It was all too predictable that the minor brouhaha over Gunter Grass’s recent poem, “What Must Be Said,” would turn into a major attack on Israel.
More specifically, as soon as Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced that Grass would henceforth be considered persona non grata in the Jewish state, suddenly the issue at hand – that a German Nobel laureate and former member of the Waffen-SS, just published a blatantly anti-Semitic diatribe - was utterly obfuscated. In its stead came criticism, from all corners of the globe, of Yishai’s decision. For that reason alone, the ban on Grass might have been foolish, as many have suggested.
But others have argued that his decree is an infringement on literary expression and freedom of speech and gleefully use it to prove that they have been right all along about Israel’s “dubious” democratic credentials.
These upstanding upholders of justice, among them a number of Israelis, can always be counted on to regurgitate the same tired old script. And since they include the “literatti,” they are exempt from having to produce less hackneyed material, particularly when discussing matters of pens and swords.
Indeed, these self-anointed elites grow outraged on cue at the very notion that a member of their exclusive club should be called to task for his “art.” This does not prevent them, however, from doing everything in their power to curb the quills of their political nemeses, either by denying them acclaim, or by defaming them through accusations of what they have deemed to be the “bad-isms.”
These include racism, sexism, capitalism, and Zionism. The “good-isms,” in their handbook, are socialism, feminism, atheism, and Islamism.
The one “ism” that seems to have been giving them all a big headache since time immemorial is anti-Semitism. It certainly caused the likes of Gunter Grass a lot of heartburn throughout his illustrious and lucrative career. It was hard for the author of “The Tin Drum,” a critique of the Nazis, to figure out what to do with the fact that though he may have been none too fond of fascism (another of the baddies), he could not stand the Jews. And if he had had an aversion to Jews when he was a young Nazi recruit, it was exacerbated six-million-fold after the war, when he was forced to feel guilty – both personally and collectively – for the crimes committed against them.
Imagine his delight, then, following a very different war – the one in 1967, during which Israel-the-underdog emerged euphorically victorious after being attacked on all fronts by hostile Arab armies. Since its outcome led to the occupation of Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, the opportunity arose to turn David into Goliath. A new “downtrodden minority” -- the Palestinians -- was born with whom Grass and his ilk could now place their sympathies, without forfeiting their holier-than-thou consciences.
It is worth repeating here that politics often makes for strange bedfellows. So, though there is nothing new in the age-old bond between the Nazis and the Arabs, there is an updated nuance with regard to the Left, which has always been anti-Nazi, while being sympathetic to the Muslim-Arab world. What the state of Israel provided was the ability for old anti-Semites and new ones to have a common “bad-ism” -- Zionism -- around which to rally, but this time with social, cultural, political, and literary legitimacy.
It is this climate that caused Grass to come out of the post-WWII closet and pen a poem warning against imminent Israeli atrocities against the Iranian people in the event of a strike against the nuclear facilities of Ahmadinejad and his ayatollahs, who have made no bones about their intentions to annihilate the Jews.
Nor should it surprise anyone that another overrated writer – Salman Rushdie – gave Grass his stamp of approval on Twitter this week.
Rushdie’s 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses,” turned him into an international star when Ayatollah Khomeini put out a fatwa on his head for blaspheming Islam and Mohammad. As a result, Rushdie had to go into hiding, but won a lot of literary awards he ill deserved, and garnered the support of important people all over the place.
At first glance, it would appear to make no sense for Rushdie to defend Grass, whose poem basically sides with Iran over Israel. But anyone who has been paying attention – certainly anyone who has actually waded through “The Satanic Verses” – would know better.
It is tough to determine who was more moronic during those days -- the mullahs who wanted Rushdie dead, or the Norman Mailers who rushed in to embrace him. In fact, the purpose of the third-rate book, other than showing off the author’s knowledge of everything from pop culture to high-brow philosophy to religion in all its forms, was to paint a pitiful picture of Western society. Khomeini should have rewarded him with a blessing, not a curse. And, in a way, he did, since the fatwa was the best thing that could have happened to Rushdie’s career.
Ironically, Grass, too, just catapulted from “has-been” to “venerated icon” through his latest little ditty. (I don’t read German, but I would wager that it doesn’t give Shakespeare a run for his money.)
All the noise about whether a writer should be allowed to speak his mind freely, no matter what poison he spreads -- or whether censorship or other measures are legitimate when someone with a platform goes too far -- is beside the point in this case. The real issue is that anti-Semitism is not only alive and well among the radical Islamists; it has returned in full swing among European intellectuals. Proof of this lies in the openness with which Gunter Grass printed utterances that were, for a time, considered taboo. Further evidence is Rushdie’s ability to back him up, via social networking, no less.
There is only one question that should concern us all right now – and it is not why Eli Yishai thinks he can or should bar Grass from landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. It is how we have managed to look the other way while the forces that enabled the Holocaust were resurging, regrouping, and rearming.
Can we, who vowed “Never Again,” really rest assured?
Ruthie Blum, a former senior editor at The Jerusalem Post, is the author of a book on the radicalization of the Middle East, soon to be released by RVP Press.