about German ambitions to show off a principled pacifism to prove that the country learned the right lessons from its terrible Nazi-past, but he also touches upon the role of fashionable “anti-imperialism:”

“[Günter] Grass’ fundamental conceit—that Israel, and not the countries threatening to wipe it off the map, will be responsible should war erupt once again in the Middle East—is the same as [Judith] Butler’s. Both rely on naïve and simplistic conceptions of “imperialism” and “anti-imperialism” and on a belief that power inevitably leads to oppression. […] Butler—who, as a Jew, is uninhibited in what she can say about Israel in Germany—has said what Grass declared in his poem: Israel is the problem. The Israeli “state violence” she complains about exists in a vacuum; Iran’s march to nuclear weapons does not concern her, and the violence of Hamas and Hezbollah is all but ignored.


Following World War II, many Germans internalized pacifism as a fundamental political value, and it is this central belief—as well as the ability to sit in judgment of the Middle East from comfortable, prosperous Europe—that informs much of German attitudes toward Israel. Joschka Fischer, the erstwhile left-wing student activist who rose to become Germany’s first Green Party foreign minister in 1998, used to say that there were two principles that formed his political consciousness: “Never Again War” and “Never Again Auschwitz.” But when the possibility of genocide returned to the European continent during his tenure, in the form of Serb ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, these mantras came into conflict. If preventing another Auschwitz on European soil required war, the breed of German leftists embodied by Fischer argued, then it was the duty of the German left to get over its aversion to force and support war.

As the Iranian regime, which denies the Holocaust while promising another, continues its nuclear weapons program unabated, the German penchant for peace may once again be confronted by reality and historic obligation. […] An irony of Germany’s admirable confrontation with its horrific past is that many Germans have learned their history so well they have learned the wrong lessons—and Judith Butler validates their grave misinterpretation. That Berlin’s Jewish Museum lent a platform for such views betrays precisely the history it is meant to impart.”

As my own post on this issue illustrates, I fully agree with Kirchick’s criticism of Berlin’s Jewish Museum. The only minor point I would raise here is that, when he says that both Grass and Butler “rely on naïve and simplistic conceptions of ‘imperialism’ and ‘anti-imperialism’ and on a belief that power inevitably leads to oppression,” one should perhaps highlight very clearly that, as far as Grass and Butler are concerned, it is of course only Western power that is seen as so inevitably oppressive.

While this is already implied when Kirchick points to their “naïve and simplistic conceptions of ‘imperialism’ and ‘anti-imperialism,’” it is crucially important to understand the patronizing attitude that hides behind these supposedly “naïve and simplistic conceptions:” Only the West has agency and the power to do evil, while the non-West is reduced to passivity and the role of the victim.

It’s equally important to understand that this notion is also very popular in the Middle East – indeed, it arguably feeds much of the chronic sense of offense that prevents the region from developing a much needed capacity for self-criticism. Michael Young tackled this issue in a recent op-ed under the almost blasphemous title “When imperialists happen to be Muslim,” where he wrote:

“It never ceases to amaze how Arab eyes are forever on the lookout for some manifestation of Western hegemonic intent or condescension toward the Arab world, and how this vigilance seems to breaks down whenever it involves non-Western states behaving the same way. […]

Iran has never hidden its sense of neo-imperial entitlement in the Middle East, despite its claims to speak for the oppressed of the earth and to represent a bulwark against imperialism. Leaders in Tehran look upon their country as a natural regional dominator, and such thinking helps explain why they feel that they have a right to develop nuclear weapons […]

The Middle Eastern lexicon today fails to properly express that the impulse for regional domination is as strong among non-Western Muslim states as among Western states, if not more so. How odd, given that most of the empires ruling over what would become the modern Arab world were native to the region – Egyptian, Sassanid, Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman, to name the more obvious ones.”

Last but by no means least, I’d like to quote here Michael Totten’s excellent post on Judith Butler’s “Anti-Imperialism of Fools,” where Totten concludes:

“Hezbollah is notoriously hostile to every social value liberals and progressives hold dear, from women’s rights to gay rights, with one exception. Hezbollah says the United States and Israel are the Great Satan and the Little Satan. That’s it. That, all by itself, is enough to get a socially retrograde totalitarian terrorist organization labeled ‘progressive’ even by a professor who adheres to non-violent politics.

