Poetry, W.H. Auden claimed, makes nothing happen. Not always true, though. A long poem called “What Must Be Said” by the German Nobel-winning writer, Günter Grass, published in a German daily, has created a mighty stir in Israel and Germany. Israel’s interior minister has declared Mr Grass persona non grata in Israel for wearing the uniform of the SS in his early youth and for guiding “the fire of hate toward the State of Israel and the Israeli people”, with vociferous support from the foreign minister. The Hebrew Writers Association in Israel has denounced the poem and plans to ask International PEN (a worldwide body of writers) and the Nobel committee to distance themselves from the poem publicly. The Israeli prime minister has also mentioned Mr Grass’s stint with the Hitler Youth, and the way it was concealed for years and then revealed, allegedly so that Mr Grass’s books sell better. The Israeli embassies in Germany have vilified the poem as “anti-Semitism in the best European tradition of blood libels before Passover”.
This instant and extreme tone of outrage, ending up inevitably with charges of anti-Semitism, characterizes most reactions to any criticism of the Israeli government — in Israel and in the conscience-driven public spheres of the Western world. In Mr Grass’s case, almost all reactions see his stance against the current Israeli government’s aggressiveness in relation to the writer’s, and his nation’s, murky past. So, the logic of victimhood, guilt and reparation overrides any dispassionate critical engagement with what Mr Grass is saying about Israel, Iran and nuclear weapons. This is to hold the shifting dynamics of history to a single moral, political and emotional position even when a fresh set of inter-relations among nations and peoples, demanding a critical understanding of the present, is in action in the international arena. If collective guilt becomes the unthinking, unchanging and dominant position from which any expression of public opinion regarding Israel is viewed or reacted to in Germany, then the essential elements of modern democratic societies — freedom of expression and critical independence — are held in jeopardy. Both poetry and the polity, together with the forward movement of history itself, are in danger then.