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A Familiar Chorus

Just some thoughts on Grass’s poem: First, thanks to the Guardian who translated the poem from German I could actually read it. I’m not sure whether any media in Israel did that (this is the only Hebrew translation I’ve managed to find) and, as technical as might be, it’s an important starting point when considering the public debate on the issue. It is indeed an unfortunately recurring pattern that a public debate is either uninformed or informed by selective (often digested) fragments from secondary sources. Media outlets’ decision not to translate the poem, somehow similar to the Danish Mohammed cartoons crisis, is most likely meant to avoid being accused of the same ‘anti-Semitism verdict’ that Grass’s own verses had anticipated.

I’ve been trying to follow the coverage by Israeli media, and got the impression that the common reactions in Israel follow the knee-jerk, defensive-aggressive reactions that often have to do more with the irrelevant form (be it the timing or Grass’s personal background) than the actual issues he brings up in the poem. I’m in no capacity to evaluate the artistic, lyrical features of the poem but given the simplicity of the arguments and the personal angle I can certainly see why some people considered it naive, amateurish, cliché-laden (at least in Spiegel) and even pathetic (for example, in Haaretz).

I do have some reservations – mainly in regard to several unnecessary exaggerations (‘those of us / who survive will at best be footnotes’ or ‘a first strike / that could destroy an Iranian people’). But I can appreciate his frankness, and mostly the bottom line that after all, the situation in the Middle East boils down to what are in fact obvious immoralities fueled by chronic distrust and fatal myopia. Indeed, all of this has already been said, but if this is indeed merely old news, how come it still causes such a stir? Two of 972 Magazine’s commentators, Yossi Gurvitz and Larry Derfner, untangled the poem’s assertions and came to similar conclusions. Maariv’s Shay Golden concluded [H] that he agrees with most of Grass’s arguments, but maintained the Nobel laureate and former Wafen-SS soldier has no moral right of expressing such opinion.

A German colleague, thanks to whom this post was born, protested the supposedly biased coverage of the  row by the German major media. However, I personally don’t believe in objectivity, and I think media – in Germany, in Israel and elsewhere – are not only allowed but actually expected, to take a stance on various issues, basically the same way Grass or anyone else is. But, if indeed German media have been attacking Grass’s very right to freedom of expression, as I’m told (and as Golden argued), I think this is a reason for concern, not least because it challenges their own right.

And surely, the fact that he had indeed anticipated much of the criticism he eventually received might hint that attention is indeed diverted to form over the actual matter.

Like Grass I believe that Germany (and also the EU) should be seriously asking itself how does it see its role in the Middle East. Exporting arms to any of the parties involved isn’t, in my view, conducive to promoting a peaceful, dialogue-based (and consequently sustainable) solution, and is only likely to be undermining other, positive contributions that the EU is making through other initiatives.

The world cannot afford considering criticism of Israeli policies as breaking a taboo. The automatic (over-)reaction that delegitimizes any criticism merely for being one, blocks any chance of dealing with what might in fact be an inconvenient truth, as Gideon Levy writes – and regardless of a person’s or a nation’s history. In that sense it might be that Grass’s poem has had little to any impact on Israel and the region (if it was intended to directly do so), but might have actually contributed to highlighting a certain, dominant worldview in Germany (for example, in Spiegel Online and Die Welt). And that can certainly be considered an achievement in itself.