But the city of Frankfurt can give her a prize if it wants, and it can do so on September 11. Supporting European fascism is a crime now in Germany, but supporting the Middle Eastern variety is apparently fine.”

EXCLUSIVE!!! New GraSS poem: Not Peeling the Onion in Iran

The news out of Germany is that Nobel Laureate Günter Grass continues to crave the kind of attention he got a few years ago when he revealed in his autobiography Peeling the Onion that he had served in the SS.  Earlier this year, he managed to cause quite a stir when he published an awkward “poem” warning the world about the terrible danger posed by a belligerent Israel that was unduly worried by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Now he’s trying to do it again: Grass has reportedly published a new volume of “poetry” that includes not only a slightly revised version of his anguished warning from spring, but also an ode to Mordechai Vanunu, a former Israeli nuclear technician who served a long prison sentence for revealing details of Israel’s nuclear program to the British media in the mid-1980s.

There is no doubt in my mind that future editions of this poetry volume will include a poem that Grass must be working on right now – after all, how could he ignore the onion-themed bonds between himself and Iran???

In case you haven’t heard that Iran’s FARS news agency recently failed to realize that an exciting poll from the satirical news magazine The Onion was too good to be true, here’s Walter Russell Mead’s take on this incident:

“Surreal is how many people around the world describe the situation in Iran: one of the world’s great and sophisticated cultures under the rule of backward-looking mullahs who think stoning adultresses, hanging homosexuals, threatening Israelis with annihilation and building a bomb is all in a day’s work. Complete with a hate-spewing, Holocaust-denying demagogue who thinks he’s the chosen instrument of God — though he was rejected by Iranian voters in the last election — the group of clowns, thugs and religious zealots in charge of Iran looks like something out of a satire by Swift or Voltaire.

Distinctions between reality and illusion are not always clear in contemporary Iran; the latest evidence comes from FARS, an Iranian news agency which implausibly claims to be independent of the government. While trolling through western news sources looking for important news, the editors came across a shock Gallup poll: 77 percent of white rural voters in the United States would rather vote for Iran’s President Ahmadinejad than President Obama.”

So there is no doubt that Grass is now pondering poetically about not peeling the onion in Iran…

In the unlikely case that he needs some inspiration, here’s what the Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote after his recent interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

“But in this third interview I’ve had with the Iranian president, I had the sense that he genuinely believes the world is going Iran’s way. He sees an America that is facing reversals across the Muslim world — in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and most recently, in dealing with the Arab uprisings. Close U.S. allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak are gone, and Ahmadinejad is still standing. […]

The most intractable subject in any conversation with Ahmadinejad is Israel, and Sunday’s discussion was no different. Pressed why he continued to make comments that Israelis regarded as hate speech, he parried back with a series of questions about Israeli occupation of Arab territory. Asked to affirm Israel’s existence, he wouldn’t.”

And Günter Grass might note with relief that when it comes to the Zionist entity, Ahmadinejad isn’t as alarmed as the German Nobel Laureate:

“We, generally speaking, do not take very seriously the issue of the Zionists and the possible dangers emanating from them,” he said early in the interview. “Of course, they would love to find a way for their own salvation by making a lot of noise and to raise stakes in order to save themselves. But I do not believe they will succeed.”

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The NYT Lede blog reported yesterday that FARS published a sort of apology for running with The Onion story, but also insisted that the satire contained a big grain of truth: “we do believe that if a free opinion poll is conducted in the U.S., a majority of Americans would prefer anyone outside the U.S. political system to President Barack Obama.”

Günter Grass, Jörg Haider, Kurt Waldheim

Yes, I’m also sick and tired of the Grass saga, but it continues – in part because the octogenarian Nobel laureate seems to enjoy the spotlight. In response to Israel’s decision to declare him persona non grata, Grass has now published an op-ed comparing Israel’s conduct to the dictatorial regimes of Communist East Germany and junta-ruled Myanmar, since he had previously been banned by these two regimes.

