A popular YouTube parody at www.collegehumor.com, which my kids love, has a youngGerman named Gunter Granz working in an American office, refusing to shake his Jewish co-workers’ hands, assuming all their fathers are rich bankers, and humiliated by Germany’s World War II misdeeds – because if only Hitler had not made the country so vulnerable with the long supply lines in Russia, he would have won. Meanwhile, in the real world, the German novelist Gunter Grass talks about Israel, the Jewish state, in equally absurd ways, bordering on parody. Grass should be mocked, refuted, confronted. But Israel’s Interior Minister is wrong. Rather than banning the author, Israel should welcome him – showing Grass a real democracy in action rather the bogeyman he targeted.
Grass’s poem “What Must Be Said” throbs with the false bravado and self-righteousness of the laptop warrior against Israel. There is this conceit, among Israel’s critics, that, somehow, by joining the international pile-on against Israel they are being brave, breaking the silence, saying what must be said, when they actually are being conformist, acting in vogue, echoing clichés.Especially in Europe, and most especially in Grass’s leftist circles, attacking Israel – or the US -- is as natural, and as imaginative, as grumbling about high gasoline prices or low book advances.
Among Western radicals, prejudice against Israel and the US is the last legitimate bigotry, the only hatred acceptable in polite circles. As Richard Wolin explains in The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, America has long functioned as European thinkers’ Schreckbild, image of horror. Israel, what those lovely Iranian mullahs call, Little Satan, is now similarly targeted, in a move reeking of anti-Semitism that also feels natural to European elites. Attacking each country’s essential character transcends anger at specific policies, often confusing cause and effect. The French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel notes that the same critics attack America as “unilateralist” and “imperialist” when it intervenes internationally but then call Uncle Sam “isolationist” when it does not.
Similarly, Grass colors within the lines, slavishly following the bash-Israel formula. His critique is one-sided, exaggerated and hysterical. Iran can threaten to “wipe out” Israel but Grass and his ilk accuse Israel of threatening Iran, of endangering “The already fragile world peace.” Such “wonderful illogicality” suggests not “rational analysis” to Revel but “obsession.”
I agree with Grass when he writes in his leaden, clumsy poem: “I am tired of the hypocrisy/ Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped/That this will free many from silence,/That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger/ To renounce violence….” We just differ in our threat assessments and our definitions of hypocrisy. I am more outraged by charlatans like Grass who cannot criticize Third World dictators and human rights abusers, and whose fight against nuclear proliferation mysteriously lost steam when the oil-rich Iranians decided they desperately needed what, an alternative energy source? And when it comes to trusting one country to act responsibly, I bet on Israel’s democracy over Iran’s mullocracy.
Grass sees the Middle East as a “Region occupied by mania” with Israelis and Palestinians living “cheek by jowl among enemies.” Beyond not wanting to deploy state power against an aging, irrelevant blowhard whose great achievement, The Tin Drum dates to 1959, before I was born, I believe Israel has nothing to hide. Grass should visit Israel now during Passover.
I wish he could have wandered, Seder night, like the spirit of Elijah the Prophet did, from house to house, watching a society stop, gather in groups of friends and relatives, to contemplate questions of justice and injustice, slavery and freedom. I wish he could visit the country’s parks and historic sites, seeing many of the same families now enjoying Israel’s natural beauty and historical grandeur as backdrop. I wish he could frolic in Sakhne, which attracted as many as 1500 people a day this Passover, and see Arabs and Jews “cheek by jowl” splashing in the water, enjoying the mini waterfalls. I wish he could inspect the wards of Hadassah Hospital or work out in the YMCA gym in Jerusalem and see Arabs and Jews “cheek by jowl,” living together, working together, playing together. I wish he could wander through the Old City and speak to those Palestinian-Israelis who have worked so hard to get Israeli citizenship, asking why those papers are so precious to them.
And I wish he could meet the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of refugees from his native Germany, who survived the sadism of the Waffen SS Grass joined and then lied about, to see the lives they have made for themselves. Those monuments to the human spirit are more impressive than any monuments to the dead at Yad Vashem.
And yes, let him get political and visit the territories. Let him visit the Palestinian photographic art exhibits in Jaffa and elsewhere Israelis attend, and seek parallel expressions of sympathy for Israel, artistic or otherwise, in the Palestinian territories. Let him visit Sderot, or my cousin’s Kibbutz, Nirim, to see how Hamas in Gaza chose rocket-launching over nation-building when given the opportunity to do what it wished after Israel withdrew in 2005 –nearly seven years ago already! –and then the Islamists seized power. And let him meet victims of Palestinian terror, learn about their missing limbs – or missing family members – and unravel why Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian leadership turned from peace talks to suicide bombs.
Israel has nothing to hide – and would botch it if it tried. Democracy begins in conversation. Freedom thrives from exposure. Let Grass come visit Israel and learn. Then, let him make Tehran his next stop, if he dares.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism.