BERLIN – Günter Grass’s poem attacking the Jewish state has locked German- Israeli relations into a war of words.
Germany’s freshly minted President Joachim Gauck, who is currently visiting Israel, decided to remain on the sidelines of the international debate in April about contemporary anti-Semitism in the Federal Republic. Will Gauck use his first Israel visit as Germany’s symbolic moral voice to tackle the anti-Israel Grass lyric? Israeli Ambassador to Germany Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, who, like Gauck, took his position in March, seems to expect Gauck to use his bully pulpit for a pedagogical moment on modern anti-Semitism. Hadas-Handelsman told the French wire service AFP on Monday ahead of Gauck’s visit that rising anti-Semitism in Germany is “a big danger.”
According to AFP, Hadas-Handelsman noted that in connection with the poem from Grass, a Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature, “anti-Semitism is more present in Europe. We see it, unfortunately, almost every day. Also in Germany the phenomenon has now recently emerged and spread.”
Grass wrote in his poem, “What Must Be Said,” earlier this year, that Israel seeks to obliterate Iran’s population, and the Jewish state is the main impediment to Mideast security.
Israel’s top diplomat in Germany stressed that the topic of Grass will be discussed during Gauck’s visit. Gauck has traveled to Israel several times before becoming president.
In an email to The Jerusalem Post on Monday, German-Israeli Melody Sucharewicz, who serves as a voice for Israeli public diplomacy in the Federal Republic, wrote that Gauck’s visit has enormous potential for German-Israeli relations. She explained the significance of the meeting taking place shortly after the Grass debate, which was the launching pad for a new wave of public criticism of Israel in Germany.
“The distortion of historical and geopolitical facts inevitably inciting against Israel received a legitimacy seal with the Nobel Prize winner’s poem,” she said.
Sucharewicz added that “the Grass debate is over, the problem underlying it is not. The new quality of Israel criticism in Germany comes along with a rising trend of anti-Semitism and increasing evidence for the connection of both phenomena.”
“Gauck, as a real freedom fighter, would do good both for Germany’s role in the peace process, but especially for the future of German-Israeli relations, if he used this visit to increase awareness in Germany about the trends underlying the public resentment against Israel and to advance creative policy to oppose these trends before it becomes irreversible,” she said.
Speaking from Jerusalem on Monday, Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Israeli office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told the Postduring a telephone interview that Gauck “ has to make the decision to respond to Grass. [That would be] one way to assure Israelis that official Germany is no longer party to Grass.”
Zuroff asked that if Gauck were to distance his government from Grass in Israel, “why did he not use the opportunity in Germany where his stature carries moral weight?” Grass’s tirades against Israel were “quite shocking to Israelis and Jews the world over, and remain on the minds of Israelis,” said Zuroff, the world’s most famous hunter of Nazi war criminals.
Grass served as a member of the Nazi Waffen-SS during World War II.
Zuroff noted that it was “good news” that high officials in Germany challenged Grass.
Yet, “if Gauck would add his voice to the criticism, it would be meaningful and important” in Israel.
Zuroff is one of Gauck’s sharpest critics in Israel, largely because the German president signed the controversial Prague Declaration. Zuroff said Gauck was one of only three leading Western European figures who signed the declaration.
According to Zuroff, the document is a “distortion of the Holocaust because it rewrites the narrative and turns the Shoah into a tragedy among many tragedies. This is the heart of the Prague Declaration.” Gauck issued his support for the declaration before assuming the tenure of German’s president.
Zuroff sees the Prague Declaration as the “most serious threat to Holocaust memory in decades.”
Critics argue that the Prague Declaration mistakenly conflates the crimes of Soviet communism with the Holocaust.