However, Grass could gain a different perspective if he consulted Wikipedia’s List of people declared persona non grata. The chronological list features Grass at the very bottom; close to the top is Kurt Waldheim, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations and President of Austria, who was declared persona non grata in the U.S. and several other countries (Israel downgraded its diplomatic relations with Austria during Waldheim’s presidency) because he had been dishonest about his wartime service in the German army, which included assignments that raised suspicions about his knowledge of, or involvement in, war crimes. (An interesting summary of the relevant background can be found here.)

A bit further down the list, there is an entry noting that in 2000, Israel declared the far-right Austrian politician Jörg Haider persona non grata.

A BBC report from 2000 connects the cases of Waldheim and Haider. Under the headline “Israel’s hard line against Haider,” the BBC explained:

“Israel will be watching Austria carefully as the far-right Freedom Party joins a coalition government despite international warnings.

Israel had threatened to isolate Vienna politically if the party was allowed a share in power […] It is not the first time there has been tension between the two countries. Israel has criticised Austria in the past for not coming to terms with its role in the World War Two.

In 1986 Jerusalem withdrew its ambassador to Vienna when Kurt Waldheim, alleged to have been involved in Nazi persecution during the war, was elected as the country’s president.

Many Israelis feel the public support for the Freedom Party confirms that Austria has not come to terms with its Nazi past. And the Jewish State founded in the wake of the Holocaust believes it should lead the battle against right-wing radicalism in Europe.

Israel is heading the international campaign against Joerg Haider’s Freedom Party, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak announcing he would recall his country’s ambassador to Vienna, Nathan Meron.

“We here in Israel, and I believe the whole of the Jewish people, will never be able to accept a kind of no-response or not tough enough response to the emergence of neo-Nazi figures and parties into the leadership of Western Europe,” Mr Barak said.

Israel also said it would refuse to issue a visa to Joerg Haider if he decided to visit the country.”

It is noteworthy that when Haider was killed in car crash in 2008, antisemitic sites immediately suspected a “Zionist Jew job.” Similarly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that in the case of Waldheim, the revelations about his wartime service “were rejected [in Austria] as undue influence and manipulation by Jewish organizations from abroad, sweeping Waldheim to an election victory on a mixture of misguided national pride and anti-Semitism.”

As anyone who has followed the recent critical commentary about Grass will know, there is plenty of reason to conclude that Grass’s place on a list featuring Waldheim and Haider is not entirely undeserved.* Moreover, it should not be overlooked that German citizens born before January 1, 1928, are required to apply for a visa to visit Israel, and when Interior Minister Eli Yishai declared Grass persona non grata in Israel, he invoked the relevant provisions by noting that Grass had served in the SS.

Last but not least, two quotes from bloggers who defended the decision to bar Grass from visiting Israel.

Eamonn McDonagh has argued:

“Though I can see that there might be some valid tactical objection to the decision to exclude Grass, on the grounds that it shifts the focus of the debate and makes him into some sort of victim, I can’t see why the government of Israel isn’t entirely justified in excluding from its territory a person who once participated, however marginally and at however young an age, in the attempt to exterminate European Jewry, and who has once more made it clear that he thinks Jews pose a special danger to humanity.”

Similarly, FresnoZionism argues that those who criticize the ban ignore that sometimes, it doesn’t really make sense to pretend that there can be a constructive debate:

“[Grass’s] freedom of expression is not being limited by the ban — he can say whatever he wants in Germany, or even Iran, or any other place — just not in Israel. And really, do we need ‘a free exchange of ideas’ like these? Sometimes an accusation is so absurd that even refuting it gives it a status it doesn’t deserve. […] We don’t have to take abuse, to pretend that disputation with antisemites is simply an ‘exchange of ideas.’”

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* As a clarification, I should add that I mean this in the sense that all three symbolize Germany’s (and Europe’s) failure to overcome the resentments and hatreds of Nazism, and all three helped to revive them again. Recent polls show that more than 50 percent of Germans feel that Grass’s “poem” expressed entirely reasonable views.


