Skip to Content


Gunter Grass: the tin drum and the tin ear

9 April 2012

1:47 PM

9 April 2012

1:47 PM

This morning’s editorial in Israel’s left-wing Haaretz newspaper
noted a double standard that was also a bad joke. Israel’s Interior Minister’s
had declared, ‘If Gunter Grass wants to continue to distribute his false and distorted works, I suggest he do so from Iran, where he’ll find an appreciative audience.’ The minister could not detect
the irony in his words, the paper said. It is precisely his decision not to let Grass enter Israel because of a poem he wrote that ‘is characteristic of dark regimes like those in Iran or North

You can read Grass’s poem here. I find it
a false and vainglorious work because of its strong element of self-pity. Grass calls it ‘What Must Be Said,’ as if he is making a courageous stand. He adds to the impression that he is a dissident
from a revolutionary underground speaking truth to power when he talks of his past silence, the better to emphasise his present bravery. ‘The universal concealment of these facts,’ he writes:

‘To which my silence subordinated itself,
I sense as incriminating lies
And force–the punishment is promised
As soon as it is ignored;
The verdict of "anti-Semitism" is familiar.’

I accept it is hard for Germans of a certain age to criticise Israel, particularly if like Grass they were once members of the Waffen SS. But come now, on the British and much of the
European left, the difficulty is not urging on right-thinking left-leaning people until they find the sheer bloody guts needed to criticise Israel, it is trying to persuade them to say a bad word
about any other country.

Far from being a lone voice of conscience, Grass marches to a familiar beat as he bangs his tin drum. The poem is all about Jews Israelis. He does not mention the theocratic and secular
tyrannies that threaten their own populations as well as Israel, apart from one fleeting reference’s to Iranians being ‘enslaved by a loud-mouth’ — which understates the prosecution
case against the regime, to a degree that is close to negligent.

But then Haaretz also understates the case against the Israeli government. The only legitimate reason for banning a writer or speaker is if his words will be a direct incitement to crime. As
Israeli conservatives are not suggesting that Grass intends to persuade an Arab mob to burn down a synagogue, the sole reason for its instruction to the border guards to put Grass back on the next
flight to Germany is that it does not like his insulting views. The truly insulting assumption it makes about the citizens it governs is that they cannot listen to arguments they do not like and
respond to them with better arguments. Israelis are no longer adults but children who must be protected from bogeymen and tucked up in bed.

Israel may be imitating Iran here, but it is also imitating the western boycott movement, which wants to stop actors acting and musicians playing because they are Jews Israelis. Emma
Thompson, Jonathan Miller, Mike Leigh are all the artists who depend on freedom of speech to put bread on their tables and clothes on their backs. Yet they will deny their creative freedom to
others in the interests of upholding the party line. They and about 30 or so other authoritarian artistes want the Globe to ban an Israeli company from a festival of world theatre because it has performed in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Howard Brenton, an artist with principles rather than prejudices, wrote in response last week that for the Globe to withdraw one of the invitations ‘to the 37 companies — some with very
questionable state affiliations – would be a disgraceful act of censorship. Denounce, don’t censor; argue, don’t ban. I have long supported the cause of Palestinian freedom. But I am
distressed to see British actors trying to stop Jewish actors perform on a London stage.’

Miller, Leigh, Thompson and the rest were unmoved. To their minds, Israeli actors are wicked and therefore cannot be heard. To the Israeli government’s mind, Grass is wicked and therefore
cannot be heard. Both sides are bullying and illiberal, infantilist and infantilising. Both have a contempt for the public, when they ought to have contempt solely for themselves.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments


The Spectator Comment Policy

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.