The intellectual cowardice of Günter Grass’s critics

In his controversial new poem, “What Must Be Said,” Günter Grass felt obliged to anticipate the utterly predictable reaction: “the verdict ‘Anti-semitism’ falls easily.”

Jacob Heilbrunn describes Grass’s language as “wild and fevered and calumniatory,” though this is a more accurate description of his own feculent commentary. Under a headline posing the question, Is Günter Grass An Antisemite?, Heilbrunn proceeds with passion and no reason to a foregone conclusion:

Now, anti-Semitism is a charge that is flung about too frequently against critics of Israel. Unfortunately, in this instance it is fully deserved. Here is what must be said: Grass has achieved the impossible. He has further besmirched his reputation.

The theatrical and logical contours of the performances of Israel’s mindless and rabid defenders should by now be perfectly familiar.

First comes the shock and outrage. When anyone in proximity to the trauma of the Holocaust gets upset they tend to solicit a human response. We don’t try and reason with them — we offer them sympathy and try and soothe their distraught emotions. But when the shock and outrage is contrived, it serves a purpose: it is designed to distract and pacify those who might otherwise pose awkward or challenging questions.

Then comes the defamation. Why must Grass be condemned and his words ignored? Because as a seventeen year-old he served for five months in the Waffen-SS. “[A] former member of the SS has no moral standing, to put it mildly, to criticize Israel.” Heilbrunn whips the SS line so hard and fast, he’s forced to drag up from his thesaurus the awkward phrase “quondam SS member.”

Then comes the logical sleight-of-hand: a criticism is rebuffed by being restated in a distorted form. And the distortion always involves the same shift: actions are treated as matters of identity.

Israel is attacked not because of what it does but because of what it is: a Jewish state. Actions demand accountability, but if the assault is treated as striking at the state’s very identity, then the victim can bask in its innocence.

This is how it works in Grass’s case. Grass has written that Israel poses the greatest threat to world peace. Read the headlines, listen to the politicians and commentators. How outrageous! Except there’s one small problem: that’s not what he wrote. He wrote this:

Why only now, grown old,
and with what ink remains, do I say:
Israel’s atomic power endangers
an already fragile world peace? [My emphasis.]

When there is a rush to war because of the mere fear that Iran might develop nuclear weapons, how can the world remain silent about the fact that Israel already possesses hundreds of these tools of genocide?

What is being described as an attack on Israel is no such thing. It is a demand that Israel’s own nuclear arsenal be recognized and acknowledged as a decisive element in the rising tension in the Middle East.

Perhaps there are those who believe that Israel’s existence utterly depends on its possession of nuclear weapons. If that’s the case then maybe we should no longer refer to it as a Jewish and democratic state, but as a nuclear-armed Jewish and democratic state, since retaining the ability to incinerate its neighbors is apparently an essential attribute of such a state.

If however the existence of a Jewish state and its possession of a nuclear arsenal are not inextricably intertwined, then it is perfectly legitimate for Günter Grass or anyone else to say that in the shadow of war, the world can no longer remain silent about Israel’s weapons of mass destruction.

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10 thoughts on “The intellectual cowardice of Günter Grass’s critics

  1. delia ruhe

    Surely by now readers recognize that ad hominem attacks against critics of Israeli policy form the vast majority of pro-Zionist response. I am always heartened by these attacks, since they mean that the work of those critics is irrefutable on the merits. With respect to Gűnther Grass, I am especially appreciative, since the majority of his German compatriots, in their refusal to speak out against Israeli atrocities, appear to relish the work of assisted suicide — Israel’s suicide, that is.

    Calling out Israel on its undeclared nuclear arsenal highlights Israel’s profound hypocrisy with respect to Iran’s exercising of its perfectly legitimate right to enrich uranium. Given the political correctness that seems to have crept into the pro-peace, pro-Palestinian movement of late, Grass’s courageous poem is a welcome sign.

    And speaking of that political correctness, Eric Walberg wrote an excellent piece on it yesterday. Walberg is quite correct to identify the strategy of divide-and-conquer as playing a major role in inspiring the conflict between and among major players in the fight for justice and the rule of law in the Middle East. I hope that people like Abunimah, Finkelstein, Atzmon, and Shamir will read it and be reminded of what’s important in this struggle, and that they will understand how vulnerable they are to the strategy of divide-and-conquer:

  2. dickerson3870

    RE: “Under a headline posing the question, Is Günter Grass An Antisemite?, Heilbrunn proceeds with passion and no reason to a foregone conclusion…” ~ Woodward

    MY COMMENT: This is the propaganda device referred to as “name calling” in the Hasbara Handbook, published by the World Union of Jewish Students (2002).