An observation by Jay Adler of The Sad Red Earth highlights the problematic dynamics that has played out during the controversy about Grass’s poem:

“I have heard it said – better, I have read it in a tweet – that Gunther Grass could hardly have been expected, at 17, to resist recruitment into the Waffen SS. That odd, indirect defense of the sham poetry Grass did not write but typed up to attack Israel delivers an unexpected enlightenment: how a defense of the now usual calumny against Israel draws in, by slinking, slithering nexus, the casual rationalization of Nazism and its monstrous Holocaust. Thus the world falls, dizzyingly, back into the chasm of its amoral purgatory, fingers forever slipping from the precipice of its imagined ascent. The motive is to affirm what Grass says of Israel. It is played out in two movements. The first ratifies Grass’s judgment. The second, accordingly, seeks to restore his moral authority, by excusing the sin of his Nazism and his sixty-year silent deception in hiding it.”

Defending Günter Grass at +972

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.”

What ‘never again’ means for Günter Grass

In an awkward, cliché-laden “poem,” German Nobel laureate Günter Grass has announced to the world that he had to break his silence about an issue that has burdened him for too long: even at the risk of being labeled an antisemite, he simply had to sound the alarm about the terrible threat to world peace posed by Israel…

There is already a huge outcry against Grass’s strange poem, and many of the responses refer to the last time Grass broke a very long silence – and also caused a huge outcry: In August 2006, shortly before the publication of his autobiography, Grass revealed in an interview that he had served in the Waffen SS.

That was a truly sensational revelation given the fact that Grass had carefully cultivated the image of a moral authority who was always ready to admonish Germans that they had to face up to their Nazi past. Unsurprisingly, Grass is now again alluding to Germany’s dark history, but he does so with a twist that has become quite popular: by now, many Germans and Europeans seem to feel that they can claim to have learnt the often invoked “lessons” of the Holocaust so much better than the Jews – and in particular so much better than the Jews in Israel.

Indeed, the idea Grass is hawking now is quite popular: Remember the controversial Eurobarometer poll of fall 2003 that revealed that 59 percent of EU citizens regarded Israel as the greatest threat to world peace? Back then, embarrassed European officials tried to dismiss the poll as some kind of aberration, but that was quite plainly not what it was, because other polls showed similar results. To quote just one example: A BBC poll published in March 2007 revealed that Israel was viewed as the country with the most negative influence in the world, and interestingly, Germany was the European country with the largest percentage of respondents who viewed Israel in these terms: 77 percent of Germans rated Israel’s influence as negative — even in some Muslim countries, Israel actually fared slightly better.

While it has been documented that there is a clear correlation between sharply critical attitudes towards Israeli policies and a propensity for antisemitic views, Grass has of course tried to shield himself against accusations of antisemitism by announcing that he was fully expecting them, and by emphasizing that he feels a strong connection with Israel. But many of the reactions to his bizarre “poem” show that this hasn’t quite worked. One excellent example is Josef Joffe’s comment at Zeit Online, where Joffe argues (in German) that Freud would have been pleased with this demonstration of long-repressed resentments bursting out.

I think Joffe outlines a dynamic that I have tried to explore in an essay I wrote some five years ago after Grass revealed the long-kept secret of his service in the Waffen SS. I argued there that efforts to come to terms with Germany’s Nazi past – and the many cases of European collaboration – gave rise to a “grand narrative” that structured history in terms of victims and perpetrators.

In the prism of this “grand narrative”, Germans – and, to some extent also Europeans – related to Israel primarily as the state of the victims who had survived the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis.  But eventually, Germans and Europeans began to regard also themselves as victims of the Nazis, while the Jewish state – that had become an “occupying power” after its victory in the Six-Day-War – was increasingly often criticized as a perpetrator.

Taken to the extreme, the resulting inversions are all too familiar: Gaza is the Warsaw Ghetto, Israeli soldiers are the new Nazis, and the Palestinians are the new “Jews”, i.e. victims.

Even if only a minority embraces this inversion fully, everyone knows that it exists and that it has been legitimized by countless intellectuals and public figures – and the perceived exculpatory appeal of this inversion is certainly enormous.

