Share this article

print logo

Israel bans German author of critical poem

Israel on Sunday declared Guenter Grass persona non grata, deepening a spat with the Nobel-winning author over a poem that deeply criticized the Jewish state and suggested it was as much a danger to global security as Iran.

The dispute with Grass has drawn attention to strains in Germany's complicated relationship with the Jewish state -- and also focused unwelcome light on Israel's own secretive nuclear program.

In a poem called "What Must Be Said" published last Wednesday, Grass, 84, criticized what he described as Western hypocrisy over Israel's nuclear program and labeled the country a threat to "already fragile world peace" over its belligerent stance on Iran.

The poem has touched a raw nerve in Israel, where officials have rejected any moral equivalence with Iran and noted that Grass admitted only in a 2006 autobiography that he was drafted into the Waffen-SS Nazi paramilitary organization at 17 in the final months of World War II.

Grass' subsequent clarification that his criticism was directed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, did little to calm the outcry.

On Sunday, Israel's interior minister, Eli Yishai, announced that Grass would be barred from Israel, citing an Israeli law that allows him to prevent entry to ex-Nazis. But Yishai made clear the decision was related more to the recent poem than Grass' past.

"If Guenter wants to spread his twisted and lying works, I suggest he does this from Iran, where he can find a supportive audience," Yishai said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Grass of anti-Semitism.

The uproar has touched upon some of the most sensitive issues in modern-day Israel: the Holocaust, Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and Israel's own illicit nuclear program, which is believed to have produced an arsenal of bombs. Israel neither confirms nor denies having nuclear weapons and has refused to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would subject it to international inspections.

It also has unleashed a debate in Germany, where criticism of Israel is largely muffled because of the country's Nazi past. Grass' most famous book, "The Tin Drum," is about the rise of the Nazis and World War II as told through the lives of ordinary people. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999.

According to a biography from his museum in Germany, Grass has been in Israel at least once -- notably accompanying Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1973 on the first official state visit of a German chancellor to Israel.

Israel was established in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust and became a refuge for hundreds of thousands of survivors of the World War II Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews. Some 200,000 aging survivors still live in Israel.

The Holocaust has deeply influenced Israeli thinking over the years. Israel marks a Holocaust memorial day every year with a siren that brings the country to a standstill for two minutes. Israel's drive to maintain a powerful military has been shaped by the thought that its enemies want to repeat what the Nazis tried to do.

More recently, Netanyahu has turned to Holocaust imagery in warning the world of the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. In a speech last month to American Jewish leaders, Netanyahu said, "Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again."