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It’s a measure of how seriously Grass is still taken in many quarters that Benjamin Netanyahu thought it advisable to speak up. “It is Iran, not Israel, that is a threat to the peace and security of the world,” Netanyahu said. “It is Iran, not Israel, that threatens other states with annihilation.” Other Israelis also weighed in. Israel’s embassy in Berlin pointed out that “it is a European tradition to accuse the Jews before the Passover festival of ritual murder.” And Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer marveled at Grass’s failure to “understand that his membership in an organization that planned and carried out the wholesale genocide of millions of Jews disqualified him from criticizing the descendants of those Jews for developing a weapon of last resort that is the insurance policy against someone finishing the job his organization began.” Neatly put.
Back in Germany, Henryk Broder noted (original German here) that “Grass has always had a problem with the Jews, but he’s never expressed it as clearly as in this ‘poem.’” (Indeed, my own first reaction to Grass’s “poem” was gratitude: anybody who genuinely doubted where Grass stood on these matters need doubt no longer.) Broder cited two interviews: in 2001, Grass essentially demanded “that Israel give up not only Nablus and Hebron but Tel Aviv and Haifa as well”; in 2011, Grass implied a moral equivalence between the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews and Germany’s supposed loss of six million soldiers in Russian prisoner-of-war camps. (In fact, the latter figure is closer to one million.) Broder’s conclusion: “Grass is the prototypical educated anti-Semite….The Jews will never forgive the Germans for what they did to them. So for peace to finally come to the Middle East – and for Günter Grass to find some inner peace – Israel should ‘become history,’ as the Iranian president put it.”
Yet Grass’s “poem” has also won praise. From the “World Socialists” to a high-ranking Iranian cultural apparatchik, many have rushed to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him. Now age 84, Grass has accomplished, with his “poem,” just what he doubtless wanted: in a continent swarming with self-seeking literary intellectuals who ooze self-righteous anti-Semitism, Grass has resumed his place at the head of the whole unseemly pack. He has proved Updike right – indeed, he has turned out to be even more of a cautionary lesson than Updike probably ever imagined.
In a 2007 interview with Charlie Rose about Peeling the Onion, Grass admitted that as an SS soldier he fully expected the Germans to win the war, right up until the very moment when he discovered that the war was lost. The more one discovers about this “moral conscience of the German nation,” the less one doubts that if the Nazis had triumphed, he would have lived a long, productive, and well-rewarded life as a literary ornament of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich.
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