Gunter Grass Should be Taken on a Tour of Israel
The decision by Israel’s Interior Minister to bar German writer, Gunter Grass, from entering the Jewish state is both foolish and self-defeating. Grass wrote an absurdly ignorant and perversely bigoted poem comparing Israel to Iran and declaring Israel to pose a great danger to world peace. He also warned Germany that by selling submarines to Israel, it is becoming complicit in a crime against humanity.
These wrong-headed views deserve to be rebutted on their demerits, as Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did quite effectively in his public response to Grass, by exposing his “shameful moral equivalence between Israel and Iran, a regime that denies the Holocaust and threatens to annihilate Israel,” by pointing out that “it is Iran, not Israel, that threatens other states with annihilation,” and that it is Iran who supports the Syrian regime’s crackdown of its people and “stones women, hangs gays and brutally represses tens of millions of its own citizens.” Grass’ poem has also been effectively critiqued by Israelis across the political and literary spectrum. That is as it should be in an open, vibrant democracy, accustomed to rancorous public debate. But a great nation, committed to freedom of expression and dissent, should not bar a critic, even a critic as bigoted as Grass, from its territory.
Gunter Grass has always had a problem with Jews, from his early days as a member of the Hitler youth and Nazi SS to his most recent application of a nasty double standard to the Jewish state. But his ridiculous poem doesn’t pose any security threat to Israel that would justify his physical exclusion from the country.
To the contrary, he should be welcomed in Israel and shown the real facts on the ground: that Israel is a tiny country doing its best to defend itself against existential threats posed by Iran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons and by the increasing radical Islamization of Israel’s neighborhood. He should also be shown why Israel’s submarines, which provide a second-strike capacity, serve as a deterrent to a possible nuclear attack by Iran. He should be made to feel shame for misusing his literary talents in the interests of bigotry and falsehood.
Grass should be debated and defeated in the marketplace of ideas rather than banned from participating in face to face dialogue with Israeli intellectuals and political figures, who are perfectly capable of confronting him in the public arena of debate and dialogue, and even of literature. Israel need not fear poets or polemists. It should certainly not use its security apparatus, which includes control over its borders, to exclude has-been octogenarian writers with whom it disagrees.
By misusing border controls to make a symbolic gesture of contempt against a writer, Israel’s Minister of the Interior weakens his nation’s otherwise strong case for excluding individuals who pose genuine threats to the physical security of Israeli citizens. Border controls should be reserved for real security threats.
Grass, by using his literary and political influence to spread dangerous lies, does pose a threat to Israel, but it is not the kind of threat that can be dealt with by his physical exclusion from the country. Ideas, even bad ones like Grass’, do not respect national boundaries. Grass can appear in Israel via the internet, television and the written word. Moreover, his danger lies not in his influence within Israel, which is virtually non-existent, but in the increasing acceptance of his false ideas in Germany and other parts of Europe. Israel’s considerable intellectual and academic resources should be devoted to responding to this growing threat by developing and articulating counter arguments, not by responding emotionally and counterproductively.
Before the decision to bar Grass was announced, most serious intellectuals were critical of his poem and of him, but now many of the same intellectuals will rally to the defense of his freedom to express himself and to travel freely. That is as it should be, since disagreeable views, even when espoused by disagreeable people, should not be barred.
I hope that the decision by the Minister of the Interior will be quickly reversed by the Israeli government. It is too important a decision, and does too much damage to Israel, to be left to one minister. The entire nation suffers when a poet is barred from its land. That is not the democratic response to bad speech. Nor is it the response of the Jewish tradition, which thrives on debate and dissent. It should not be the Israeli response.