Gunter Grass: the tin drum and the tin ear

9 April 2012

This morning’s editorial in Israel’s left-wing Haaretz newspaper
noted a double standard that was also a bad joke. Israel’s Interior Minister’s
had declared, ‘If Gunter Grass wants to continue to distribute his false and distorted works, I suggest he do so from Iran, where he’ll find an appreciative audience.’ The minister could not detect
the irony in his words, the paper said. It is precisely his decision not to let Grass enter Israel because of a poem he wrote that ‘is characteristic of dark regimes like those in Iran or North

You can read Grass’s poem here. I find it
a false and vainglorious work because of its strong element of self-pity. Grass calls it ‘What Must Be Said,’ as if he is making a courageous stand. He adds to the impression that he is a dissident
from a revolutionary underground speaking truth to power when he talks of his past silence, the better to emphasise his present bravery. ‘The universal concealment of these facts,’ he writes:

‘To which my silence subordinated itself,
I sense as incriminating lies
And force–the punishment is promised
As soon as it is ignored;
The verdict of "anti-Semitism" is familiar.’

I accept it is hard for Germans of a certain age to criticise Israel, particularly if like Grass they were once members of the Waffen SS. But come now, on the British and much of the
European left, the difficulty is not urging on right-thinking left-leaning people until they find the sheer bloody guts needed to criticise Israel, it is trying to persuade them to say a bad word
about any other country.


Far from being a lone voice of conscience, Grass marches to a familiar beat as he bangs his tin drum. The poem is all about Jews Israelis. He does not mention the theocratic and secular
tyrannies that threaten their own populations as well as Israel, apart from one fleeting reference’s to Iranians being ‘enslaved by a loud-mouth’ — which understates the prosecution
case against the regime, to a degree that is close to negligent.

But then Haaretz also understates the case against the Israeli government. The only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker is if his words will be a direct incitement to crime. As
Israeli conservatives are not suggesting that Grass intends to persuade an Arab mob to burn down a synagogue, the sole reason for its instruction to the border guards to put Grass back on the next
flight to Germany is that it does not like his insulting views. The truly insulting assumption it makes about the citizens it governs is that they cannot listen to arguments they do not like and
respond to them with better arguments. Israelis are no longer adults but children who must be protected from bogeymen and tucked up in bed.

Israel may be imitating Iran here, but it is also imitating the western boycott movement, which wants to stop actors acting and musicians playing because they are Jews Israelis. Emma
Thompson, Jonathan Miller, Mike Leigh are all the artists who depend on freedom of speech to put bread on their tables and clothes on their backs. Yet they will deny their creative freedom to
others in the interests of upholding the party line. They and about 30 or so other authoritarian artistes want the Globe to ban an Israeli company from a festival of world theatre "">because it has performed in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Howard Brenton, an artist with principles rather than prejudices, wrote in response last week that for the Globe to withdraw one of the invitations ‘to the 37 companies — some with very
questionable state affiliations – would be a disgraceful act of censorship. Denounce, don’t censor; argue, don’t ban. I have long supported the cause of Palestinian freedom. But I am
distressed to see British actors trying to stop Jewish actors perform on a London stage.’

Miller, Leigh, Thompson and the rest were unmoved. To their minds, Israeli actors are wicked and therefore cannot be heard. To the Israeli government’s mind, Grass is wicked and therefore
cannot be heard. Both sides are bullying and illiberal, infantilist and infantilising. Both have a contempt for the public, when they ought to have contempt solely for themselves.

  • rndtechnologies786

    Good thought.

  • 2

    Grass my make more sense in German because translated into English he reads badly,’the tin drum’ is a pathetic book, how the boy was never thrown into a gasvan i’don’t know. Where is the 90% German Danzig today?
    Ignore the old bore.

  • Augustus

    Grass fools no-one except those who mask their anti-Semitism in the name of Third World solidarity and support for Palestinian rights, while blaming Israel solely for the problems and troubles of the Middle East. His ‘poem’ is an obscenity, but the greater obscenity is Grass himself, given Germany’s past as the Third Reich and his own role, posing as a moralist to draw equivalence between Israel and Iran. The
    thuggish regime in Iran might be a pathetic and poor copy of Hitler’s Third Reich, but it is a copy nevertheless. It is driven by similar urgings of anti-Semitism, discriminations against minorities and a pathological resentment against free people and democracy. Grass is upset Israel has taken full measure of the Iranian threat to Jewish existence, but any pre-emptive measure Israel takes would not be against Iranian people and their country. It would be instead to decapitate a thuggish regime’s effort to threaten Jews with a second Holocaust. Grass has found his soulmates in Iran, and it is only in such twisted minds that Israel’s self-defense means endangering world peace.

  • TomTom

    “the FT in germany conducted a poll. Currently out of 21 thousand responses 85% see Grass’ statements as correct or arguable.”

    Iskander Bey, clear your cookies each time you vote online and you can vote as many times as you want on an FTD poll.

    Usually it is the USA or Britain that is a great threat to world peace in such polls, surprising Israel gets mentioned. Guenther Grass is senile anyway, he was probably a good soldier in the Waffen-SS so don’t knock him for that, but at 84 he is getting a bit dotty and is an embarrassment to the SPD

  • David Lindsay

    Imshin, that is not what they themselves say. As for neighbouring states, the President of Lebanon has to be a Christian. The same requirement ought to apply to the restored Palestinian State on both sides of the Jordan, with the corresponding Lebanese requirement (which would happen electorally, anyway) that the Prime Minister be a Muslim.

    The head of each the main Christian communities or his nominee, being an Israeli citizen, ought also to be an ex officio member of the Arab chamber of a new Israeli Parliament, with two other chambers, one for the ultra-Orthodox and one for everyone else.

    All legislation would require the approval of three chambers. Each chamber would elect a Co-President, all three of whom would have to approve all legislation and senior appointments, as well as performing ceremonial duties. Each chamber would be guaranteed a Minister in each department and at least a quarter of Cabinet posts.

    Yiddish would be recognised as an official language, the quid pro quo for recognising all the many currently unrecognised villages in the Galilee and the Negev. The major festivals of Judaism, Islam and Christianity would all be public holidays, perhaps, in this post-Zionist dispensation, the only public holidays.

  • Imshin

    By the way, this does not say we have anyhting against our native Christians here in israel. Someone in the thread above was wondering how Christians are doing in Israel. Well, as opposed to their fate in Muslim countries (including the Palestinian controlled territories), where they are often persecuted, Arab Christians are flourishing in Israel, both socially and financially.

  • Imshin

    David Lindsay, I just love your proposal of a Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, headed by your queen. Very quaint.

    There are actually a few memorials for British forces killed in the Land of Israel during WWI. There is one quite near my home in Tel Aviv, commemorating the crossing of the Yarkon River during the battle for Jaffa, of which Tel Aviv was a garden suburb at the time. There are also cemeteries for the fallen soldiers of WWI. I know the one on Mount Scopus and there is another in Beer Sheva. Both beautifully and caringly looked after by the British Embassy. Sadly, similar burial places in other countries in the Middle East (I’ve heard of one in Hamas-controlled Gaza, and I think one in Tunisia) have apparently been desecrated.

    Naturally, neither we nor the Palestinians have any interest in building memorials to the British given their cruelty to both our peoples during the British Mandate. My mother-in-law still bears the scar of being beaten by a British soldier when she was thirteen, while she was queuing up for milk for her baby brother during a break in a curfew.

    So, I don’t think any of us will be welcoming any Christian kingdom or queen back anytime soon, thank you very much.

  • Gil

    Robert Bruce Lewis: Are you saying that this thread is a threat to world peace? Now I’ve heard everything.

    However, you are right one regard. The debate is infused with hatred and malice. On the other hand, it’s not as bad as the Other Weekly where paid-for propagandists from the ant-semitic and anti-zionist side post under multiple identities.

  • Robert Bruce Lewis

    There is only one conclusion that is fitting, after a perusal of this whole thread: both the pro-Zionists and the anti-Zionists hate each other so intensely, and work so adamantly for the destruction of each other’s causes, everywhere in the world, that they are an on-going, constant threat to world peace. Sensible people everywhere should discount what either group say about the other.

  • Gil

    I meant Zionists such as Meir Vilner.

