Günther Grass’s poem What must be said has been defended and attacked throughout the globe. The poem protests against the German sale of a nuclear submarine to Israel; appeals for international control of the Israel and Iranian nuclear program by an authority accepted by both governments; and, though by a German author, refuses to be silent about Israel’s nuclear power, despite Germany’s past crimes against the Jewish people (and humanity). Grass speaks as a German who does not want to be indirectly responsible for a horrific catastrophe, but rather, as he puts it, wants to give help to Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the region – “and, finally, to ourselves as well. This part of Grass’s poem, the main part, is eminently reasonable. Only a twisted mind would find it anti-Semitic or even anti-Zionist.
The poem employs, however, rhetoric that is offensive to Iranians and to Israelis. It calls the Iranian leader a loudmouth who keeps his people under his thumb and pushes them to organized cheering. It imputes to the Israeli leaders the claim to have a right to a first strike capability that could “snuff out” or “annihilate” the Iranian people by using the nuclear submarine sold it by the Germans.Both claims belong more to the exaggerated bombast of living rooms (and blogs) than to a serious cri de coeur. They demean the poet, and they enable the poem to be easily dismissed by the partisans.
But suppose Grass had been more accurate in his description of the possible consequences of Israel’s attack? Suppose that instead of writing “a strike to snuff out the Iranian people” he had written “a strike that may kill or maim hundreds of thousands of people”?
According to the Center for the Strategic and International Studies, a strike on the Bushehr Nuclear Reactor alone “will cause the immediate death of thousands of people living in or adjacent to the site, and thousands of subsequent cancer deaths or even up to hundreds of thousands depending on the population density along the contamination plume.”
Criticism of Israel on that score would not only not count as being anti-Semitic; it could even be advanced by those “sympathetic to Israel’s dilemma.” Or so says Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg:
The morality of a [pre-emptive Israeli] strike, which could cause substantial Iranian casualties, would be questioned even by those sympathetic to Israel’s dilemma.
Goldberg is astounded at the line that Grass did use and considers the poem anti-Semitic. But had Grass’s poem included the more “modest” claim of the possible hundreds of thousands of casualties, rather than the possible annihilation of the Iranian people, would Goldberg have dropped the anti-Semitism charge? In a post accusing Grass of anti-Semitism, Goldberg says that Israel is “contemplating targeting six to eight nuclear sites in Iran for conventional aerial bombardment,” which may be correct,though one retired American general thinks otherwise. There is, to be sure, a clear difference between the nuclear bombing of conventional sites and the conventional bombing of nuclear sites. But what they share in common is the possible causation of “substantial Iranian casualties,” to use Goldberg’s phrase. So why is Grass being anti-Semitic when he morally criticizes the consequences of an Israeli strike, whereas Goldberg is not?
If I understand Goldberg correctly, there are two distinctions between Grass’s standing vis-à-vis the moral criticism of Israel, and his own. First, Grass is a German and a former member of the SS. So he has to shut up – unless, perhaps, he proves himself to be one of those Germans who are “sympathetic to Israel’s dilemma.”
Second, Goldberg misreads Grass as saying that Israel seeks to annihilate the Iranians. This is nowhere stated or implied by Grass in his poem. Instead, he says that Israel seeks the right of a preventative first strike which could annihilate the Iranian people. What’s the difference between the two? Well, it’s the difference between saying that Israel attacked Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in a way that could (and, in fact, did) kill fourteen hundred Gazans and between saying that Israel sought to kill fourteen hundred Gazans.
Why does Goldberg read Grass in this way? He writes
To make yourself believe that Israel is seeking to murder the 74 million people of Iran, you must make yourself believe that the leaders of the Jewish state outstrip Adolf Hitler in genocidal intent.
Goldberg reads Grass as accusing Israel of outdoing Hitler in its evil “genocidal intent” – a reading that is interesting for what it says about Goldberg’s own mind, but it is more interesting for what it says about the manner in which some Israeli advocates think about criticism of Israeli military power, to turn one of Goldberg’s felicitous phrases. What could be more anti-Semitic than accusing Israel of being more genocidal than Hitler? After all, to call for a nuclear embargo on Israel is to imply that Israelis cannot be trusted to act responsibly in the use of nuclear weapons, or in the bombing of nuclear facilities. It is to demean the Israelis, to place them on the same level, if not lower, than the Islamist regime in Iran. It is to claim that like the Iranians the Israelis are not to be trusted with nuclear weapons because we suspect them of genocidal intent.
On Iran’s threats to end the Jewish state -- which was built on the ashes of the German Holocaust -- Grass is tellingly silent.
If by “being built on the ashes of the German Holocaust” Goldberg refers to Benny Morris’s comment that some Jewish soldiers in Palestine, fresh from the DP camps, considered the Arabs they were facing as if they were Nazi soldiers, the point is well taken.
But allow me to point out that only one country, Israel, has threatened to carry out a first strike against the other.
The president of only one country, Shimon Peres, has implicitly threatened a military strike that could wipe the other country off the face of history.
And let’s not forget that Israel threatened Iran with a preventative attack in 2003, before Ahmadinejad was elected president.
Perhaps Mr. Goldberg will provide a link to Iran’s threats of military actions to end the Jewish state in a first strike. On this he is tellingly silent.
(More than a hat tip to Marsha B. Cohen, whose indispensable post on the human costs of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities should be required reading for anybody who cares about Iran, Israel – or humanity.)