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The Israel issue

Stake in the grass

Gunter Grass, some say, invites controversy. For decades he excoriated his fellow Germans to come clean about their past and introspect on how Germany became the seat of the most terrifying machinery of human extermination the world had ever witnessed. Then, a few years ago, as he was nearing 80, he surprised everyone with the confession that, as a 17-year old in 1945, he was conscripted into the Waffen-SS, the Nazi party's paramilitary force. Grass is again in the public eye with a poem called What Must Be Said. It warns the world that 'Israel's atomic power endangers / an already fragile world peace'. Declaring himself sick of 'the West's hypocrisy', Grass hopes that with his poem 'many may be freed / from their silence', and he calls upon the governments of both Iran and Israel to open their nuclear facilities to 'free and open inspection'.

Israel has, in consequence, declared Gunter Grass persona non grata. Its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed outrage that Grass should have had the audacity to compare Israel to Iran. Netanyahu described the comparison as 'shameful' and offensive, and catalogued Iran's sins: the Iranian regime's denial of the Holocaust, its threat to world peace, its refusal of Israel's right to existence, its sponsorship of terror organisations, and its 'ruthless suppression' of 'tens of millions' of its own citizens. No doubt, the present regime in Iran cannot be viewed as other than authoritarian, and it has not helped Iran that its most public face is provided by Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, a 'loudmouth' (in Grass's words) who rather absurdly describes the Holocaust as a fiction.

Nevertheless, it is impossible to resist the view that Netanyahu protests too much. Whatever the misgivings one may have about Iran's political regime, Iran has never launched an attack on another nation. Netanyahu is no less boorish than Ahmedinejad, but there is something else underlying his swashbuckling behaviour. Israel has long thought of itself as the sole democracy in the Middle East, ringed by unruly Arabs within and hostile states beyond, and it has always conducted itself in world politics with the assurance that it may act with impunity.

The countries in the West which for years have rallied behind the United States to declare Iran a 'rogue' state have, historically speaking, treated their Jewish population much worse than did Iran. On the received narrative, however, the anti-Semitism that was so characteristic a feature of European society is a thing of the past;indeed, what generally gives Western civilisation its distinct prominence over other civilisations is its capacity for atonement and repentance.

It is precisely in this respect that Grass has been found by Netanyahu and other likeminded yahoos to be severely wanting. Columnist Anshel Pfeffer ponders in a piece published in Israel's Haaretz why Grass does not understand that 'his membership in an organisation that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualifies him from criticising the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organisation began. What could be more self-evident ?' For the likes of Grass, there is, quite self-evidently, no atonement, no remorse, only the certitude of eternal condemnation.

When critiques of Zionism, or of Israel's conduct towards Palestinians, cannot be adequately answered, there is always the ultimate weapon with which to tarnish the voice of informed democratic and humanistic criticism : the charge of anti-Semitism. Grass anticipates the likely punishment when the silence surrounding Israel's own nuclear ambitions is broken: 'the verdict "Anti-Semitism" falls easily. '

To consider just how easily this verdict of 'anti-Semitism' falls on the critics of Israel, let us recall the opprobrium that Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, had to face when he penned a short blog for The Washington Post in 2008 entitled, 'Jewish Identity Can't Depend on Violence'. Though Arun Gandhi recognised that Israel was far from being the only purveyor of violence in that part of the world, he nevertheless thought that 'Israel and the Jews' were the 'biggest players' in promoting the 'culture of violence'. Too many Jews, Arun Gandhi argued, remained 'locked into the holocaust experience', not merely convinced of the absolute exceptionality of the Holocaust but firm in their view that their victimhood gives them unique entitlements. The Jews today, he wrote, 'not only want the Germans to feel guilty but the whole world must regret what happened to the Jews. '

Though Arun Gandhi cannot be accused of disguising his Nazi past, his remarks were met with a volley of criticism and the scarlet letters of anti-Semitism were immediately brandished at him. One cannot downplay the persistence of anti-Semitism over the centuries, but it is a form of totalitarianism to insist that all criticism of Israel is itself a form of anti-Semitism. Even the Jew might not critique Israel;if he or she does so, the Zionists have a phrase for such a person: a self-hating Jew.
It is Israel, rather than Gunter Grass, that has come across poorly in this recent exchange. This has happened all too often in the past, and Israel will have to do more than hide behind those gigantic scarlet letters that spell 'anti-Semitism' if it is to confront the reality of its own demons.

The writer teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

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