Israel has declared German writer Gunter Grass persona non grata, deepening a spat with the Nobel-winning author over a poem that deeply criticizes the Jewish state and suggests it is as much a danger as Iran.
The dispute with Grass, who only late in life admitted to a Nazi past, has drawn new attention to strains in Germany’s complicated relationship with the Jewish state — and also focused unwelcome light on Israel’s own secretive nuclear program.
In a poem called What Must Be Said published on Wednesday last week, Grass, 84, criticized what he described as Western hypocrisy over Israel’s nuclear program and labeled the country a threat to “already fragile world peace” over its belligerent stance on Iran.
The poem has touched a raw nerve in Israel, where officials have rejected any moral equivalence with Iran and have been quick to note that Grass admitted only in a 2006 autobiography that he was drafted into the Waffen-SS Nazi paramilitary organization at age 17 in the final months of World War II.
Grass’ subsequent clarification that his criticism was directed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not the country as a whole, did little to calm the outcry.
On Sunday, Israeli Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai announced that Grass would be barred from Israel, citing an Israeli law that allows him to prevent entry to ex-Nazis. However, Yishai made clear the decision was related more to the recent poem than Grass’ actions nearly 70 years ago.
“If Gunter wants to spread his twisted and lying works, I suggest he does this from Iran, where he can find a supportive audience,” Yishai said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman accused Grass of anti-Semitism.
The uproar has touched upon some of the most sensitive issues in modern-day Israel: the Holocaust, Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and Israel’s own illicit nuclear program that is widely believed to have produced an arsenal of bombs.
It also has unleashed a debate in Germany, where criticism of Israel is largely muffled because of the country’s Nazi past.
Grass’ most famous book, The Tin Drum, is about the rise of the Nazis and World War II as told through the lives of ordinary people.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1999.
Rarely mentioned in the debate — except by Iran — is that Israel itself is widely believed to possess its own undeclared arsenal of nuclear bombs.
That assessment, by foreign experts, is in part based on photos that were taken by a rogue technician at an Israeli nuclear facility in 1986.
Israel neither confirms nor denies having nuclear weapons and has refused to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would subject it to international inspections.
Grass’ poem took exception with Israel’s alleged program and alluded to Germany’s sale to Israel of submarines capable of firing “all-destroying” nuclear missiles into Iran.
He further outraged Israelis by referring to their “alleged right to the first strike that could annihilate the Iranian people” — even though Israel has not threatened the entire country, only its nuclear installations.
Tom Segev, an Israeli Holocaust historian, said he found Grass’ allegations against Israel to be “absurd,” but nonetheless felt the Israeli response was exaggerated and reflected a troubling lack of tolerance for criticism. Israel has barred a handful of critics, including US linguist Noam Chomsky, from entering the country.