Israel bars German author over poem critical of its nuclear arsenal

McClatchy NewspapersApril 8, 2012 

JERUSALEM — Israel's interior minister declared the celebrated German author Gunter Grass "persona non grata" on Sunday, barring his entry to the country, in response to a new poem in which the Nobel laureate called Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal a threat to world peace.

The case was the latest of several in recent years in which Israel has refused entry to controversial figures critical of its policies.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai said in a statement that Grass's poem, published last Wednesday, "is an attempt to fan the flames of hatred against Israel and the Jewish people, and thus promote the idea with which he was publicly affiliated in the past when he wore the SS uniform."

Grass disclosed in 2006 that he was drafted toward the end of the Second World War to serve in the Nazi Waffen SS unit. A spokesman for Yishai said that was the technical basis for the entry ban.

"If Gunter wishes to continue propagating his distorted and false works, I suggest he do so from Iran, where he will find a supportive audience," added Yishai, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Grass's poem, titled "What Must Be Said," was published in the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, provoking Israeli condemnations and criticism in Germany, where the memory of the Holocaust constrains public debate about Israel and infuses the complex relationship between the two countries.

Referring to Israeli threats of military action against Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes, Grass warned against "the alleged right to first strike that could annihilate the Iranian people...because in their territory, it is suspected, a bomb is being built."

In the poem, Grass, 84, said he had remained silent about Israel's nuclear capability because of fear that he would be labeled an anti-Semite.

"Why do I say only now, aged and with my last drop of ink, that the nuclear power of Israel endangers an already fragile world peace?" Grass wrote. "Because what must be said may be too late to say tomorrow."

Grass warned that by supplying Israel with submarines that could carry nuclear "all-destroying warheads," Germany risked complicity in "a foreseeable crime."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has compared Iran's nuclear program and threats against Israel to the Holocaust, promptly accused Grass of drawing a "shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran."

"It is Iran, not Israel, that is a threat to the peace and security of the world," Netanyahu said. "It is Iran, not Israel, that threatens other states with annihilation."

Noting Grass's service in the SS, Netanyahu added that it was "perhaps not surprising" for him "to cast the one and only Jewish state as the greatest threat to world peace and to oppose giving Israel the means to defend itself."

The Israeli Embassy in Berlin branded Grass's poem anti-Semitic, saying that its publication before the Jewish Passover holiday, "belongs to European tradition to accuse the Jews of ritual murder before the Passover celebration."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle wrote in a commentary Sunday in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that "putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level is...absurd," adding that Germany has an "historic responsibility" toward Israel.

In an interview with Suddeutche Zeitung published Friday, Grass, who has long urged Germans to confront their Nazi past, sought to calm the storm, saying he did not intend to attack Israel, but Netanyahu's policies.

The Israeli entry ban against Grass, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999, follows similar measures by Israel against other prominent opponents of its policies.

In May 2010 the linguist Noam Chomsky, an outspoken critic of American and Israeli policy, was prevented from crossing from Jordan into the occupied West Bank. In December 2008, Richard Falk, a United Nations investigator of human rights in the Palestinian areas, was refused entry on the grounds that he was hostile to Israel. Earlier that year, Norman Finkelstein, an American scholar who has been a sharp critic of Israel, was barred entry after a visit to Lebanon where he met officials of the guerrilla group Hezbollah.

Tom Segev, an Israeli historian who has interviewed Grass and was critical of his latest poem, said that the ban on his entry was an "utterly stupid" decision that would "exacerbate Israel's isolation and cause more harm."

Writing in the liberal newspaper Haaretz, Gideon Levy, a columnist, argued that while Grass's poem was "harsh" and wrongly accused Israel of threatening to wipe out the Iranian people, it did contain valid criticism that had drawn disproportionate reactions in Israel.

"A situation in which any German who dares criticize Israel is instantly accused of anti-Semitism is intolerable," Levy wrote. "Instead of accusing them, we should consider what we've done that caused them to express themselves that way."

(Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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