Günter Grass would likely object to the idea that he is among those who demonize Israel as a Nazi-like perpetrator. Yet, he does so quite clearly when he refers to a possible Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program as a potentially genocidal crime that can be anticipated. His “poem” is his attempt to avoid any German “guilt” for this “crime,” since Grass worries Israel could use German-manufactured submarines to strike Iran. This concern stands in stark contrast to Grass’s apparent silence about the role of German companies in facilitating Iran’s nuclear program.

Ultimately, Grass demonstrates in his poem that the meaning of the pledge “never again” is very different for the historic perpetrators and their victims: for the former Waffen SS recruit, the most important thing is to be never again seen as a perpetrator – and since he firmly believes Israel is eager to launch a devastating attack on Iran, he has no doubt who should be blamed as the perpetrator.

It is revealing that it apparently matters little for Grass that Iran is led by a Holocaust-denier who has repeated the most vicious threats against Israel over and over again, or that a regime-allied analyst would pen a long-winded article to explain “The Fiqh [Islamic Jurisprudence]-Based Reasons for the Need for Israel’s Annihilation.” For Grass, Ahmadinejad is just a “loudmouth” who oppresses his people – the very same people that, in the view of Grass, faces a genocidal threat from Israel just because somewhere in Iran, there may be a “suspected” atom bomb.

The longer one ponders the curious fact that Grass doesn’t think it worthwhile to wonder if Iran’s theocrats might be as eager as the Nazis were to make good on their threats against the Jews the clearer it becomes: his claim that he feels connected to Israel couldn’t be more hollow – he knows nothing about Israel, and he has no idea what “never again” means for the people that his former comrades worked so hard to wipe out. His most urgent need is to think of Israel’s Jews as dangerous: potential perpetrators of a Nazi-like crime.

As a young man at the end of the war, Grass was clever enough to get rid of his SS uniform before he could be captured, but it seems he never quite got rid of what he learned about the Jews while he wore the uniform: “Die Juden sind unser Unglück.”

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Cross-posted from my JPost blog

Europe’s failing elites

I recently looked up the quote warning about the looming “night of fascism” and found to my delight that – according to Walter Russell Mead – it was “the portentous German novelist Günter Grass [who] once warned that the ‘dark night of fascism was falling on America’” and that the American novelist Tom Wolfe riposted “Why is it that ‘the dark night of fascism’ is always falling on America — and always landing on Europe?” [My own view on Grass is here.]

Keeping this in mind – and keeping in mind that Europe is constantly worried about Israel’s political direction – let’s contemplate this scenario:

Imagine a world in which President Obama, Mitt Romney and Pat Buchanan were all running in the presidential election and Buchanan was polling just one or two percentage points behind the other contenders. Is this likely to happen in America? No. But it is happening right now in France.

This is (again) Walter Russell Mead, in a post entitled “Le Pen Is Mightier Than Before.” Mead points out that given the French electoral system, there is no reason (yet) to worry, because Marine Le Pen would almost certainly be kept from the presidency in a second run-off election – just as her father was back in 2002.

However, as noted in the New York Times report to which Mead links, a recent poll has shown “that 31 percent of the French were ‘in agreement with the ideas of the National Front,’ up from 22 percent a year ago and 11 percent in 1999,” and analysts think that “it won’t be a big surprise” if Marine Le Pen managed to get into the second round.

In this context it is interesting to read Francis Fukuyama’s two recent posts on “European Identities.” The first post examines how different European countries have dealt with Muslim immigrant assimilation (and Fukuyama actually argues that France has done relatively well on this count); the second post focuses on the lack of a European identity. I think in both posts, Fukuyama identifies a number of problems and challenges that Israel is also facing when it comes to its minorities. But while Israel may not have any reason to gloat about Europe’s problems, European elites definitely have no reason to feel entitled to preach to Israel – at least if you agree with Fukuyama’s verdict:

Now, let me just conclude by saying that these issues that I have discussed- immigration, national level identity and European level identity-in the next years are going to merge as really the same issue because these are the central issues of all the new populist parties that have arisen all over the continent of Europe. That is to say, opposition to immigration and Euro-scepticism. We have older parties like the Front National in France and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium. But in the last decade we have seen the emergence of new ones, the Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, True Finn Party, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) […] in Switzerland. Opposition to Europe and immigration has a common source amongst all these parties. It is basically a populist impulse. It is a feeling that the needs of ordinary citizens have been ignored by the elite with regards to both the deepening of the European Union and to immigration issues. […]

