Letter to Günter Grass

Dear Herr Grass,

Ever since your poem was first published, I’ve been wanting to talk to you. You don’t know me from a hole in the ground. The chances are that we’ll never meet, either. However, I didn’t want the event to pass without you hearing from me, as someone who was touched by your words. I am a Jew, you see. Not just any, but an Israeli citizen, one of the many, who, as you know, now make their home in Berlin.

Since being Jewish in Germany is as much a full-time preoccupation for us as dealing with being Israelis, we’re forced to navigate a particularly complex set of coordinates created by what you’ve written. I don’t mean to suggest that we’ve been in any way compromised by you. My point is that our position, living in between the two countries, provides us with an especially rich vantage point from which to comment.

By now, you’ve had the honor of being personally replied to by Israel’s political leadership. The Prime Minister thinks you’re still a Nazi. Our Foreign Minister has said you exhibit the conceit of a typical ‘Western’ intellectual. And, now the Interior Minister, has declared you a persona nongrata in Israel. This is no small achievement, especially on the strength of a single poem. Literature can still speak ‘truth’ to power. Quite clearly.

As much as I’d like to think that the sensitivity of Israel’s leadership is a reflection of the fact that they are cultured, informed people, the problem, in fact, is that they are not. The situation, unfortunately, is more sinister than that. Consider the fact that they are rightists. They are suspicious of intellectuals and news media. Not necessarily all, but certainly those who refuse to agree with them, and don’t advocate their program.

Take a good look at the cultural characteristics of the Netanyahu era, and you’ll see. The Prime Minister has actively decried not just ‘left’ representatives of the Israeli press (the newspaper Ha’aretz) as his sworn enemy, but also foreign media and journalists, such as the New York Times, and Thomas Friedman. The Foreign Minister has similarly singled out European newspapers, such as Sweden’s Aftonbladet. I could go on.

For observers of Israeli politics, state hostility towards foreign media is not new. You probably don’t know this, but few foreign broadcasters have been vilified to such a degree as the BBC, for its coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Never mind ‘Arab’ news outlets such as Al-Jazeera. It’s English-language news media that concerns us, specifically, British, more recently, American, which has started moving ‘left’, as well.

That a center-left German newspaper would join this fray, and publish a work like yours simply enlarges the problem. Once considered uncontroversial, German coverage of the Mideast conflict has not elicited much commentary in Israel, at least to this degree. Reading it, for the first time, in depth, in Germany, I can see why. I’ve read a lot of articles decrying criticism of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians as anti-Semitic. Just last week I watched a television news program, on an otherwise liberal channel, which took it for granted that Iran is seeking nuclear weaponry. It was really depressing.

I’ll never forget how, not long after we first moved to Berlin, I spent an afternoon with several German friends, who expressed their condolences over the Mavi Marmara incident, which had just taken place. Their solidarity with me, as an Israeli, was overwhelming. I was touched. But their information? Completely off. They assumed the Turks on the ship were armed terrorists. They told me that’s what they’d been told by German TV news.

Having to explain to them my perspective, as someone from the region, was shocking to them. Not because they distrusted my point of view, or found me somehow partisan, though I could tell they were, to a certain extent, worried about my being a leftist. It’s that my perspective was so utterly alien to them. They had no context to relate my point of view to, or that of Israeli and Jewish coverage of the event that I referred them to, including a commentary that I had written on it, for the France 24 website.

To this day, I still have difficulty prevailing upon my German friends to maintain a consistent point of view on such issues, if anything, to value my own opinion, as someone closer to the Middle East than they are. It’s more work than I imagined, I suspect, because of how many rules govern the way Germans speak about Jews, and the Mideast conflict. We remain victims, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a byproduct of the Holocaust. Though they won’t necessarily tell you this, it’s not difficult to ascertain. The guilt, however abstract, is palpable, and, I think, intellectually inhibiting.

It is for such reasons that I applaud you for having taken such risks in speaking out about our crisis with Iran. While I would have encouraged you to focus your criticisms more on the Israeli government, than “Israel” (I understand you have since come to recognize this) at the same time, I can also understand why you indulged such imprecision. Simply to have said what you did required enormous chutzpah, as we say in Hebrew. One cannot expect you to break so many German taboos, and, simultaneously speak to us, as though you were a therapist. You did what you could.

As far as the Israeli government is concerned, however, you would never have won. What you said, and how you said it, spoke to their darkest anxieties, as rightists trying to rally European support for a military operation that would result in massive civilian casualties, on both sides. They use the language and imagery of the Holocaust to justify themselves. In their eyes, your poem invoked the same privilege, by stating that Israel would wipe out the Iranian people. Coming from an SS veteran, this implied a moral equivalence between Germans and Israelis that we cannot, on any level, concede.

It was inevitable that we’d have this conversation. Living in Germany, I’ve discovered that there is a lot more that ties our peoples together than just Hitler. So much of our national identity, and our conventions, remains informed by yours. On this basis alone, anything you would have to say to us, any challenge you’d feel forced to make, would be more meaningful than if they were leveled by the British, or the Americans.

Indeed, there are times when I hear German and I mistake it for Hebrew. Not because of any inherent linguistic similarities, but because for us, German remains a synonym for education and culture. When you’re addressed by Germans, you hear so much more than just the language being used. If I do that, imagine what kind of cognitive dissonance older Israelis like Netanyahu and Lieberman must contend with.

The experience can be incredibly unsettling. Especially when so much of your identity is bound up with the knowledge that you survived the Nazi genocide. To have a German take you to task, especially of your generation, is like being reprimanded by a former tormentor who has since reformed, who represents the Germany we always deserved. Of course we’d deny you entry. We’d rather history remained at a standstill. But you knew that already.

Photograph courtesy of Ole Reißmann. Published under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Very nicely put, Joel. And far more forgiving of Grass than most of what I’ve read in the German media! Two points. First, you’re totally right that as a German, it’s even harder than as the average Gentile to disagree in an acceptable manner with the likes of Bibi or Lieberman and the forces they represent. The white noise of antisemitism accusations is so strong, so persistent, that it drowns out even the sweetest melodies of dissent. Second, I thought “chutzpah” was Yiddish 🙂

  2. Thanks, Patrick, I appreciate it. Because of that (and due to Israeli criticism of Grass,) I wanted to take a step back, and reclaim the larger picture. It’s crazy how big it actually is.

    I’m sorry we’re so difficult to engage. This will pass with time, eventually. Ironically, it will be because of the abuse of events such as the Shoah, by politicians like Lieberman and Netanyahu.

  3. It is good to hear a sane Jewish and Israeli voice on this issue emerging still and small from the hysterical hubbub. I too am Jewish, am a citizen of Israel, and am on the left.

    “Chutzpah”: it does loom large in Yiddish; but in common with a good number of other Yiddish words (naches [nachat], broiges [be-rogez], and simchah,for example) it made its way there from Hebrew.

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