By Matthew Rothschild on April 09, 2012

The controversy over Gunter Grass’s poem about Israel and Iran only confirms what Grass was saying: That it’s impossible to criticize Israel without being lambasted.

Grass, the Nobel-Prize-winning author of The Tin Drum, among many other works, dared to question Israel’s first strike policy against Iran, dared to underscore “the West’s hypocrisy” that permits Israel to have an arsenal of uninspected nuclear weapons and then permits Israel to threaten to annihilate the Iranian people if Iran tries to get one of its own.

For this, Grass has been roundly condemned. The Israeli government has banned him from entering that country, and Benjamin Netanyahu has ridiculed him for essentially espousing views from Grass’s Nazi youth.

Grass seemed to anticipate just such a reaction and wrestled with whether to speak out or not.

The first words in his poem, after all, are “Why do I stay silent.”

And he answers, in part, because he knows he’ll be hit with the familiar “verdict of ‘anti-Semitism.’ ”

And he knows that Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust also has kept him silent:

“Because I thought my origin/Afflicted by a stain never to be expunged” served as a muzzle when it came to criticizing Israel, a country “to which I am bound and wish to stay bound.”

As a German, Grass writes that he feels obliged to speak out because Germany is sending Israel another submarine “whose specialty consists of guiding all-destroying warheads.” He writes: “We—as Germans burdened enough—could be suppliers to a crime that is foreseeable.”

He doesn’t make a false equivalence to the Holocaust. In fact, he calls Germany’s “own crimes” as being “without comparison.”

Nor does Grass hold a brief for Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinejad— whom he calls a “loud-mouth” subjugating his people.

But Grass worries that an attack by Israel would be catastrophic and that time is getting short.

And so he writes, “aged and with my last ink,” that “the nuclear power Israel endangers/the already fragile world peace.”

He urges Israel to “renounce violence” and he calls on an international agency to take control of both the Israeli and the Iranian nuclear sites.

So what exactly has Gunter Grass done wrong here?

What he wrote about “the West’s hypocrisy” and the nuclear double standard is true.

What he wrote about the impending risk of an Israeli first strike is also true.

And if you believe in nuclear disarmament, as I do, then his position on having the U.N. take over Israel’s and Iran’s nuclear sites is also commendable.

Grass’s words are not the words of an anti-Semite. They are the words of a man of conscience and a man of peace, daring to speak out even as he knows the slurs are coming.

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Adrienne Rich, In Memoriam."

Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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