In his new poem, “What Must Be Said,” Germany’s most celebrated writer Günter Grass writes: “I’ve broken my silence/ because I’m sick of the West’s hypocrisy…” yet that hypocrisy is itself merely a shield for Israel’s own hypocrisy.
Israel treats the mere possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat while refusing to acknowledge the existential threat that it poses to everyone in the region through its own concealed and uninspected arsenal of hundreds of nuclear weapons.
Grass hopes that having broken his own silence others will follow his lead and demand “the governments of/ both Iran and Israel allow an international authority/ free and open inspection of/ the nuclear potential and capability of both.”
This reads and no doubt is intended much more as a political statement than a work of poetry, though it nevertheless contains a poetic force in what can be seen as a symbolic and historic transition: that not even Germans are willing to keep reissuing the license that allows Israelis to use the Holocaust as a perfect shield for deflecting all criticism.
Hans Kundnani writes:
[W]hat makes the publication of the poem significant is that it expresses a sense of anger against Israel that – justified or not – many Germans seem increasingly to share. This anger is partly a response to Israel’s rightward shift during the past decade. But it seems also to be a product of developments in Germany and in particular the way that the Holocaust has receded in significance during the last decade. Increasingly, Germans seem to see themselves as victims rather than perpetrators.
A poll in January 2009 – during the Gaza war – suggested that German attitudes to Israel were in flux. Nearly half of respondents said they saw Israel as an “aggressive country” and only around a third of respondents said they felt Germany had a special responsibility towards Israel. Sixty per cent said Germany had no special responsibility (the figure was even higher among younger Germans and among those living in the former East Germany).
This anger against Israel is exacerbated by the sense some Germans have of not being able to say what they really think – as Grass suggests in the poem. This has created a pent-up resentment towards Israel that could at some point explode. It will be interesting to see whether Grass’s poem leads in the next few weeks and months to the debate about Germany’s “special relationship” with Israel that he seems to hope it would.
Angela Merkel – who has declined to comment on Grass’s poem – is personally committed to the Jewish state but is under increasing pressure on this issue, on which she is unusually out of step with German public opinion.
Last year, Germany voted in favour of a UN resolution demanding a halt to Israeli settlement expansion – an unusual break with Israel. Later in the year, Germany opposed the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN. But according to one poll, 84% of Germans supported Palestinian statehood and 76% believed Germany should act to recognise it – an even higher proportion in each case than in France or the UK.
An Israeli military strike on Iran could create a sudden rupture between Germany and Israel in the way that the Iraq war did between Germany and the US. My sense is that were Israel to launch a military strike on Iran, what remaining sympathy there is in Germany for Israel would evaporate almost overnight.