The World From Berlin 'Israel's Government Has Reacted Absurdly'

German politicians across the spectrum are criticizing Israel's travel ban on author Günter Grass after the publication of his controversial poem. Editorialists condemn the decision, and some are alarmed over what the development could mean for traditionally close ties between the two nations.
At a traditional Easter Monday peace march in Germany, some protesters carried signs reading: "Günter Grass is right!"

At a traditional Easter Monday peace march in Germany, some protesters carried signs reading: "Günter Grass is right!"

Foto: Boris Roessler/ dpa

The publication of German Nobel laureate Günter Grass's controversial poem last week may have sparked an international uproar, but the reaction by Israel, the target of his critical verse, has also come under heavy fire.

On Sunday Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai banned the 84-year-old author from entering his country. The move came after the Thursday release of a poem in which Grass  described Israel as a threat to world peace and insinuated the country might "destroy" the Iranian population.

In a statement, Yishai said that Grass, a former Waffen SS soldier in World War II, was a "persona non grata" in Israel after publishing the poem, entitled "What Must Be Said." But in both Israel and Germany, many voices -- including those who have been critical of Grass' poem -- are describing the response as "exaggerated."

Yishai heads an ultra-Orthodox Jewish party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government, and the leftist Israeli daily Haaretz wrote that the interior minister's declaration "simply smacks of populism."

In Germany, deputy head of the Social Democrats' parliamentary group Gernot Erler called the move "wrong and counterproductive." Grass has strongly aligned himself with the center-left party in the past, often campaigning on their behalf.

Renate Künast, co-leader of the enviromentalist Greens in parliament, said the ban was a shame. "In the end, everyone will now be talking about (Grass') travel ban and no longer about the content of the poem," she said. German Health Minister Daniel Bahr, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which shares power in government with Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Party, told daily Die Welt that the action had been "totally excessive."

And Israel's former ambassador to Germany, Avi Primor, told public broadcaster ARD that Jerusalem's response had been "exaggerated, a little bit hysterical or populist -- in any case, not justified."

Poem Still Controversial

Grass also received support from peace activists who gathered for traditional Easter marches on Monday, which was a holiday in Germany. One group associated with the event released a flyer stating: "It's not Günter Grass who should be pilloried. Instead it should be the politicians who continue to turn the screws of escalation in the Middle East by pushing Iran further into the corner with economic sanctions."

A spokesperson for the marches, Willi van Ooyen, welcomed the poem, telling German news agency DPA that the "political debate has been awakened, also through Günter Grass."

Despite their objections to Israel's travel ban on Grass, many remained critical of the content of the author's poem, though. "Grass is a writer," said Rainer Stinner, the foreign policy spokesman for the FDP in parliament. "Politically, I have always considered him to be a blockhead. His statements have confirmed that yet again."

On Tuesday the editorial pages of many leading German newspapers continue to dedicate fresh ink to the debate on Grass. Many express concern over the state of German-Israeli relations, with one noting that, despite close diplomatic ties, a number of average Germans share Grass' views.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Grass incorporated many objective mistakes in his poem, but that doesn't seem to be discrediting his words. But why not? Not because Grass is secretly right, but because this country distrusts itself. Germany is uneasy with its judgement of the world. More than that, there is no measuring stick, no criterion. And the country is locked in a special uncertainty when its judgement applies to Israel."

"This poem has become a political issue. Israel's government reacted absurdly to it by declaring the author a persona non grata and banning his entry into the country. That's how one creates myths and martyrs. That's how one fuels prejudices. And it's also how one nurtures domestic radicals who see themselves as cornered by the enemy. It would have been more clever to invite Grass to a debate. He wouldn't have won, either."

"Elsewhere in the world the subtleties of this very German debate are not being covered. It is only a story about how a German Nobel laureate with a Waffen SS past has attacked Israel and is being praised for it in Iran. On television in places like England or Italy, this is accompanied by World War II images of steel-helmeted Wehrmacht soldiers and bombed-out ruins. That's what simplistic reports on a country look like. The current situation shows that freedom, including freedom within society, is a valuable commodity. And that demagoguery still works. And that every country deserves objectivity and fairness."

The conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East. Hardly any other country in the Western world features such a lively, perceptive and also amusing culture of debate. In the case of Günther Grass, such dialogue had just been set in motion and would have been enough to convince open-minded German skeptics that Israel was at least as much part of the West as similarly-sized Denmark. But by barring Grass from entering the country, the public discussion has now, rather annoyingly, been forced into another direction."

"But that alone is not the most serious concern. ... The behavior of the Israeli interior minister shows again how unsophisticated the current leadership is. While most of the former Israeli governments were characterized by intelligence and level-headedness alongside courage and military and political skill, (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu's government has shown itself to be about as flexible as a bulldozer. This applies as much to its dealings with America as to Günther Grass. Just as the threat from Iran becomes more acute, one would wish for another Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan or Abba Eban. Unfortunately, such a person is nowhere in sight."

The left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:

"The ban on Grass entering Israel will hardly have any practical effect. Grass hasn't been to Israel for years. His invitation to the coastal city of Netanya overlapped with the release of his autobiographical 'Peeling the Onion,' in which he admitted for the first time to having been a member of the SS as a youth. The visit was delayed at the time. Back then, in 2006, the threat of not allowing him to enter Israel would have been logical. Any German born before 1928 -- in other words, the war generation -- is required to apply for a visa before visiting Israel. The Israeli authorities want to ensure that no former Nazi is able to enter the country, unrecognized, in the guise of a harmless tourist. But coming as it does now, the entry ban by Yishai merely makes clear that it is Grass' recent words rather than his past that are resented."

"Despite this, questions persist. For example, that of the extent to which the special relations between the German government and Israel -- which under Chancellor Angela Merkel have been elevated to the status of a raison d' état -- actually reflects German reality. Grass incensed the Israelis with his skewed view of the Iran conflict. But the government in Jerusalem is also alarmed by the fact that opinion polls show that most Germans secretly believe that Grass is right. That merely reinforces the uneasy feeling the Israelis have that they can trust themselves alone and that they can rely on neither the United States nor Germany."

Responding to the latest development in a poem mimicking Grass' style, translated into prose here, the Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"It is the right to hit below the belt that a poem written by a loudmouth is using to steer towards organized outrage, to stir up the Israeli people in whose area of control he is no longer allowed to enter."

"But why are we remaining silent about the name of the elderly man, who for years -- even if it has been kept secret -- has disposed of a fading poetic potential, but has gotten out of control because no one is allowed to question him?"

"The general concealment of the facts in this case, subordinated by our silence, is something we feel is a nuisance, because we once again have to write so much about old issues and rituals, only because Grandpa is writing poems again. The verdict of senile stubbornness is due."

"Why did we wait until now, when we're relaxed and have fresh ink to say this? Günter Grass is annoying, as is all the populism that he emits. It was just Easter and we were hunting for eggs -- it was lovely, but a little cold. And also because, as the Financial Times Deutschland, we are burdened enough already by other subjects like the euro crisis, and will now go silent on this issue again, because we feel weary of the hypocrisy in this debate. We also hope the culprit and his poem are soon forgotten. That's the only thing that can help."

-- Daryl Lindsey
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