And to be quite honest, the whole European project has been an elite-driven affair. We know that on several occasions when the issue of agreeing to a treaty was put up for popular referendum and when the people gave the wrong answer, the elite would say the people were wrong about that, they are going to have to vote again. So, I think that in a sense the rise of populism reflects in a certain way the deepening of democracy in Europe: the public is not going to be lead along by their elites like they were in the first decades after the Second World War. But it [also] means that there are tremendous dangers for European democracy that lie ahead in the immediate future. I think we all recognize in the European Union that an important process either deepens it or it begins to split apart. The current middle ground is not one that is sustainable.

[…] The deepening project, that is to say to moving from monetary to fiscal union, may make sense in terms of economics, but it is going to have a tremendous number of political costs that need to be taken into account. There is absolutely no grassroots support in Europe for this deepening project; this is again going to be an elite-driven affair […] undertaken for largely technical economic reasons. It is actually something that is already stimulating the renationalization of Europe. […] And it also forces conditions that amount to the suspension of democracy in Europe, now you have technocrats running the governments of Italy and Greece that were not elected in normal fashion by their constituents. The reason why they are there is because of the conditions set not by the Italian and Greek public but set by other parts of Europe. This kind of deepening both on the part by Northern and Southern countries is going to lead to doubts about political accountability in both of the halves. All of this is being undertaken against the background of a prolonged and deepening economic crisis. In many respects this identity problem is one that we all need to think about very deeply; it is one that will come back, I guarantee you, in our politics in the near future.

Sixty Years of Silence: The Story of Günter Grass

By Petra Marquardt-Bigman

Published in Covenant, Volume 1, Issue 2 (April 2007 / Iyar 5767)

Abstract: In August 2006, the German writer and Nobel laureate Günter Grass caused a media-quake of major proportions when he revealed that he had served in the SS. While the ensuing controversy pushed the debate about the war between Israel and Hezbollah into the background, both issues once again brought up the problematic legacy of a past that, reflecting postmodern preferences, is increasingly viewed as a “grand narrative” structured in terms of “victims” and “perpetrators.” Highlighting a casual remark of Grass about his supposedly first encounter with racism as an American POW and his failure to break his silence when he accepted the offer of an honorary doctoral degree from an Israeli college, the article explores how Europe’s “grand narrative” shapes the European discourse about Israel and the Middle East.


At the end of 2006, the Guardian’s Berlin correspondent noted that Germans would remember the year “for just one rather marvelous thing–the World Cup.” [1] Under the title “The War is Over”, the article highlighted some of the World Cup’s aspects that doubtlessly were appreciated even by those (relatively few) Germans who couldn’t care less about football: the country had shown for all the world to see that it had emerged from the shadows of its past–Germans could wave their flag and cheer their national team without projecting anything but a harmless, infectious enthusiasm for a popular sport.

Among the fans watching the World Cup was the famous German author and Nobel laureate Günter Grass. The almost 80-year-old writer had just finished his latest book, an autobiographical work about his youth that was due to be published a few weeks after the World Cup. He had also been offered an honorary doctoral degree from an Israeli college, and in between watching the World Cup matches and reading the proofs for his book, he made time to meet the representatives of Netanya Academic College.

It was reportedly a pleasant meeting that took place at Grass’s home near Lübeck in northern Germany. The Nobel laureate told his guests that he was happy to accept the honor offered to him and that he looked forward to visit Israel for an official ceremony that would be organized by the college. But Günter Grass did not tell his guests what he would tell an interviewer a few weeks later: his forthcoming autobiography Peeling the Onion[2] would reveal a secret that he had kept for more than sixty years. The secret was a most unexpected one from a man like Grass who had spent a lifetime speaking out passionately about the need for Germans to face up to their Nazi past. The secret was that Günter Grass himself had kept silent for more than sixty years about his own service in the SS. Continue reading