Former Nazi Gunter Grass & a ‘liberal’ broadsheet called the Guardian (Analysis of coverage)

As I noted in a previous post, an 84 year old former Waffen SS Nazi named Gunter Grass published a poem falsely accusing Israel of contemplating a nuclear assault on Iran, and therefore a threat to “already fragile” world peace.

I advanced a few arguments in the piece, the most basic of which were these:

That the spectacle of a former Nazi, a German who was complicit with history’s most lethal movement, is about the last person on earth to lecture Jews on morality; that it’s shameful to characterize as “brave” his promotion of the intellectually and morally unserious charge that the Jewish state represents a threat to world peace; and that Germans, if nothing else, have a profound responsibility to guard against the resurgence of Judeophobic discourse within their society.

You’d think even the Guardian would report the story in a manner.

However, they’ve published eight pieces on the row thus far, little of which suggest genuine moral outrage at Grass, and much of which vilify Israel for its’ reaction to the poem.

Here are some highlights:

1. Gunter Grass barred from Israel over poem, April 8, by Harriet Sherwood.

What title and narrative of piece evoke

Israel repressing freedom of expression, unfairly barring someone from entering the state due merely to an offensive poem.

Relevant passages, representative of story’s theme

Some Israeli commentators said Grass had raised an important issue and that criticism of Israeli policies was routinely portrayed as antisemitism.

Writing on the +972 website, Larry Derfner said: “Günter Grass told the truth, he was brave in telling it, he was brave in admitting that he’d been drafted into the Waffen SS as a teenager, and by speaking out against an Israeli attack on Iran, he’s doing this country a great service at some personal cost while most Israelis and American Jews are safely following the herd behind Bibi [Netanyahu] over the cliff.”

Gideon Levy, the Haaretz columnist, wrote that Grass and other critics of Israeli policies were “not anti-Semites, they are expressing the opinions of many people”. “Instead of accusing them, we should consider what we did that led them to express it,” he said.

By ending with two defenses of Grass, which characterize him as more deserving of moral sympathy than Israeli leaders, Sherwood is providing implicit support (or at least, legitimization) for such opinions.  The broader message is that Israel is the guilty party, not Gunter Grass. 

2. Letters: Israel, Gunter Grass and the right to artistic license, April 8

While there were two letters critical of Grass, there were also four strongly defending him and vilifying Israel: by Tim Llewellyn, John Severs, John Severs, Catherine Boswell. 

Tim Llewellyn: Zionist conspiracies, the tragically misunderstood Republic of Iran, and a compliant media that is manipulated into denigrating the great Grass.

“What is so exceptional about Günter Grass’s verse that it should provoke such political and media hysteria? He merely points out what anyone who studies the Middle East knows: that Israel is trying to bounce the United States into war with Iran by wildly exaggerating Iran’s alleged “existential” threat to Israel, regardless of the cataclysmic consequences.

Israel has nuclear weapons; Iran does not. Iran has not seriously threatened Israel: even rhetorically, the textual evidence of any real menace to Israel from Ahmadinejad is overinterpreted and exaggerated. Conversely, Israel is certainly threatening Iran.

Why do our commentators fall such easy prey to the machinations of the Israeli state and its supporters, and denigrate a great and wise writer who, after all, is only trying to give us due warning of a disaster in the making?”

Published by the Guardian: Conspiratorial narrative of a Jewish state so powerful it can goad an unwilling world super power into war with Iran; An incomprehensible lie that Iran has not threatened Israel; and the notion that commentators are manipulated by Zionists into denigrating a great and wise former Nazi.

John Severs: Three cheers, or more, to Gunter Grass!

Three cheers, or more, to Günter Grass for exposing the hypocrisy of Israel’s stance and continuing complaints, with no evidence, about Iran developing nuclear weapon capability. Israel has significant nuclear-warhead capability, and it is constantly threatening to bomb Iran or organise land-based raids, thus creating mayhem across the Middle East. Grass might well have also mentioned the shocking Israeli blockade of Gaza and their illegal appropriation of land and water, and destruction of huge tracts of olive groves and orchards on the West Bank.

I note that, once again, a critic of Israeli policy is branded anti-Jewish. Is it no longer possible to criticise Israel as a nation without being accused of being antisemitic?

The brave Gunter Grass, who speaks truth to power, and says what must be said: Iran is the victim of Israeli aggression, a Jewish state which not only threatens world peace but destroys olive groves as well!  Plus, bonus claim: Poor former Nazis are silenced, and can’t even level hysterical warnings of a Jewish state representing the greatest threat to world peace without being called antisemitic. 

Catherine Boswell: The Mossad targeted my husband for being critical of Israel!

“My late husband, the German poet Erich Fried, was a colleague of Grass. In 1974 Erich published a whole book of poems about the Arab-Israeli conflict entitled Höre Israel, which has been republished recently by Melzer Verlag.

Grass’s admission that he served in the Waffen SS in his teens serves as ready ammunition for the Zionists to use against him; for Erich it was the fact of being a Jew. For taking a critical stance of Israeli policies, he was dubbed an antisemite and even targeted by Mossad for a few years. It amazes me how this shameful – not to say quite illogical – equivalence can be so widely accepted.”

