What Really Must Be Said

April 10, 2012 Print PDF

The furor over Günter Grass’s most recent “poem” has begun to dissipate in both Germany and Israel, with debate moving away from what Grass said and toward the appropriateness of the official Israeli reaction (declaring him persona non grata) and to the representativeness of Grass’ views (is the poem the tip of an iceberg?).  Before the discussion disappears completely, as it surely will (judging by past “crises” between Germany and Israel, and past debates over Grass), we can highlight four lessons that relate to a larger context: the depth, complexity, and fundamental stability of German-Israeli relations.

Lesson 1:  Grass Is Neither The First Nor Alone Among Germans Criticizing Israel

Despite frequent journalistic references to Grass’ taboo-breaking in his aggressive criticism of Israeli policy, such harsh, one-sided criticism of Israel and Jews by German public figures is not new.  Recall the 2002 remark of Jürgen Möllemann, then-vice chairman of the FDP, endorsing Palestinian violence against Israelis in Israel (not only against Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza). Or, the earlier controversy between Grass’ fellow writer Martin Walser and German Jewish leader Ignatz Bubis after Walser’s 1998 characterization of the Holocaust as a “moral cudgel” (Moralkeule) used against the Germans. Even in the very origins of German-Israeli relations, prominent Germans, while not openly criticizing Israel,  implicitly took  issue with Israel’s perception of vulnerability, and downgraded Israel’s need for reparations to absorb immigrants—those few who had survived the Holocaust.  For example, Germany’s finance minister, Fritz Schäffer, opposed compensation to Israel and world Jewry during the reparations negotiations of the early 1950s out of concern for German economic interests and Arab objections.

A significant aspect of these “neuralgic points” regarding history, including Grass’ words, is the reality that for every denunciation of Israel, there has been an outpouring of support by public figures from many segments of German society and across the German political spectrum.

More measured, balanced, and constructive criticism of Israel’s policies concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—for example, criticism of the Jewish state’s settlement policy—has been advanced by the German government itself at least since 1973. The Israeli government accepts Germany’s right to voice such official criticism, even when it does not agree, and receives it as the opinion of a friend (second only to the U.S.).

Lesson 2:  German Leaders Steadfastly Promote A Special Relationship With Israel

What may be new is the prominence of Grass, the internationally-acclaimed Nobel laureate. However, Grass is not the first German to vilify Israel as a threat to regional and global peace. In a 2003 EU poll, 65 percent of Germans thought Israel was the greatest threat to world peace, ahead of Iran, North Korea, and Iraq. Those views, however, do not change the German government’s support of Israel, as Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear in her 2008 speech to the Knesset.

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  1. avatar Manfred STINNES says:

    Dear Lily, I believe the issue is not if Germans or Grass criticize Israel, but that Grass uses ambivalent language with associations reminiscent of the Naz period. This was put into the frame of poetry trying to making it a dark, visionary thing. Best, Manfred

  2. avatar Reader says:

    Again, as most critics of Grass the author has not taken a position on Grass’ criticism, but declared him old and perhaps anti-semitic, still missing the point.

    There’s no mention of the problems Grass is focused on:
    - a nuclear Israel, not allowing any inspections by third parties,
    - a planned attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities with unknown consequences to the people of Iran,
    - the sale of submarines with the capability to fire nuclear warheads,
    - the timidity of western governments to criticize Israel

    Especially in the U.S., a less one-sided view on Israel would benefit the entire Middle East.

    The author’s view of Grass criticizing Israel’s government as possibly anti-Semitic is exactly the kind of problem Grass is addressing. It would be neat if the author would not jump on the bandwagon of the German media.

  3. avatar Reader says:

    What should be said, Ms. Feldman, is that Norm Finkelstein has dealt with the topic of Israeli, and especially Jewish-American, reaction to ANY criticism very well. Have you read his book, or anything by him?
    Here is a link:

  4. avatar E.A. Sekulow says:


    As expected an insightful and well reasoned analysis of a fraught and sensitive subject. You have brought your usual objectivity and professionalism to the challenge of understanding the components of reconciliation.
    It is not really important that Grass may be approaching or experiencing super annuation or that his use of language be dissected. What is important is understanding how and to what extent his views are reflective of general German opinion in those sectors of the public and governmental community where opinion is molded.

  5. Dear Lily,
    what worries me is that the German government and German politicians are not able to convince the German public that the public stance is wrong and that the government position is right. Also, we must make a difference between what is called public opinion and “publiziced opinion” and that starts with how questions are asked. E.g., the polls have asked if Germans view “Israel as a threat”, while the real question shold have been if they view the situation in and around Israel as a threat. You mention the many societal organizations (of which I am a member in the Mannheim chapter of the Gesellschaft für christlich-jüdische Zusammenarbeit) – this is public opinion-making, too. My explanation for the negative opinion is that it starts in schools with inadequate reflection on the topic by inadequately trained teachers, and this is where Martin Walser is right to some extent: Even though there can never be too much information about the holocaust, only a properly conducted discourse can give the complete picture. Schools should invite those societal organizations to help with the job, and, positively at last, some do.

  6. avatar Ernst Winkler says:

    It is no secret that millions of Israelis and jews around the world are very worried about the radical settler movement, which holds the Israeli society hostage to a military and aggressive policy in the Middle East. It is also a fact that Israel’s constant refusal to fulfill her obligations her leaders have negotiated has led to less sympathy for and credibility of Israel’s leadership. In light of the many changes in the Arab nations surrounding Israel it would behoof her to finally quit expanding settlements, withdraw to the borders agreed in the Oslo accord, and give up its ethnic cleansing policies in order to create a so called Jewish State, which smacks like Hitler’s “Aryan Society” for Germany nearly 80 years ago.

  7. avatar R.G. Livingston says:

    Dear Lily: A very good, since both nuanced and extensive, commentary on how Grass’s poem reflects German public and official views of Israel. One further aspect that you might have treated is Germans’ attitude toward the Palestinians. A feature of the 1968 rebellion, if I recall correctly, was sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Now that they are forty years older, do the 1968ers still sympathize? Finally, it seems to me, that a feature of Germans’ views today is that ” we are not guilty [for the Holocaust] but continue to bear responsibility for it.” I look forward to your book to see how you explore these issues more deeply. Best regards, Gerry Livingston, German Historical Institute.

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