  • Gil

    David Lindsay, there were always Jews living in Palestine since AD70. Please do your research before you turn this site into an imitation of the New Statesman. Also, read up about the HaShomer movement or the Chindits, there’s a good chap.

  • David Lindsay

    The whole basis of Zionism is total ignorance of the Levant, on the basis that nothing about it is worth knowing and the 100 years ago no one had been living there since AD70. Take down that shakiest of foundations, and the whole edifice collapses. As this thread demonstrates.

  • Gil

    @Iskander Bey – He got it from a pack of Loopy Fruits.

  • Iskander Bey

    Interesting David. And you got all that from the back of a packet of Cornflakes?

  • David Lindsay

    We are told that “Jordan is Palestine”. Indeed she is. Jordan as created at the end of the British Mandate. That is to say, including the West Bank. There has never been a state with its border at the Jordan, and the populations of the two Banks are one people. The answer to the question of why anyone ever designed a country so short of water as Jordan is, is that no one ever did.

    The Declaration of a Palestinian State on the West Bank would be the end of the Hashemite Kingdom, which is just as much a foreign imposition as the Zionist project, and which was imposed by the same colonial power, which therefore bears the same historic responsibility. The pressure for incorporation into a Palestinian State would be irresistible. That, rather than the destruction of Israel, would be the great national aspiration. And then, following its rapid and its largely, if not entirely, bloodless achievement, that would be the great national triumph.

    The proposed revocation of citizenship from 1.8 million Jordanians with especially strong family ties across the River, in a country of only 6.5 million, indicates that the Hashemites and their entourage are fully aware of this. Let their fear be proved well-founded. It is time to be radical, to go back to the roots.

    In its day, American Protestant missionary activity has had an important impact in the region. Its universities, untainted by association with British or French colonialism, nurtured generations of Arab nationalist leaders, Muslim as well as Christian. As did those with the most interest in defining the local and putatively national identity as Arab rather than Islamic, namely the ancient indigenous Christians. That was, and very largely still is, Arab nationalism: the fruitful encounter between indigenous Catholicism and Orthodoxy on the one hand, and the educational opportunities opened up by American “mainline” Protestants on the other.

    Alas, the numerical decline of Episcopalianism and of “mainline” Presbyterianism, Lutheranism and Methodism in American society has had an impact on, especially, the Republican Party, while the not coincidental decline of those bodies from the doctrinal and moral orthodoxy that, among other things, sends missionaries has cut them off from the wider Anglican, “Calvinist”, Lutheran and Methodist worlds.

    However, the wonderful Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Galilee, Elias Chacour, one of the greatest men of the present age and whose Nobel Peace Prize is long overdue, has founded and heads the first Arab university within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. It is a branch of the University of Indianapolis, an institution of the United Methodist Church, the largest “mainline” denomination. He also holds honorary doctorates from Duke and Emory, both of which are United Methodist foundations, and he has been honoured with the World Methodist Peace Award.

    The politically electrifying union of popular Catholicism and Orthodoxy with an academic leadership defined by traditional, not fundamentalist, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Lutheranism and Methodism in their American expressions has happened before. It was specifically and successfully a bulwark against political Islam, as well as against Marxism. It was called the Arab nationalism of the Near East. And it is still there. Including – indeed, now primarily – in Israel. All is far from lost.

    The perfect note on which to conclude on this Easter Sunday for Abuna Elias and for all the many Catholics and others of the Eastern Churches. Stalwart defenders of the full Canon of the Old Testament, the only reason why anyone has ever heard of the two Books of Maccabees that were lately in or around the showbusiness news. It is only proper that their dramatisation should be a practising Catholic rather than a secular Jewish project, if that is the choice to be made. Ruling out, therefore, the handing over of that project to Mel Gibson.

  • Gil

    daulut ram, there is a lot of sense in what you write. However, the fear of the Israelis is that the day after, the evacuated areas will be flooded with gangs armed with Iran’s finest missiles and the Coastal Plain (densely populated) inc. Ben-Gurion International airport will be under constant threat.

    If the Palestinians do not agree to equitable security arrangements then there will probably be nothing to discuss.

    The Israelis know that they are sliding into a bi-national scenario and if this is what their people want (by voting for the staus quo) then we should wish them well.

