Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Goldberg Slipping on Grass

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. 

Goldberg writes:

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.

President Ahmadinejad, like Khrushchev  and Reagan, should be criticized for inflammatory rhetoric. But not for military threats of a first strike.

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.)


fiddler0 said...

Former Israeli ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, while disagreeing on the merits (misreading Grass on the issue of genocidal intent, too), has also very publicly defended Grass from the anti-Semitism charge. Even if I'd thought otherwise in the first place, that would be good enough for me.

The scurrilous geschrei from the current ambassador, insinuating blood libel (it's Pesach, after all) is getting the attention it deserves.

Primor also called Eli Yishai's decision to make Grass persona non grata in Israel, "populist, hysterical, exaggerated". Quite so. If Grass' poem is anti-Semitic, or foments hatred of Israel, then I suppose half of Israel's population consists of anti-Semites and self-hating Jews. (Meanwhile Yishai has one-upped himself by calling on the Nobel committee to retract Grass' Nobel prize. The committee naturally declined.)
The TV interview with Primor (in German) is here: http://tagesthemen.de/ausland/grass128.html

The only little problem I have is Grass' subsequent pose of victimisation by the same dreaded pro-Israel consensus he alludes to in the poem itself. He was right to break the taboo, so far as it exists, but he's wrong to complain now about being proven right. Perhaps that's just a matter of the heat of the moment.

pabelmont said...

Goldberg was talking primarily to Jews who delight to be told they need not attend to a political view because -- after all -- it is the view of an enemy, an anti-Semite. So it doesn't count and must necessarily be unsound.

Grass was talking to Germany and to the world. He was saying in a way what many Jews have said about Mein Kampf, namely, that people who talk this way may later do what they are talking about. Bibi is talking about war which may have some sort of nuclear dimension. He speaks in apocalyptic tones. Grass is asking everyone to take this talk seriously and to think about consequences and to think about their OWN PARTICIPATION (he means Germany's), etc.

dickerson3870 said...

RE: It [Grass' poem] 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." ~ Haber

(excerpt). . . Ron Rosenbaum writes in his 2012 book "How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III" that in the "aftermath of a second Holocaust" Israel's surviving Dophin-class nuclear missile submarines would retaliate not only against Israel's attackers, but "bring down the pillars of the world (attack Moscow and European capitals for instance)" as well as the "holy places of Islam." He writes that "abandonment of proportionality is the essence" of the Samson Option.[23] . . .
SOURCE - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samson_Option

ALSO SEE: “Israeli Nuclear Strike on Iran Turned Back”, By William Thomas (Jan. 11/07)
LINK - http://www.willthomasonline.net/Israeli_Nuclear_Strike_On_Iran.html

Tobias said...


... you're probably correct in saying that the implied possibility of an Israeli attack "annihilating" the Iranian people is an exaggeration. Then again, this is a poem, if a rather bad one, and hyperbole is part and parcel of the language of poetry.



... Grass isn't just pulling this from thin air either. And this is not just a crazy nationalist writer like Benny Morris or Martin van Creveld, both of which have advanced their fantasies about Israel starting nuclear holocausts in newspaper interviews. Ben-Eliezer was a minister in the Israeli government. If Iran actually had nuclear weapons and an Iranian government minister said "If Israel attacks, we'll destroy" it and an Israeli author wrote a poem about the possibility of Israel being destroyed by an Iranian attack, would we write this poem off as unrealistic and hysterical? Probably not.

Anonymous said...

america dropped two nukes on japan and fire bombed tokyo....the japanese people are still here

you know very well that grass was attempting to say that israel attacking iran would only be to annihilate the iranian people...and not for self defense

of course, this wont be posted, but the idiocy above, re an israel poem (grass is not iranian...just a former ss soldier) has been

so since it wont be...let me say...i will pray harder next pesach that your jew hating as choke on the non shmura matza you will eat

you filthy


Let me say this: I don't think there is any evidence that Grass is anti-Jewish, e.g. look at the portrayal of the Jewish Gdans toy seller in THE TIN DRUM, Grass volunteering to join to the Israeli defense during the six day war. Living in the United States, as I do, and watching Netanjahu try to blackmail the US President into immediate support for an immedediate pre-emptive strikem and do so in front of AIPAC, an attack on a nation that exists in an entirely defensive posture, albeit it has a blustering president too, an attack that could easily escalate into a major conflagration, to see Netanjahu is even more frightening than to behold Amindebejad, who also may be blustering more for home consumption than to rouse the rest of the world.

http://goaliesanxiety.blogspot.com/2012/04/gunter-grass-what-must-be-said.html contains daily updated links the 100 of different positive and negative positions taken on the Grass anti-war poem controversy. I myself am doing a summary that may be done by the end of the week. However, it looks as though this might get to be a bigger story than just Grass and his poem.


Cricket Black said...

Very good post. Part of the problem is obviously a lack of critical thinking, namely literary criticism. This is after all a poem and not a geo-political narrative, so I find the utter hysteria and outrage at Green's utilization of these common literary devices to be at best irrational and at worst contrived for public manipulation.