    (excerpts) Hasbara refers to the propaganda efforts to improve Israel’s image abroad, to justify its actions, and defend it in world opinion…
    Hasbara Campus Manual
    A Hasbara manual for students to use on US univesity campuses is now available online*. A summary of the techniques is provided…
    Propaganda is used by those who want to communicate in ways that engage the emotions and downplay rationality, in an attempt to promote a certain message.
    The manual goes on to describe seven propaganda techniques:

    Name calling: through the careful use of words, then name calling technique links a person or an idea to a negative symbol.
    • Glittering generality: Simply put, glittering generality is name calling in reverse. Instead of trying to attach negative meanings to ideas or people, glittering generalities use positive phrases, which the audience are attached to, in order to lend positive image to things. Words such as “freedom”, “civilization”,…
    • Transfer: Transfer involves taking some of the prestige and authority of one concept and applying it to another. For example, a speaker might decide to speak in front of a United Nations flag, in an attempt to gain legitimacy for himself or his idea.
    • Testimonial: Testimonial means enlisting the support of somebody admired or famous to endorse and ideal or campaign.
    • Plain folks: The plain folks technique attempts to convince the listener that the speaker is a ‘regular guy’, who is trust-worthy because the are like ‘you or me’.
    • Fear: Stressing that ignoring the message will likely lead to war, terrorism[3]
    • Bandwagon: Suggest that the stated position is mainstream and use polls to suggest this. [4] . . .

    SOURCE –
    * “HASBARA HANDBOOK: Promoting Israel on Campus” (March 2002) –

  3. dickerson3870

    P.S. FROM THE “Hasbara Handbook”, pages 22-23:

    • Name Calling
    Through the careful choice of words, the name calling technique links a person or an idea to a negative symbol. Creating negative connotations by name calling is done to try and get the audience to reject a person or idea on the basis of negative associations, without allowing a real examination of that person or idea. The most obvious example is name calling — “they are a neo-Nazi group” tends to sound pretty negative to most people. More subtly, name calling works by selecting words with subtle negative meanings for some listeners. For example, describing demonstrators as “youths” creates a different impression from calling them “children”.
    For the Israel activist, it is important to be aware of the subtly different meanings that well chosen words give. Call “demonstrations” “riots”, many Palestinian political organizations “terror organizations”, and so on. .
    . . . Name calling is hard to counter. Don’t allow opponents the opportunity to engage in point scoring. Whenever “name calling” is used, think about referring to the same thing (e.g. Gilo), but with a more favorable description (e.g. “suburb”). Consider calling settlements “communities” or “villages”. Use the same names back; if somebody talks about Sharon’s “war crimes”, talk about Arafat’s war crimes and involvement in terror. . .

    SOURCE, “HASBARA HANDBOOK: Promoting Israel on Campus” (March 2002) –

  4. Bandolero

    Hello Paul,

    you fell victim to a bad translation spread by the Guadian.

    Grass wrote – as published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung:

    “Warum sage ich jetzt erst,
    gealtert und mit letzter Tinte:
    Die Atommacht Israel gefährdet
    den ohnehin brüchigen Weltfrieden?”

    “”Die Atommacht Israel” shall be correctly translated as “The nuclear power Israel” – just like it was done here at Mondo Weiss in the translation provided by Norbert Jost. It is very clear – the meaning is: Israel – a nuclear power – endagers the already fragile world peace. The interpretation “Israel’s atomic power” is not possible to be derived from the German words.

    For the rest of the poem, the Guardian translation may be usable, but the phrase to make the point here in this article – and Grass’ core sentence – “Israel’s atomic power” – the Guardian published a plain wrong translation.

    So I would translate Grass core sentance:

    Why only now, grown old,
    and with what ink remains, do I say:
    The nuclear power Israel endangers
    the already fragile world peace?

    And in interviews after publishing the poem – especially the long one on aspekte – Grass made also very clear that he wants to say: The Israeli government – with it’s intention to start a war of aggression against Iran, be it a nuclear war of aggression or a conventional – is a danger to world peace.

  5. DE Teodoru

    Bravo Mr. Woodward!

    Heilbrunn is the current young apologist for the criminal neocons who attacks a German for not sucking up to Israel. But Grass’s only crime is that, once again he was a “good German” and for so long kept his mouth shut when he knew damned well that Hitler and the Zionists did business and the Zionists, in their desperation, are copying him now in certain ways. Once again to remain silent “in fear of…” is to repeat the sin the Germans should well have learned from by now. MORALITY IS A NEVER ENDING RIGHT THAT MUST BE HELD UP TO WRONG FOR COMPARISON. Our brains only see by contrast and what we now need in Germany is what the Godhagen Fraud had brought: DEBATE, DIALOGUE, DEBATE, DIALOGUE. That is good, that is holy!

