By JR on Thursday, April 19, 2012
As many Western leftists abandoned Israel following its post-1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Sinai and the Golan Heights, instead embracing the then novel Palestinian cause, Grass remained pro-Israel. Some four decades later, few would describe Nobel-prize-winning author Grass, 83, in the same terms.
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Grass' controversial recent poem What Must Be Said, published in the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung, severed any friendship that existed between himself and the Jewish state. Grass alleged that a nuclear-armed Israel "threatens the already fragile world peace" and railed against the inability of Germans to take Israel to task for fear of being labelled anti-Semitic. Nine stanzas of poetry sparked a global outcry.
It is self-evident that a former Waffen SS (Nazi military unit) member should exercise extreme caution when commenting upon the actions of the nation-state he unwittingly brought into existence. Still, the decision of Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai to declare Grass persona non grata scarcely requires condemnation. Censoring writers is the antithesis of liberal democracy, however repugnant their views may be.
Much of the debate over Grass' poem has centred on the equation of democratic Israel with the Iranian theocracy and his trivialisation of the existential threat posed by regime in Tehran (whose leader has threatened to "wipe" Israel from the map). Yet, perhaps the most repugnant element of Grass' poem was his Freudian suggestion that Israel was contemplating an attack in order to "annihilate the Iranian people".
At best, Grass is guilty of attention-seeking opportunism. At worst, his attack constitutes classical anti-Semitism in two respects.
First, it rehashes allegations of mendacious Jewish behaviour and conspiratorial, censorious control of governments and the media.
Second, Grass's casting of Israel as the likely next perpetrator of genocide implies that Jews are collectively possessed of evil intentions.
The Grass scandal is hardly some isolated phenomenon. Rather it points to a far deeper intellectual and moral malaise on the political left, although as British journalist Nick Cohen pointed out in a penetrating recent essay for Standpoint magazine, what has been described as the new anti-Semitism from the far left and militant Islamic groups was in fact "extraordinarily consistent" during the previous century.
Anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism has stolen a march in the early 21st century, albeit shorn of overt racism. Instead, the world's oldest hate manifests itself politically via the bizarre demand that Israel, alone among the world's nations, must cease to exist in favour of a bi-national Palestine. For academic Philip Mendes, such fundamentalist discourse demonises "all Israeli Jews and all Jewish supporters of Israel as the political enemy".
Most depressing of all for this committed two-state supporter is the thundering silence of the Western left. As Ari Shavit, a columnist for the left-wing Israeli daily Haaretz, writes: Grass's poem "doesn't contain Goebbels-like propaganda" yet the "words said by Grass and the words not said against Grass prove that the gangrene of delegitimisation is gradually spreading and devouring us".
Australia, too, has not been immune to such developments. Witness the ugly Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions rallies staged outside the Israeli-owned chocolate shop Max Brenner throughout last year, where protesters literally chanted blood-libels ("There's blood in your hot chocolate"). Yet the response of leading left intellectuals, who ought to know better, was to uncritically defend the protesters.
Those protests were the handiwork of Students for Palestine, a front group of the far-left Socialist Alternative group, itself routinely accused of anti-Semitism. It was no coincidence that the same folks recently planned to protest outside the Adass Israel Synagogue on Sabbath. Amazingly, the demonstration was cancelled not out of any concern about anti-Semitism but because "anti-Zionist Jews" were allegedly among the congregants.
This is a new twist on an old far-left strategy whereby the views of a tiny minority of radical anti-Zionist Jews are ostentatiously paraded. Not only is Israel routinely libelled, but anti-Semitism is written off as a disingenuous tactic of Zionist polemicists. Thus, Michael Brull, writing on ABC online's The Drum, described self-confessed jihadist Mohammed Merah, who last month murdered four French Jews, as not anti-Semitic but a "secular" killer.
Israel is hardly a perfect nation but the interventions of Grass et al are passing strange. Over the past 15 months, an estimated 13,000 Syrians have perished as a result of President Bashar Al-Assad's brutal crackdown. This is roughly the same number of casualties produced by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict since the onset of the 1948 war. Yet Grass's poetic stylings avoid altogether the continuing Syrian bloodbath. What must be said indeed.