Deborah Cole, AFP
Last updated: 10 April, 2012

German politicians and Israeli writers call to muzzle Grass

Leading German politicians and Israeli writers demanded Tuesday that author Gunter Grass be sidelined as the Nobel laureate faced a growing backlash over his recent poem lambasting Israel.

Germany’s Social Democrats said Grass was no longer welcome at their campaign rallies after last week’s publication of the hotly controversial work branding Israel as the Middle East’s biggest threat to peace.

The party’s chief whip, Christian Lange, told Die Welt newspaper that the notion of Grass, who had been appearing on the stump for the centre-left SPD since the 1960s, speaking on its behalf was now “out of the question”.

“I no longer want to see Grass in an SPD campaign,” another party official, Reinhold Robbe, told the daily ahead of two state elections in the next five weeks.

“Many Social Democrats would see campaign events with Grass as a provocation…. His time is over,” he said, just as a group of Israeli authors demanded the Nobel prize committee denounce him — a move the Swedish Academy which chooses the literature winner said Tuesday it would not do.

The deputy head of the SPD’s parliamentary group, Gernot Erler, told NDR public radio that 84-year-old Grass had “lost touch with reality”.

However, a former SPD parliamentary speaker, Wolfgang Thierse, told public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk that the party could criticise Grass’s views but “should not discredit him as a person”.

Grass, one of Germany’s most influential intellectuals, had been an outspoken SPD backer since Willy Brandt stood for chancellor of West Germany in 1969 and he actively campaigned for Gerhard Schroeder before his election in 1998.

But he sparked a firestorm of criticism at home and abroad last week for the poem “What must be said”, in which he voiced fears that a nuclear-armed Israel would mount a “first strike” against Iran and wipe out its people, plunging the world into a new war.

Outraged commentators said that while German criticism of Israeli government policies was legitimate, even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Grass had offered up a one-sided portrayal of Israel as a bloodthirsty aggressor against Iran which dredged up familiar anti-Jewish tropes.

And they noted his admission in 2006, six decades after World War II, that he had been a member of Hitler’s notorious Waffen SS as a 17-year-old — a late revelation that undermined his until then substantial moral authority in Germany.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted the poem as “shameful” while his interior minister on Sunday barred Grass from entering the Jewish state, in a move lamented as petty in Germany.

For its part the Iranian government hailed the poem.

On Tuesday, an Israeli association of Hebrew-language writers urged the Nobel prize committee and the PEN writers group to denounce Grass and his “shameful and immoral positions”.

“They must speak: it is not political, it’s moral, because Grass is complicit in whitewashing the genocidal declarations of Iranian leaders,” the head of the Hebrew Writers’ Association, Herzl Hakak, told AFP.

But the Swedish Academy, which decides the winners of the Nobel prize for literature, rebuffed the call.

“I wish to point out that Mr Grass received his Nobel Prize in 1999 on literary merit and literary merit alone — this applies to all recipients,” the Academy’s permanent secretary, Peter Englund, said in a statement.

“There is and will be no discussion in the Swedish Academy on rescinding the award.”

Since the poem’s publication, Grass has hit back in interviews at a “campaign” against him, calling accusations of anti-Semitism “hurtful”.

But he said he regretted not specifying that his criticism was targeted at the Israeli government and not the country as a whole.