Günter Grass, the 1999 Nobel Prize winning German writer, sculptor, playwright and illustrator has now been officially made an official persona non grata in Israel. He is not welcome to visit. In fact, he has been banned from entering the country at all by Israel's ultra-orthodox Interior Minister Eli Yishai. Why?
In a recently published poem, entitled “What Must Be Said,” Grass takes the West – especially Germany - to task for the hypocrisy of its unquestioned willingness to accept the fact of Israeli nuclear capability while at the same time pronouncing Iran a rogue state possibly seeking its own nuclear weapon. The more important point he makes in this (not very well made) poem is the West's – specifically Germany's – not-so-tacit support for Israel's policies toward its neighbors. He claims Germany's stigma from World War II has rendered the country incapable of being truthful to the reality that Israel, as much as anyone in the region, is as destabilizing to a just peace as Iran is currently being accused of being by the West.
It is important to remember that Günter Grass was conscripted into the Waffen SS near the end of the war, as a 17-year old, something he kept hidden for 60 years, until 2006. This fact was not overlooked by the Israeli government in their banning of him from Israel. Yishai remarked: "Grass' [sic] poems are an attempt to guide the fire of hate toward the State of Israel and the Israeli people, and to advance the ideas of which he was a public partner in the past, when he wore the uniform of the SS."
Yishai's comment, certainly made with the acquiescence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was to this writer a pretty crude appeal to the man rather than to the argument Grass tries to make in his poem. Yishai offered a classic argumentum ad hominen attempt to divert attention from one issue to another. Yet Grass's poem calls, once again, the entire Middle East quagmire into consideration.
What they say and what they do
In its declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel, the founders proclaimed, “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
It doesn't take much to understand that the Israel of today, let alone the modern Israel, since its very birth, is hardly the state which was envisioned by the post-war Zionists who brought Israel into being. Or is it? In fact, there is a strong argument that even the notion of a “Jewish state,” the whole raison d'etre of Zionism, is incompatible with democracy. (Can you imagine the founders of the United States including the idea of their new nation being a “Christian state” in 1789?)
Yet, the well-deserved sympathy and guilt that the West, including the United States, felt toward what was left of European Jewry after the carnage of the war has been used as diplomatic tool by Israel for 70 years. Hence Yishai's comment about why he's keeping Günter Grass out of Israel. No seditious speech, even if worthy of consideration, is allowed. So much for freedom and adherence to the UN charter, so eloquently stated above.
Democracy and the Jewish state
Had Israel lived up to its own declaration, it would not be a Jewish state today. If Israel is to be a Jewish state, admitting the Arabs to full rights as citizens, particularly Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza, which make up about 52% of the biblical Israel, Israel would cease to exist as Israel, most likely as a result of demographics alone. If, by some magical change of heart, Israel decided to transform itself into a pluralistic, fully open, fully egalitarian, fully democratic entity, it would soon lose its identity as a state founded in 1948 for the purpose of restoring Jews to their own nation - a nation which the Romans literally erased from history in 135AD when they renamed the country Syria Palestina and scattered the inhabitants throughout the empire. The name Palestine, for that region, lived on in successive conquests by the Arabs, then the Ottomans, and finally the British.
All the above said, Israel certainly has a right to exist. But as what? Certainly, a new Arab majority would likely even take back the name Palestine, should it decide to do so.
Israel: the new South Africa?
As it presently is, Israel is not much different than South Africa during Apartheid. There are two distinct groups of inhabitants of Israel: the powerful minority of Jewish Israelis, and a downtrodden Arab majority (who call themselves Palestinians), living both inside the 1948 Israel, as well as the West Bank and Gaza, which were taken from them in 1967. One group lives in relative freedom and controls the wealth, as well as the government; and the other is relegated to 2nd class status, without a vote, without political or economic power. It is a tribal war but the camps are divided by religion and not ethnicity or race, as it was in South Africa. And just as in that case, both sides claim victimization to world opinion: that they are the aggrieved party.
The political power in Israel has moved far to the right of the founders of the country. Orthodox settlers in the West Bank would be happy to exterminate or force the remaining Arabs out of Eretz Israel; appropriating the remainder of the occupied land to themselves. As in the case of South Africa, this is not going to happen. And just as surely, this whole stalemate must resolve itself, one way or another. Which, of course, was Grass's point.
In the meantime, Israel continues to use the Holocaust as the card most likely to be played when someone – anyone – calls it to task. If you happen to be a German, or worse, and old German who happened to to be a 17-year old soldier in World War II, you have no right to speak out against Israeli behavior.
Is Israeli victimhood wearing thin?
Understanding that American support for Israel has been pretty much without anything resembling limits (Except for when Jimmy Carter speaks out), it's fair to ask whether this will always be the case. What will be the American position if Israel mounts a strike on Iran's atomic works? What will the admission of massive Israeli infiltration of the American defense and political establishment have on both Jewish and non-Jewish voters who are now two generations removed from the horror of World War II and what happened to Jews in Europe? Will Israel ever be held to behave more like a mature member of the community of nations, or simply excused as doing what it sees itself as having to do to survive, its neighbors being an existential threat?
The two options
Grass's point is that it's time to talk turkey about the Middle East. If we continue the present status, there is only one possible outcome: another holocaust in that region and possibly beyond it, with both Jews in Israel and Muslims throughout the Middle East employing nuclear weapons against each other.
The only workable solution is that the world – and Israel – must come to terms with the idea of a free and independent Arab Palestine, in which the security of both is guaranteed by the rest of the world. Reparations to displaced Palestinians and their descendents will need to be paid. It is the only way Israel can be a democracy primarily made up of Jews.
As it presently is, the government of Israel has no intention of backing away from colonizing the West bank and, eventually, Gaza. Israel is currently run by a coalition a religious yahoos who simply see themselves as restoring what existed 2,000 years ago. (There isn't a dime's worth of difference between the man who assassinated Yitshak Rabin in 1995 and the man shot Dr. George Tiller to death. In both cases the act was initiated by religious fanaticism.) And they are certainy aided by the religious fanatacism of the evanglical Christian members of the American Congress.
It is time for Israel and her guarantors, most of all her strongest ally, the United States, to speak the truth, just as Günter Grass said. It is what also must be said.