On April 4th, German Nobel Laureate Günter Grass published a controversial 69-line poem entitled “What Must Be Said.” It has since sparked world-wide debate.
Some quick background on Grass:
He is one of the leading literary figures of the 20th century; he has written a series of internationally acclaimed novels that explored both the origins and the implications of the crimes of the Third Reich. For a long time he was viewed as a thoughtful conscience of the German nation. In 2006, at 78 years old, (after he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999) he confessed that at 17, he served in the Waffen-SS at the end of World War II. This confession made many see Grass as a hypocrite, where they had once seen an important moral voice.
Grass’s poem was published in the Munich-based newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The poem accused Israel of endangering “the already fragile world peace” by its warnings to Iran that it might strike their nuclear facilities. Mr. Grass contended that by supplying weapons to Israel, Germany risked being complicit in “a foreseeable crime.”
Two days after the poem was published, Grass clarified in an interview that he did not mean to vilify Israel as a whole, but to attack the policies of Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The international community’s condemnation of this poem was immediate and strong.
Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman issued a statement saying that Grass’ poem is an example of, “egoism of so-called Western intellectuals, who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the alter of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition.”
German leaders from across the political spectrum denounced the poem’s message, ranging from “ill-informed” to “outrageous” to “Anti-Semitic.” Many artists said it was simply a “bad poem.”
However, while Grass’s poem was cringe-worthy and deeply misguided, some responses to the poem have been seriously troubling.
Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai has declared Grass a “persona non grata”, (which literally means an “unwelcome person”) thus barring Grass’s future entry into the state of Israel. He justified this by saying that Grass was making an, “attempt to inflame hatred against the State of Israel and people of Israel, and thus to advance the idea to which he was publicly affiliated in his past donning of the SS uniform.”
This response is worrisome. This type of measure sets a very dangerous precedent for Israel’s democracy. To ban individuals who say things that are critical or offensive from entering the state has raised serious concerns about the future of free speech.
“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,” said Etgar Keret, an Israeli short-story writer.
Famous novelist and essayist, Salman Rushdie tweeted in response to all of this, “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.”
Even Alan Dershowitz, one of Israel’s most vocal supporters in the United States called the move, “foolish and self-defeating.”
Dershowitz wrote in the Huffington Post last week that, “By misusing border controls to make a symbolic gesture of contempt against a writer, Israel’s Minister of the Interior weakens his nation’s otherwise strong case for excluding individuals who pose genuine threats to the physical security of Israeli citizens. Border controls should be reserved for real security threats.”
In other words, terrorists should be barred from Israel. Not poets.