Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Gunter Grass An Anti-Semite?

For decades, the German Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gunter Grass has posed as the conscience of Germany. He never missed an opportunity to denounce what he saw as the moral failings of his inferiors. He denounced America for the arms race with the Soviet Union. He denounced his fellow Germans for failing to face up to their Nazi past. The only thing he never denounced was himself. Then, in 2006, he admitted in his memoirs that he himself had been a member of the Waffen-SS, though he was careful to stipulate that he never pulled the trigger of his gun. His reputation took a beating, but Grass was undaunted.

Now, Grass has found a new target to denounce for posing a "threat to world peace": Israel. His language is wild and fevered and calumniatory. We learn from the quondam SS member that Israel, not Iran, is the source of all the problems in the Middle East. In a poem published in the Suddeutsche Zeitung today called "What Must Be Said," Grass announces that Israel is plotting to "wipe out" Iran. At the same time, Germany is culpable for jeopardizing freedom and encouraging war by selling Israel submarines whose missiles could be deployed against Iran:

"We could be suppliers to a crime that can be foreseen, which is why none of the usual excuses would erase it. I will be silent no longer, because I am sick of the West's hypocrisy."

There are many things wrong with Grass's feculent statements. First and most obvious is that a former member of the SS has no moral standing, to put it mildly, to criticize Israel. Breaking his silence, as he puts it, is not a matter of courage but, rather, a disgrace. It is also the case that once again, he is engaged in an inversion of reality that is symptomatic of the German Left, which routinely castigated America, not the Soviet Union, as the bad guy on the international scene. Iran, not Israel, is the power that has been issuing threats, which include wiping Israel off the face of the globe. Finally, Grass flatters himself. He is trying to personify the role of the German novelist as an oracle, a moral apostle who can preach to the nation. The problem is not that he has nothing to say. It is that what he is saying is poisonous.

Perhaps Grass's comments will earn him some accolades on the Far Left and Right in Germany, both of which view Israel with disdain. More serious voices in Germany are accusing Grass of anti-Semitism. Writing in the Berlin Tagesspiegel, Malte Lehming incisively observes,

seldom has a postwar German intellectual more openly and stealthily poached in the reservoir of German anti-Jewish cliches—and presented it as the result of a conscience-stricken responsiblity for freedom.

Now, anti-Semitism is a charge that is flung about too frequently against critics of Israel. Unfortunately, in this instance it is fully deserved. Here is what must be said: Grass has achieved the impossible. He has further besmirched his reputation.