This letter is more proof you can engage in the most bizarre, unhinged, conspiratorial anti Zionist rhetoric and get published in the Guardian.  The notion that the Mossad was targeting her husband for engaging in criticism of Israel is so ludicrous as to be almost a parody.  

3. Gunter Grass and changing German attitudes towards Israel, April 5, by Hans Kundnani

Theme of commentary:

Grass’ poetical attack on Israel is not an isolated view in Germany, and represents increasing German anger at the Jewish state, due to its move right, and Germans’ feeling that they’re not allowed to say what they really think. (Kundnani doesn’t necessarily endorse such German and equivocates by use of words such as “rightly or wrongly” this is what Germans think.)

Key passages:

what makes the publication of the poem significant is that it expresses a sense of anger against Israel that – justified or not – many Germans seem increasingly to share. This anger is partly a response to Israel’s rightward shift during the past decade. But it seems also to be a product of developments in Germany and in particular the way that the Holocaust has receded in significance during the last decade. Increasingly, Germans seem to see themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

A poll in January 2009 – during the Gaza war – suggested that German attitudes to Israel were in flux. Nearly half of respondents said they saw Israel as an “aggressive country” and only around a third of respondents said they felt Germany had a special responsibility towards Israel. Sixty per cent said Germany had no special responsibility (the figure was even higher among younger Germans and among those living in the former East Germany).

This anger against Israel is exacerbated by the sense some Germans have of not being able to say what they really think – as Grass suggests in the poem. This has created a pent-up resentment towards Israel that could at some point explode.

Last year, Germany voted in favour of a UN resolution demanding a halt to Israeli settlement expansion – an unusual break with Israel. Later in the year, Germany opposed the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN. But according to one poll, 84% of Germans supported Palestinian statehood and 76% believed Germany should act to recognise it – an even higher proportion in each case than in France or the UK.

An Israeli military strike on Iran could create a sudden rupture between Germany and Israel in the way that the Iraq war did between Germany and the US. My sense is that were Israel to launch a military strike on Iran, what remaining sympathy there is in Germany for Israel would evaporate almost overnight.

Again, in addition to the disturbing fact that, evidently, Germans now see themselves as victims, notice that Grass’ victimological conceit (that Germans can’t say what they truly feel about Jews and Israel without opprobrium) is, per the writer, arguably true, and shared by a large percentage of Germans.

4. Hit Gunter Grass with poetry not a travel ban, April 10, by Robert Sharp, a blogger at the far left site (and Guardian partner blog) Liberal Conspiracy.

Major Theme: 

Banning Grass from traveling to Israel amounts to state censorship

Relevant passages:

On Sunday, the controversy surrounding Günter Grass’s poem Was Gesagt Werden Muss (What Must Be Said) escalated, with Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai confirming Grass was now considered a persona non grata in Israel, which amounts to a travel ban. This is a form of state censorship against an author, purely because of what he has written, which is wrong and an infringement on free speech.

Agree or disagree with the travel ban, such a restriction has absolutely nothing to do with censorship or free speech, which would be an apt description if, for instance, Grass’ poems were banned in Israel.  Grass is not a citizen of Israel and has no right to be allowed entry. His former role in the Nazi Waffen SS is enough moral justification for keeping him out of the country.

5. Pass notes No 3,156: Günter Grass, April 10 (no author cited)

Finally, the Guardian published a quite whimsical take on the row over the former Nazi’s poem. Here’s a sense of the light-hearted take on the topic: a brief bio of Grass, and a series of short answers to the questions surrounding the row:

Age: 84.

Appearance: Like a potato.

That’s a little unkind: OK, a potato with a pipe.

Occupation: Writer, sage, controversialist.

Most telling passage:

Do read: His early novels The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, and Dog Years (the “Danzig trilogy”, named after his birthplace), published in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Don’t read: All his other stuff.

That’s a ridiculous thing to say. Hey, this is Pass Notes, not the LRB. Like the Israeli government, in this case, we specialise in kneejerk reactions and blanket condemnation.

Israel, home to roughly 180,000 Holocaust survivors, is characterized (in the context of their condemnation of Grass’ poem) as a country specializing in “knee-jerk reactions and blanket condemnations”!

Overall conclusion of Guardian’s coverage: Main points.

  • Exceedingly more criticism of Israel’s reaction to Grass’ poem than of the former Nazi’s atrocious vilification of Israel.
  • No commentary on the antisemitic undertones of Grass’ characterization of the Jewish state as the biggest threat to world peace.
  • A paltry amount of outrage at Grass, and the fact that he hid his Nazi past for sixty years while assuming the role of moral “conscience” of Germany.
  • Israel’s travel ban on Grass characterized as “censorship” and a threat to free speech.
  • Publishing (editorial sanctioning) of letters not only supporting Grass, but containing thinly veiled antisemitic and anti Zionist conspiracy theories.

You’d think that, as a paper which fancies itself a liberal voice, the Guardian would be cautious in defending a former Nazi (who hid his role as a member of a Nazi unit, singled out by the Nuremberg Trials for engaging in crimes against humanity, for sixty years) who engaged in a scurrilous attack on the Jewish state – a moral inversion which juxtaposed Iranian “loudmouths” with sinister Israelis contemplating genocide.

Finally, the coverage of the incident again demonstrates that, for the Guardian, criticizing Israel provides impunity to even the most morally compromised commentators.  

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