Gunter Grass Poem Railing Israel Was Sorely Needed

On April 8, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai barred German Nobel literature laureate Günter Grass from entering Israel for expressing views against Israel in a recent poem. Yishai heads the right-wing ultra-Orthodox Israeli Shas Party, which is also part of Prime Minister Benjamn Netanyahu's coalition government. Yishai has also said he wants Grass' Nobel award revoked.

The poem titled “What Must Be Said” and published on April 4 in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, has  lyrics that warn of eventual Israeli aggression against Iran. What is more important, it argues that Germany should no longer deliver nuclear submarines to Israel because, by doing so, the state is becoming complicit in a crime against humanity.

One of the angriest Israeli accusations against Grass – echoed in the New York Times and among German officials – was the poet's alleged offense of treating Israel and Iran as moral equivalents, or as the Times put it “placing Israel and Iran on the same moral plane.”

The tough talk makes it easy to forget that Israel and Iran have not always been enemies. They have enjoyed an “overwhelmingly positive connection” for centuries, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.

In the years after the Iran-Iraq War, however, Israel began to regard Iran and its support of global terror as a chief threat. Iran also stirred anxiety in Israel by revving up its nuclear program. The last straw fell after the 2005 Iranian elections. The newly-elected president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began spouting anti-Israeli and anti-Western rhetoric. He enraged Jews by denying the Holocaust and alarmed them by promoting attacks on Israel.

In the past, Israel's ties with Iran were chiefly motivated by “a single word with three letters: O-I-L,” said Uri Bialer, a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Iran earned money selling oil to Israel. Now it seems wealthy enough to be dangerous for Israel. Therefore, Grass' worries about Germany's accountability for delivering nuclear submarines to Israel are logical.

Israel now reminds Grass' of his own teen years when he had been a member of the Nazi Waffen-SS, and where aggressive politics helped lead to global war.

In a Gallup Youth Survey conducted in 2005, students aged 13 to 17 were asked to think of the one class in which they feel they learned the most. When asked to explain their choices in an open-ended format, more than half of teens — 53% — give credit to the teacher. One of the responses from the survey illustrates this emphasis: “I learned to appreciate poetry (when the teacher is passionate about it, I learned to be passionate about it).”

Germany (and the rest of the world) now has a passionate teacher in Günter Grass who is making his position a matter of conscience.