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Günter Grass, unwanted guest

Declaring the Nobel winner 'persona non grata' puts Israel in a position hard to sustain

The Israeli interior minister, Eli Yishai, has declared Günter Grass persona non grata for the publication of his poem, What Must Be Said, in which the Nobel Prize-winning writer accuses Israel of endangering world peace in its condition as an atomic power, and condemns the possibility of a preventive attack on Iran, to stop the Islamic nation’s nuclear program. For Grass, the non grata declaration will mean a prohibition from entering Israel. The veto comes on top of the numerous criticisms he has already received on account of his poem, in Germany and outside it.

These criticisms, of course, seldom fail to mention the fact — revealed a few years ago, and highly embarrassing to one who has long passed as the literary conscience of the German left — of his having been a teenage member of the Waffen SS at the end of World War II.

Like any sovereign state, Israel has a perfect right to decide who is to be accepted or rejected on appearing at its borders. In this case, however, Yishai has explained the decision by means of an argument that places Israel in a position difficult to sustain, given that it concerns the freedom of expression. When other cases have appeared in the international sphere that affected this particular freedom, the principal democratic countries have regularly defended a position contrary to that which Israel has adopted in connection with Grass.

The Israeli minister might well have considered himself satisfied with the criticism poured upon Grass from practically the entire political spectrum. These attacks have been many, and vehement.

But he has preferred to step forward himself, bringing his government along with him, into the controversy about the content of the poem. Yishai thus places Israel in a rather complicated position, given that it is on the content of Grass’s text where the least international consensus exists. This is because What Must Be Said addresses the generally recognized problem of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East — one of the greatest dangers now hanging over world peace and security.

Free speech

At the end of his mandate, the former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, admitted (what had long been an open secret) that Israel indeed possessed an atomic arsenal, though it was never a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran, which did sign this treaty, categorically states that its nuclear program respects the clauses of the Treaty, though the Iranian rejection of inspections affords room for reasonable doubts that its program may be aimed at building atomic weapons, a possibility that would destabilize the whole of the region.

Israel’s declared aim is to prevent Iran, by any and all means, from arming itself with a nuclear arsenal — yet it proposes to keep its own. All these matters can and must be open to discussion. To prohibit free expression is a mistaken path to follow.


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