    SILENCE IS A KILLER and until now Grass was, therefore, an unknowing killer. One can be pro or anti Israeli policies. For me either way– and all its complexities to be sure– is fine. BUT TO BE SILENT IS TO REPEAT A SIN THAT COST MANKIND AN ENTIRE GENERATION AND AN ENTIRE CENTURY. Speak up, Grass, speak up all. It’s good for the soul and redeems you with the hundreds of millions of victims of injustice over our life time. You, Grass, spoke up against us Americans during the Vietnam War while we protected you from the Soviets and that’s fine. We protected you so that you would speak freely, morally, not kowtow. But I’ll be damned if we give Israel $10billions a year so it can muzzle the world while it perpetrates crimes. FREEDOM for ISRAEL also means freedom for Grass and Heilbrunn….and freedom for me to say: Helilbrunn, you’re a little putz! Don’t think that the megaphone given you by neocons makes you better than Grass. In the eyes of God we’re all equal; so expect back what you give. You’re free to say anything, but so is Grass; you’ve got no historic muzzle to impose on him. Zionists are not sacred!

  6. DE Teodoru

    Look at how the filthy neocons use their freedom of speech in this ad for COMMENTARY…speak on Grass, speak on!

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  7. Christopher Hoare

    I wonder how many of you commenters also added your voices in support directly to Gunter Glass for his principled appeal. I read the Zionist slurs on Der Spiegel international and sent my criticisms of German cowardice and hypocrisy to them directly. A small effort, but it could do a little toward their freeing themselves from a sense of guilt that creates more dangers for world peace than it atones for crimes now lost in the past.

  8. Tom Hall

    It’s very encouraging to see the number and quality of responses to this item.

    The account from that bastion of Right-thinking liberalism the Guardian (With his last drop of ink, 06/04/2012) was an exercise in the art of ad hominem attack. In this the paper has, as the British say, “form”. Grass joins a list of the publication’s institutional hate-figures that includes Noam Chomsky, Hugo Chavez, Julian Assange and George Galloway.

    Incidentally, in its front page coverage, which pointedly manages to provide no translation of the allegedly “controversial” poem, the paper includes among its findings against Gunter Grass- couched in that time-honored formula “critics say”- that of “failing to acknowledge, for example, Iran’s regular threats to wipe Israel out.” The authors then go on to chide Grass for “raising the unlikely spectacle of Israel ‘annihilating’ the Iranian people’.

    Of course, without text and translation, it is impossible to determine what Grass wrote or did not write. But the canard that Iran regularly issues genocidal threats against Israel is introduced without evidence or caveat, while the very suggestion that a belligerent nuclear power urgently and openly preparing an attack on Iran constitutes a serious danger to the people of that country, is nonchalantly dismissed with an airy phrase.

    The paper has become known for its hatchet jobs on those who fall from its favor (Assange, over business dealings) or who defy the cozy limits of public discussion set in the privacy of its boardroom (many). The Nobel laureate once again finds himself in distinguished company.

  9. inderjeet parmar

    You are quite right: Israel is more likely to attack Iran than Iran is to wipe out Israel; and it is entirely reasonable to subject Israeli foreign policies to criticism without being anti-semitic. While there are racists who criticise Israel, to dismiss all objections as racist is merely to ignore or brsuh aside one’s own wrong-doings.

    Israel’s behaviours in regard to Gaza, to the ‘peace’ flotilla, nuclear weapons, illegal settlements have alienaed most of the rest of the world because of the inherent injustice that lies at the heart of those policies.

  10. Ahmed Asgher

    It is improtant here to also weigh Iran’s threat against Israel’s supposed plan to wage war against Iran. What Ahmedinejad has said about ‘wiping Israel off the map’ has been wrongly translated by the media who are complicit in this war of aggression. I am of Persian descend and can tell you that he referred to Khomeini’s words which trnaslated to “wiping the apartheid regime of Zionism from the pages of history”. This in Farsi is like saying Communist (or South African) is now wiped off the pages of history. One has to have the nuance of a language to understand its meaning. Truly apartheid regime of Israel must end as it can not continue unabated while millions of Palesitians languish in bandustans, cut-off from the world and treated as inferior captives. Embracing all humanity is upon us already, like it or lump it. Israeli policies will be consigned to the dusbin of history, just like the Nazi regime has been. Thw ia the age of enlightenment and by the way am no fan of any form of forced rule, Islamic or otherwise. Every human being must live a free life, from birth to death. Thank you.

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