The Israeli government has responded sharply to the controversial poem "What Must Be Said" by Nobel Prize-winning German author Günter Grass, declaring him a "persona non grata" on Sunday and thereby barring him from entering the country.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai said in a statement that Grass, a former Waffen SS soldier who described the Jewish state as a threat to world peace in a poem published last week, could no longer visit Israel because of his "attempt to inflame hatred against the State of Israel and people of Israel, and thus to advance the idea to which he was publicly affiliated in his past donning of the SS uniform."
Yishai, who heads an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative coalition government, told Israeli radio that Grass should have his Nobel Prize withdrawn, and likened his comments to the anti-Semitic incitement that ultimately led to the Holocaust. He said Grass was an "anti-Semitic person" and a "man who wore an SS uniform."
Grass qualified his comments in an interview at the weekend, saying that in retrospect, he would have phrased his poem differently to "make it clearer that I am primarily talking about the (Netanyahu) government."
"I have often supported Israel, I have often visited the country and want the country to exist and at last find peace with its neighbours," he told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Grass' poem was the expression of the "egoism of so-called Western intellectuals who are willing to sacrifice the Jewish people on the altar of crazy anti-Semites for a second time, just to sell a few more books or gain recognition".
Israel's politicians may seize on the controversy as a welcome opportunity to boost their popularity by positioning themselves as defenders of the national interest. There is speculation among parliamentarians that Netanyahu wants to bring forward the next general election.
Mixed Reaction to Entry Ban
Among intellectuals, opinions differ on the ban. Israeli historian Tom Segev criticized the move as "silly" and "cynical." Israel was putting itself close to fanatical regimes like Iran in doing so, he said in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Michael Wolffsohn, a German historian born in Israel, defended Israel's decision. "I welcome the decision by the government of Israel which I have in the past criticized on many issues. This isn't about the interior or prime minister, but about fundamentals. An ex-SS man isn't a moral authority, especially regarding the descendants of the victims," Wolffsohn told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The former Israeli ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, said the ban was exaggerated and populist. "I think the interior minister doesn't understand Germany at all. He is conducting domestic politics, I think that's wrong," Primor told German news program Tagesthemen on Sunday night. Grass isn't an anti-Semite, said Primor. But the diplomat also criticized Grass's poem. The author's claim that Israel wanted to eradicate Iran was ridiculous, he said.
German Politician Says Israeli Response 'Inappropriate'
There was also criticism of the ban from German politicians. The foreign policy spokesman for the opposition Social Democrats in parliament, Rolf Mützenich, said the reaction by the Israeli government was "inappropriate." He told the website of business daily Handelsblatt there should be a factual debate about Grass' statements. "A democratic and pluralistic country like Israel can bear controversial opinions, especially since the views of Günter Grass aren't anti-Semitic," said Mützenich.
The parliamentary manager of the opposition Greens in the German parliament, Volker Beck, also criticized Israel's move. "I hope they will reconsider it," he told Handelsblatt Online. But Beck added that he could understand Israel's anger. "Grass has shown himself to be ignorant of the actual threat to Israel posed by Iran, the constant attacks on Israeli territory with rockets fired from the Gaza Strip and the questioning of Israel's right to exist by Iran and its allies in the region."
This isn't the first time Israel has barred foreigners from entering the country as "punishment" for critical statements.
The US-based Jewish linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, who has often criticized the Israeli government, was banned from crossing the border into Israel from Jordan two years ago
Last summer Israel stopped several hundred pro-Palestinian activists from travelling to the West Bank.
In October 2010, Israel expelled Irish Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire after detaining her for a week. She had travelled to Israel to meet Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.
The conductor Daniel Barenboim broke a taboo in 2001 by conducting music by Richard Wagner, the German composer vilified in Israel for his anti-Semitic views, during a performance in Israel. There were many calls for Barenboim to be declared persona non grata, which did not however happen.
Prominent Literary Critic Slams 'Disgusting Poem'
Fellow authors have denounced Grass' poem. Prominent German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a Holocaust survivor, described it as "a disgusting poem," that was worthless in political and literary terms. "Iran wants to wipe out Israel, the president keeps on announcing that, and Günter Grass is versifying the opposite," said Reich-Ranicki in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper on Sunday.
Wolf Biermann, a songwriter and former East German dissident, defended Grass "in the name of free speech," but described his poem as a "literary mortal sin." Biermann wrote in Welt am Sonntag newspaper: "When artists no longer have original ideas, some like Grass attempt to artificially break taboos."
Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has been the only member of the German government to comment so far. He wrote in Bild am Sonntag newspaper: "Putting Israel and Iran on the same moral level is not ingenious but absurd."
There has been much debate about Grass' poem in Israel too. Newspaper Haaretz commented on its website that Israelis had a right to be angry at Grass but should listen to him. Commentator Gideon Levy wrote: "Grass' 'What Must Be Said' does contain things that must be said. It can and should be said that Israel's policy is endangering world peace. His position against Israeli nuclear power is also legitimate. He can also oppose supplying submarines to Israel without his past immediately being pulled out as a counterclaim. But Grass exaggerated, unnecessarily and in a way that damaged his own position."
Levy added: "It is better to listen to the statements and, especially, finally, to lift the prohibition against criticizing Israel in Germany."