  • Georgina Orwell

    Iskander Bey:

    From the article you linked to: a conscience-stricken, settlement boycotting Habima actress speaks her frustration: “I grew up on the myth that culture could get things moving, and I’m sorry that it turned out that that’s not how things are.”

    She was not sacked. But neither did she resign from her job with a state theatre. She is waiting for an invitation from Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Ramallah and Tehran. A boycott of anti-Zionist regimes would be unpatriotic. (Hence no boycott of the Globe.) This shining light twinkles almost as brightly as other brainy troupers: Jane Fonda, Venessa Redgrave, and Emma Thompson.

    I would cast her as Portia.

  • Iskander Bey
  • daulat ram

    What sort of poetry is this supposed to be? This is farcical coming from a countryman of Goethe.

    Grass has long been senile.

    Israel should quit the occupied lands for its own good: because if they stay the Arabs will soon be a majority in Israel plus the territories and Israel would be doomed.

  • Fred Taylor

    The main problem is not that GG’s piece is a bad poem. It’s not a poem at all. .

    I loved David Lindsay’s “Crusader” post, by the way. Strange but oddly true, and definitely, though old, a new contribution to the endlessly looping Holy Land debate.

  • Georgina Orwell

    Iskander Bey:

    If b), then c). Duh. Sigh. Peeugh.

  • Iskander Bey

    Georgina. On reflection and on reading your posts, you are quite articulate and consequently intelligent enough to have clearly understood what I was saying in my posts. I must assume therefore that you missed the point intentionally, twisting my words in order to make me appear either antisemitic or sympathetic to such attitudes. If you feel obliged to resort to these fallacies, that is a sure indication that you have no argument.

  • Iskander Bey

    Sigh! a)no b)yes c)no Duh!

  • Georgina Orwell

    Iskander Bey:

    Are you trying to suggest that because 85% of
    Germans agree to some extent with Grass’ view that Israel is a threat to world peace that a) that point of view is correct, or b) that point of view cannot be antisemitic or c) that if antisemitism is the norm, it is acceptable?

    If none of the above, what are you trying to say?

  • Iskander Bey

    Just came across this, it seems that it’s not just Germany. The US mainstream is picking this up. Something that would never have happened a year ago.

    From the NYT:

    “One word has surfaced consistently in such discussions: “keule,” which means club or cudgel. The charge of anti-Semitism aimed at Israel’s critics — and in the case of Mr. Grass, by bringing up his past as a member of the Waffen-SS — is widely viewed as a blunt instrument that silences debate, and in the process prevents Mr. Grass from making a point about the dangers of a first strike by Israel against Iran over its disputed nuclear program.”

    I know many won’t like this, but surely it’s worth serious consideration?

  • Iskander Bey

    After all the brouhaha, hasbara and cries of “antisemite!” the FT in germany conducted a poll. Currently out of 21 thousand responses 85% see Grass’ statements as correct or arguable.

    As I said before, false accusations of antisemitism are no longer effective and are even counterproductive. The sad thing is that because the term has been so devalued by this tactic, real antisemitic acts are taken less seriously and can be defended by saying that everyone seems to be an antisemite these days, or words to that effect.

  • Andy Gill

    Emma Thompson is a sadly deluded idiot.

    Her call to ban an Israeli theatre group for the Globe festival sits very uncomfortably against her welcoming similar groups from Russia, China, Zimbabwe and Pakistan, and suggests she is singling out Jewish actors for special treatment.

    Hopefully the Globe will stand up to her racist bullying.

  • Iskander Bey


  • Stephen Rothbart 1

    iskander Bey, quoting Haaretz as a source of reality is a bit like quoting the Guardian. No society in the world is perfect, none without racists and as I have said before, there are bigots in every society.

    But Arab society and, as this was supposed to be an article about Grass and his attitude towards Iran, no bigger a society of racist and sexual bigots than that of Iran.

    You may have some comfort from reading Haaretz, that Israel is a den of evil, but in Iran, a paper that was so anti-Government would have been shut down and their journalists imprisoned.

    Sad that you can’t see the difference. But then no one is so blind as those that will not see.

  • daniel maris

    You don’t have to say Israel is perfect in every way. All you have to say is that Israel is a legally constituted member state of the UN.

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