Is Günter Grass’s poem anti-Semitic? No, it’s banal and underwhelming.

There has been an uproar over Gunter Grass’s poem “What must be said” that was published in Süddeutsche Zeitung very recently. There are no less than 10 articles about the “poem” in the latest issue of Der Spiegel. The Israeli Embassy in Berlin said that “What must be said is that it is a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder.” The Central Council of Jews in Germany has called the poem an “aggressive pamphlet of agitation.” Grass has been called “the prototype of the educated anti-Semite” and it is claimed that “Grass has always had a tendency toward megalomania, but this time he is completely nuts”. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Grass’s “declarations are ignorant and shameful”.

However, even a casual glance at the poem (the original German is here) reveals that it is at best an underwhelming and banal writing that expresses nothing that hasn’t been said before many times both inside and outside of Israel and Germany. Tom Segev (an Israeli author, historian and journalist) says it best and I quote and paraphrase him at length (the original Hebrew is here; there’s no English translation yet as far as I can find) (though I should note that Segev is somewhat overly scathing and dismissive):

Segev says that there was no need to write what Grass wrote. “All that he claimed has already been said – and in Israel too. This [Grass’s publication] is akin to the head of the Mossad suddenly beginning to write poetry.”

The debate about Iran’s nuclear weapons has been going on for months, and “one of the people who are engaged in this debate is Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad [the Israeli nation intelligence agency].” Dagan, who of course knows about Iran more than most, agrees with Grass that Israel should not bomb Iran, “though if Dagan began publishing poems to that effect in the newspapers – one may suspect that he has gone insane.”

Segev ends his article by saying: “Relax, Mr. Grass: you wrote quite a pathetic poem, but you are not anti-Semitic. You’re not even “anti-Israel”. On the face of it, not anymore so than the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan. According to you, you wrote your poem with the last drops of ink that you were left with. Let us hope that you have enough ink for another beautiful novel.”

Segev is angry that so much weight and newspaper space has been devoted to Grass’s “poem”: “it’s not as if he isn’t right; maybe he is right and maybe not. But he can’t know whether he is right or not, for the simple reason that like most of the newspaper readers in the world he has no idea about the matter. On the assumption that he hasn’t conversed recently with president Ahmadinejad nor with prime minister Netanyahu – the weight of his opinion is that of a fly.”

I share Segev’s ire at the fact that Grass’s poem has been blown out of proportion and deflected discussion away from the important issues, but I strongly disagree with his claim that newspaper readers have no idea on the matter. There is much in the public record that can be easily found and understood, the issues are not complicated (this is not quantum physics). For example, one reads  that “There is little credible discussion of just what constitutes the Iranian threat, though we do have an authoritative answer, provided by U.S. military and intelligence. Their presentations to Congress make it clear that Iran doesn’t pose a military threat.”

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